Many professional service firms misunderstand the concept of brand and the essential role it plays in their enterprise. Consequently, they fail to capture a strong competitive advantage that can help win more projects from better clients, attract and retain top talent, capture larger fees and — most importantly — enable them to focus their energies on great design.

Common Misperceptions: Brand as Artifact

Ask someone to name his or her favorite brands and you are likely to hear a list of familiar consumer products or retail outlets: Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola, Cartier, Target. Ask the same person how those brands were created, and his or her answer is likely to center around brand artifacts like products, advertising, tag lines, and prominent company names. The overemphasis on artifacts is sometimes reinforced by the brand design industry, which tends to see the issue through the prism of its contribution.
However, a firm’s brand is not defined by its artifacts but is reflected through them. The true essence of a brand lives in the deepest parts of a company, and branding’s impact is far more comprehensive and pervasive than the artifacts that represent it.

Unfortunately, firms waste significant investments in brand artifacts without a sound strategy that is based in an integrated model of brand.

Architects and designers are not immune to the error of defining their brands too narrowly. If they limit their conception of brand to visual identity or reputation, they miss the opportunity to create a powerful magnet for great clients and top talent that will enable them to focus on design. In short, a strong brand provides the firm more control over its future.

Successful Models of Brand

Marketing literature presents a variety of definitions of brand (see the Brand Industry Insights sidebar). Many experts agree that a company’s brand is a concept or perception held collectively inside the company and in the marketplace. Another theme, pioneered by UC Berkeley professor emeritus of marketing David A. Aaker, is that brand is created through a combination of activities, external factors, and symbols.

Any successful model of brand must take into account how all these elements interact not only with one another, but also with dimensions of the company that are not traditionally associated with branding, like leadership and organizational health. In order to be truly comprehensive, the model must also take into account the essential role that the market plays in defining a firm’s brand.

The Four Parts of a Brand

A firm’s brand is comprised of its internal reality, the actions and attitudes of its employees, the artifacts that represent the firm, and perceptions it in the market. The brand is defined in the overlap. (See Fig.)

The Brand+ Model

Firms have control over three of the four components: the internal reality, the actions of employees, and artifacts that represent the brand. They cannot control but are able to influence perceptions in the market, which is the ultimate arbiter of the brand.

Harmony in reality, action, image and perception is the key. The four parts of a professional services brand can work together to build a dominant presence only in the degree to which there is alignment and integrity between the parts. Former Chiat/Day executive Mike Moser, an integral voice in campaigns for Apple, Kia Motors, and Reebok, echoed this sentiment in his book United We Brand: “The first step to having a cohesive brand is to have a cohesive company.”

Part I: Internal Reality

Afirm’s internal reality is the most essential component of the brand over which it has control. Internal reality is intimately tied to the firm’s vision, mission, values, and culture. Its ability to deliver great design through its talent is another significant factor. Internal reality is also dependent on the effectiveness of a firm’s leadership and management as well as the overall health of the organization.

Internal reality is critically important because it manifests itself in how leaders and staff treat prospects, clients and one another. It is also the proof of any brand messages that are launched into the market.

A firm’s internal reality can be created but it cannot be faked. It is the real character of an organization that eventually reveals itself regardless of the self-deception of leadership or the best efforts of marketers to spin it into something more attractive. Misalignment between who a firm says it is and who it really is cannot remain hidden forever.

Conversely, a firm that enjoys a healthy culture will benefit from a transparent portrait of who it is. Its authenticity will be rewarded through the benefits of increased brand equity.

Part II: Actions and Attitudes

After internal reality, the second most important controllable components of brand are the actions and attitudes of leaders and staff.

Research conducted by Greenway Group shows that during a typical project the client deals with three to five people at a firm. Thus in a firm of 1,000 people, a client’s experience of the firm is determined by as few as .3 percent of the staff.

Every professional services firm, when it projects an image of itself, creates a brand promise that employees must fulfill. That makes everyone in a firm, regardless of his or her position, an ambassador of the company’s brand on a day-to-day basis. The actions and attitude of employees — through the quality of the service they provide — will create an enduring image of the firm in the minds of clients and prospects.

Employees can also be effective barometers of internal reality and culture, as well as guardians of integrity. No other audience is so attuned to misalignment of the brand messages and the reality inside the enterprise.

Part III: Artifacts

Artifacts are the physical manifestations of the brand: things you can see, hear, or touch that convey a firm’s image and message. They include the logo and graphic identity materials, website, marketing and sales collateral, proposals and business correspondence, as well as environments.

Brand artifacts, especially marketing materials, are often the first ambassadors of a firm’s brand: they create an image and position for the firm in the minds of prospects who have not yet formed these ideas through direct contact with the firm’s people. Beyond delivering brand messages, their primary job is to encourage prospects and prospective talent to deal directly with representatives of the firm.

Marketing material can make an effective rational and emotional case for why prospects should do business with a firm as well as convey its unique identity and value. Done properly, they portray a firm as both relevant and indispensable.

Artifacts play an essential role in creating the brand promise that leaders and staff must later fulfill. As such they are most useful early in the business development process.

Brand artifacts, if they reflect the firm with integrity and authenticity, can also be a galvanizing force inside a design firm. They create meaningful symbols that make the brand feel real and concrete, and they can serve as a source of pride for staff members as well as a reminder of the value and service the firm provides.

Though they may be third in priority behind a firm’s internal reality and the actions of its people, artifacts are vital to the overall brand image. Architecture and design firms should pay close attention to the visual expression of their brand due to the visual nature of what they create. Prospects come to a design firm expecting to see an enterprise that embodies the ability to transform the function and appearance of spaces, buildings, and communities.

Part IV: Market Perceptions

The market is the court of final opinion regarding brand. Firms can spend a tremendous amount of money and energy trying to create a strong brand, but if they fail to influence the market all their effort is wasted. The market’s definition and opinion of a brand trumps all others.

The traditional power of the market comes from its ability to form and share opinions. Satisfied clients are the best source of new clients; unsatisfied clients can do incredible damage to new business development efforts and the health of a brand.

Advancements in technology have created a market that is deeply interconnected. Clients and prospects have the ability to access information as well as communicate their experiences and preferences with more ease, thoroughness and speed than at any other time in history.

The good news is that firms have many more platforms from which to broadcast their messages. They also have an unprecedented ability to monitor sentiment in the market and respond to it directly and authentically.

Are you ready to create a best-of-class brand?

Consider your answers to the following questions:

  • What can you say about your firm that makes it the obvious choice compared to your competition?
  • Have you spent more time training your staff to be ambassadors of your brand than designing and maintaining your website?
  • Would your newest staff member say the same things about your brand that you would?

Bob Fisher is a contributing editor to DesignIntelligence.