Professional services firms are always looking for new ways to gain a competitive advantage—but that doesn’t always lead them to offer something new. All too often in the professional services field, you see lots of competition with very little differentiation. Firms claiming distinction, but able to demonstrate very little difference.
In fact, most firms rely on “same story” differentiators, so they all sound pretty much the same. You’ve probably heard any number of firms discuss their “great people”, “exceptional service“ and how they are “trusted advisors.” Maybe you’ve used the same lines — and maybe those claims are true. But they’re so vague, and they’ve been repeated so often, that they’ve lost their power.
How can you avoid the trap of identical messaging and stand out from the competition? The answer lies in brand research. Let’s explore some of the most common questions about brand research and how it can help firms get ahead.
What is Brand Research?
Brand research is a process of formal data collection and empirical analysis that explores both your reputation and your visibility to help you better understand the marketplace and your firm’s role in it. Brand research can also help you understand the characteristics that truly set you apart from the competition in the eyes of your prospective clients. These characteristics are commonly referred to as differentiators or your competitive advantage.
To fully understand the implications of this definition, we first have to nail down the concept of your firm’s “brand.” Your brand is the product of your reputation and your visibility. If you have a great reputation for specific expertise and high visibility within your target audience you have a strong brand. Your brand is how people in your industry understand your firm — the projection of your expertise and experience into the marketplace.
What is the Impact of Brand Research?
Studies show that firms that conduct brand research grow faster and are more profitable than firms that do not.
Figure 1 shows that even occasional research has an impact. More frequent research produces a bigger impact.
Why? Research gives firms an evidence-based foundation on which to build a solid strategy — including data-driven brand positioning and messaging.
Often, major decisions about a firm’s messaging and business direction are based on guesswork or assumptions. That can be very risky. “This is probably a message our audience will respond to.” “I think this is a service our clients would appreciate.”
By conducting research, you know that you are on the right track — and that certainty can save you a lot of pain and effort down the line. Brand research can give you solid answers to questions you were guessing at before: for instance, the differentiators that matter most to your clients or the services they would most like to see you offer.
There is another major benefit that many firms overlook. In the absence of solid data everyone feels free to have an opinion. If all your leadership isn’t in complete agreement about the direction your firm should take, research can provide objective guidance and help get everyone in alignment. When facts replace opinion, it’s easier to gain consensus.
When Should You Use Brand Research?
There are a number of junctures at which a firm would be well advised to conduct brand research. Here are some of the most common examples.
TOP 10 EXAMPLES OF BRAND RESEARCH SCENARIOS
- Following a merger or major acquisition
- Launch of a new practice or service line
- When growth has stalled
- Facing powerful new competitors
- Experiencing downward pricing pressure
- When your target audience has changed
- When considering a new name or identity
- When the firm’s look and feel become dated
- To increase the ability to attract top talent
- When professionals don’t know how to describe the firm
Some of these are the big moments in the life of a firm. These are the pivotal periods during which a firm stakes out a new identity or a new path for the future. They typically involve major decisions with major consequences. As such, they are opportune times to guide the path forward with data.
But research isn’t just for moments of big, disruptive change. You may simply find that you have outgrown your old brand. What once differentiated you no longer embodies the value that you provide to clients. This will happen many times in the life of most firms, and research helps you rebrand to communicate who you really are today.
Similarly, when you decide you want to accelerate growth and gain a competitive advantage, research gives you the knowledge you need to get there efficiently.
What Can You Learn From Brand Research?
As it turns out, you can learn a lot. Common research topics range from how the marketplace views your firm to who your true competitors are and how you differ from them. In short, you can gain insight into the entire client journey.
Below are some examples of the most insightful brand research questions.
TOP BRAND RESEARCH QUESTIONS
- What are your target clients’ priorities?
- How do you fit in?
- How is your firm perceived in the marketplace?
- Who are your true competitors?
- How do you compare?
- How do your best prospects search for a firm like yours?
- What are they most interested in?
- What turns them off?
- What tips the scale?
- How well does your firm deliver on its promises?
- What do your clients value most about your firm?
- How loyal are your current clients likely to be?
- What is your potential for more referrals?
- What other services do your current clients want you to offer?
Studying these topics usually uncovers some surprises. You may discover “hidden competitors” you hadn’t known about. You may also learn that your clients value traits in your company that you had never appreciated before — traits that might make good differentiators.
Likewise, you can study your firm’s strengths, weaknesses and the reasons clients choose you — all of which may guide your firm’s differentiation and positioning.
You may think you know the answers to these questions already — but after conducting research, most firms find significant gaps between internal perspectives and the facts on the ground. These blind spots can have major negative consequences. They result in wasted marketing budget and effort. Your hard work will not produce the results you seek. Assessing these perception gaps is another important function of research, helping you check your assumptions and evolve your internal views of the marketplace.
