Branding an “Intangible” Service?

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Here’s how to avoid common errors.

Compared to financial and professional services, branding consumer products is relatively easy. After all, it’s not hard to photograph someone enjoying a delicious bowl of soup, wearing an amazing pair of shoes or having fun driving a shiny sports car. Coming up with a compelling photo of a meeting with a financial advisor or accountant? Not so easy.

When it comes to intangible financial and professional services, it takes a lot of creativity and insight to differentiate them and bring these brands to life. That’s likely why so many investment managers, accounting firms, brokers, consulting businesses and legal practices have brands that come up short. However, not having a memorable brand could be a big mistake. After all, you never know when prospects will need services, so it’s important for service firm brands to be top-of-mind when they do.

Here are the four most common errors service firms make when they brand their businesses and how to avoid them.

1. Your firm may be big, but your brand should be much more than just big.
One of the top mistakes service companies make is to brand themselves like large product companies do. Products are sold to the masses through extensive advertising and marketing campaigns. When it comes to promoting services, this is usually the wrong way to go.

Simply put, mass marketing and messaging doesn’t speak to the personalized needs of clients who engage with service-based businesses. That’s why building a service brand based on this approach is usually a waste of money.

Instead, service firms — large and small alike — should build brand experiences on the small moments and touch points that make up the client engagement, sales and service cycle. Constantly reinforcing the brand value proposition each and every time a prospect or client connects with your firm is key to marketing success.

Delivering highly targeted brand messages to prospects at the right moments will keep your firm top-of-mind when it comes time for them to find a new provider. The same is true for clients, since you also want to be front-and-center to take advantage of opportunities to deepen your relationship with them.

2. Don’t try to be the cool brand. Be the relevant one. 
Standing out from the pack is a big deal for product companies. After all, one type of gum is pretty much like every other. However, one brand can promote itself as “the mintiest” and another as “the fruitiest”. The same is true for colas (“more taste” versus “fewer calories”), minivans (“safer” versus “more flexible”) and white shirts (“trimmer” versus “full-cut”).

Service brands aren’t as easy to differentiate. Most accounting companies offer the exact same services at similar levels of competence. So do legal firms. It’s almost impossible to break away from the pack based on service-related features. For financial companies, regulations make it challenging to claim things that stand out.

That’s why it’s important for companies that sell intangible services to focus their brands on being relevant to individual clients. A well-crafted brand for a service links together what the client needs to the individual services provided by the firm. Then it explains how receiving those services will make the client feel. That’s the best brand differentiator for service firms. Ideally, a client will come away feeling more successful, complete, sound, fulfilled, prepared, etc. You need to make the case for why your firm is relevant for the client and that will center on how they’ll feel when they receive advice from people working for your company.

This is the reason the most memorable financial and professional service brands feature images of people looking relieved, content and satisfied.

A service business that makes a convincing case for relevance through their brand will come across as genuine and authentic to each individual within their client base.

Having a relevant brand identity is another important step toward keeping your firm in their consideration set when the time is right.

3. Make it about individual transactions, not mass sales. 
Product companies depend on being number one or two in their category (a big differentiator) to be successful. They build their brands on this. (Think Coke and Pepsi.) Rather than taking this approach, service companies should build brands focused on individual client relationships and interactions, not mass sales.

In service industries, markets are usually fragmented and crowded with many successful firms offering similar services. Each one generates significant revenue. That leads to a paradigm shift when it comes to building a brand for a service company. It’s not as important for the brand positioning to be about being number one. Instead, it’s more important to build one that will sustain the business, allow it to succeed based on its own goals and connect with clients on its own terms.

There’s a big difference between being number one for everyone versus being number one for individual prospects and clients.

4. Remember that products aren’t your brand, people are. 
Unlike product companies, accounting firms can’t display an attractive rack of spreadsheets to attract clients. Financial firms can’t put out a flashing sign featuring of-the-minute performance results to bring in customers. Institutional fund managers can’t put a holiday display in their front windows to entice prospects.

Instead, your people and the work they do are the public face of your brand. The most successful service brands put the spotlight on the people who actually provide services day after day. This is the only way to put a human face on something completely intangible.

Building a brand based on your employees is a two-way street. If you feature your people as a key component of the brand promise, you must ensure that they’re delivering on it consistently every day.

In conclusion

Are you interested in developing a brand for your financial or professional services firm? Contact an agency that has worked with most of the best-known brands in the category for decades. We’ll work with you to build a brand that will be relevant to your client base.