• Transform magazine
  • July 04, 2020

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Insights: Branding in a partnership structure

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Working with multi-stakeholder businesses can pose unique hurdles when undergoing a rebrand. Nick Thomson explores best practice in branding a partnership. Frank, Bright & Abel is shortlisted at the Transform Awards Europe

In an uncertain and fast changing market, professional services firms must work harder than ever to convince audiences of their value and relevance. Right now there’s huge potential for strong, authentic professional services brands that are true to their purpose and people. But how do you achieve this within a structure when many have a controlling interest and where the challenges come in different shapes and sizes?

Here are six simple thoughts to complex challenges.

Show me the money: What’s the value of investing in brand? The market is converging and consolidating, and a few big players are becoming increasingly dominant. Such trends favour strong brands, and so the more pertinent question is: what’s the cost of doing nothing? Furthermore, brand is your reputation. It goes way beyond look and feel, marketing, recruitment, and so on. It’s fundamentally about ensuring the partnership is stronger than any individual partner.

Reflect the quality on the inside: Clients pay for expertise, ideas and personal attention. Yet real people remain noticeably absent from professional services branding. Skylines, empty interiors and views of glass buildings dominate. Showing a human face adds authenticity. No one wants to wear a dated suit, and brand is no less important to the impression you make. In 2002, Linklaters reset the bar for law firm brands, and the cycle of evolution continues, led by brands that are bold enough to be both different and credible.

Face outwards: Your brand exists to show the world why you matter, in a way that inspires people to learn more, do business or work for you. Yet many professional services partnerships are still too inward-looking, defining themselves in terms of their own capabilities, history, scale or performance. These things matter of course, but only if you can show what they mean for your audiences, and how you have a role to play in their world.

People buy knowledge: Saying something is not the same as having something to say. Thought leadership should be strategic. Start with a well-defined plan. What are your goals? Where does your opportunity lie? Don’t be drawn into conversations unless you’ve got something valuable to say – an informed point of view can have real value. And, if it’s not easy to find and digest, audiences will go elsewhere. Take advantage of usability insights in every aspect of the design.

Don’t let the war for talent kill the brand: A reputed name is no longer enough; graduates are looking for inspiration and a sense of purpose. Partnerships are having to fight hard to attract talent.

This has driven quality in graduate employer branding. But often highlights the frequent disparity with the conservative, depersonalised nature of corporate branding for the same partnerships.

By bringing your corporate and graduate proposition closer together, there’s an opportunity to let your qualities shine through for all your audiences.

The journey is more important than the destination: There are bound to be challenges. Partners may have little interest in branding – or strong opinions that create obstacles. You’ll need to involve a broad range of individuals to get buy-in across the firm. Set a clear direction and navigate the bumps in the road together. Don’t be afraid to involve partners in the creative process. While the process needs to be collaborative, it must also be well structured. Have a small steering team with the authority to make final decisions, and a consultation panel that can provide a balanced perspective.

Professional services partnerships need a strong brand just like other businesses, and face added complications because of the way they’re structured. But you can overcome each challenge in turn, regardless of shape, with the right approach.

Nick Thomson is the strategy director at Frank, Bright & Abel

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