What Are the Major Brand Research Methods?
There are four research methods that professional services firms use most often. But it’s important to note that only two of the four are effective and practical.
- Informal or unstructured interviews. This may be the most common type of research employed by professional services firms, interviewing clients without performing any formal scoring or analysis. These interviews are often carried out by internal team members or an outside design firms. While well-meaning, this informal approach is rarely useful. Respondents are often highly guarded, producing misleading — or outright incorrect — conclusions. Evidence is anecdotal at best.
- Focus groups. These work for consumer products, but they are not very effective in the B2B world. The reason is simple: clients are reluctant to reveal any significant information to a group of competitors. Equally problematic, assembling a useful focus group in the professional services world can be expensive and a logistic challenge. Focus groups are rarely the right choice for professional services firms.
- Online surveys. Research conducted through online surveys can be effective, as long as it is carried out by people who have deep experience with the relevant audiences. You must know how to craft the right questions if you are to get useful and actionable information. As long as your research team understands your industry and is seen as “independent” from your firm, online surveys can an affordable way to reach a geographically diverse audience with a degree of anonymity that will reassure respondents — and encourage more accurate answers. But be cautious, the kinds of questions and research protocols that work for B2C audiences fall flat in the professional services world.
- Structured interviews. These interviews are typically conducted by phone, and they tend to offer the best of both worlds. Because they are structured, you can develop sophisticated analyses and insights. And because they are relatively personal, you can pick up indirect information — such as emotion and nuances in a participant’s language — making note of those details and scoring appropriately. Structured interviews can also be used in conjunction with surveys to provide multiple angles of insight. As with other methodologies, the independence of the researcher will reinforce the confidentiality of the person’s answers and encourage more candid responses.
Selecting the appropriate research method can make all the difference between a useful, productive study and one that falls short of your goals.
How Can You Turn Brand Research into Growth?
Research will help you better understand your firm’s strengths, weaknesses, current opportunities and emerging threats. With this detailed, multidimensional picture of your firm and its place in the market, you can then proceed to develop an informed strategy.
It’s generally most effective to document your brand strategy — your true differentiators, the positioning you will adopt moving forward — into three related documents.
- Differentiators— This is a simple list of individual differentiators that set your firm apart from your competitors. Some of these differentiators may be decisions that you make to do things differently. For example, specializing in an industry. Others may be characteristics of your firm that you discover during the course of your brand research.
- Positioning Statement — Positioning statements are short paragraphs that describe what your firm does, who it does it for (your clients) and why they select you above your competitors. It describes how you are positioned in a competitive marketplace and serves as the DNA of your go-to-market strategy.
- Messaging Architecture —This third strategic document identifies your primary audiences, e.g., potential clients, referral sources, possible employees and which messages are appropriate to each. Each of these messages must be consistent with your overall brand positioning. The document may also identify common objections and concerns you will encounter from each audience and outline the arguments you can use to counter them. This is a very useful document when you are developing promotional materials or pulling together a proposal.
These living documents will serve as an internal reference point as you begin to project your research-driven rebranding through various marketing channels.
And this is the stage at which you will begin to really drive growth, as you translate your new, differentiated messaging into the material that communicates your brand. This material takes many forms, including your logo, tagline, brand identity guidelines, website, marketing collateral and much more.
The brand research also serves another important function. It can help your entire team talk about your firm in a coherent way and make your business development efforts more consistent. Nothing persuades technically oriented folks like objective research data. Replacing opinions with facts ends many unproductive debates.
Speaking of persuasion, there is a final important role that brand research can play. Research is the most credible and trusted type of thought leadership content. It can help establish you and your firm as sources of insight and industry knowledge.
Let’s take an example of how brand research can become premium thought leadership content. Let’s say that as part of your brand study you determined the top emerging threats facing your target audience’s industry. Obviously, this helps you better target your messaging and train your business development team. That’s two solid wins right there.
This same research result can also become the centerpiece of a research report on emerging threats facing your targeted industry. As a piece of premium content, it immediately establishes your industry knowledge and relevant expertise. While not every piece of brand research is suitable for use as premium content, there is a possibility of this triple use scenario. We have seen it succeed with a surprisingly large proportion of clients.
A Final Thought
Brand research gives you the tools you need to put your firm on a path to fact-driven growth and profitability — and to forge ironclad competitive differentiators. In a field of “same story” messages, a little research can make all the difference.
As you spread your research-driven messages, which are highly targeted and relevant to your audience, you will find your marketing efforts connecting with more potential clients and driving higher growth. And this is how you can join the group of the fastest-growing, most profitable professional services firms.