In the boom and bust cycles of real estate and A/E/C, many professional service firms ride the same roller coaster as most in the market.

When times are good, the pipeline of opportunities seems to fill itself. The coffers are full. The fast tempo of work gives the feeling of strong forward momentum. The big problem becomes the search for talent to handle projects already won, rather than chasing more work to feed idle studios.

What about when the market takes a turn?

The traditional model of winning business in architecture and design seems tailor made to tie a firm to economic ups and downs because it depends too much on business development, relegates marketing to the reactive role of RFP response, and misunderstands or under-leverages the power of brand. In the traditional model, business development and marketing efforts are rarely driven by strategy and implemented in an integrated, proactive way.

When times are good, firms can still win work using the traditional model. However, with each successive economic storm it gets tougher. While backlogs and fees have come back since the worst of the Great Recession, the recovery has defied historical patterns. The bounce back hasn’t been quite as high as expected and competition among firms remains as fierce as when there were far fewer projects to go around. The results of the next downturn could be even harder to predict.

Smarter models of brand and marketing can help level the feast-and-famine, hire/fire cycle that has dogged the industry throughout its history. A comprehensive and integrated program that covers brand, marketing and business development yields more than a steady stream of great clients; it also helps attract the talent required to do the projects. The virtuous cycle of bringing in work and talent creates an evenness to firm’s activity that levels the vicissitudes of the market.

Firms that employ integrated brand, marketing and business development programs are willing to think beyond the limitations of how they were taught to win work. These leading thinkers have moved beyond the traditional antipathy between design and marketing. Likewise, they reject the reactive approach in which marketing consists of finding and responding to RFPs. They embrace the language and practices of brand as well as useful lessons and models from outside of A/E/C.

Leaders who want to break with tradition to build more relevant and compelling brand, marketing and business development programs can follow these eight guidelines:

Invert conventional wisdom and be proactive.

Successful programs strive to position the firm to choose clients, rather than to be chosen. The programs build magnetic, well-positioned brand messages that are supported by compelling value propositions and measurable (or demonstrable) differentiators.

Promote a brand that comes from the core reality of the firm.

Brands with integrity emerge from the core beliefs and internal reality of the firm, which is clearly expressed in its culture and the actions and attitudes of its people. Any gap between what a firm says about itself, who it truly is, and how it delivers on its promises can present a fatal threat to the brand reputation and future of the firm.

Build a value proposition around ideas.

Many firms tout their creativity and problem-solving ability yet build fee structures based on traditional activities and deliverables. The strongest brand and marketing programs build a case for economic value around the impact and contribution of the firm’s ideas. The product is a result of the power of its thinking.

Integrate all parts in harmony with a well-defined strategy.

Every stage and activity of a brand, marketing and business development program must leverage the one that came before and amplify the next. All must be aligned in a strategy that begins with how best-fit clients are identified, qualified and cultivated throughout their relationship with the firm.

Adopt a holistic perspective that focuses inward as well as outward.

Professional service brands are defined and driven by a firm’s culture and people; there is no product to hide behind. People follow the norms and rules of the organization’s culture, creating a brand through their attitudes, behavior and performance. The work of building a brand is not only about influencing the market, but also shaping the culture that drives the way people act inside the firm.

Treat brand as a top-down priority that is lived every day.

High-performing firms have strong brands, which results from conscious cultivation of both internal reality (real capability, culture) and external presentation (behavior, marketing). In order to be successful, the most senior leaders of a firm must support brand building and all employees—regardless of level or job—play an essential role in delivering on the promise of the brand.

See the firm through the eyes of the audience.

Successful brands are not comprised of aspirations but rather the deepest held values of the organization. However, those values (and the fundamental tenets of the brand) must be made attractive to the market while maintaining their integrity. Strong brand, marketing and business development programs express the firm’s offerings and messages in terms that align with the client’s concerns and view of the world while staying true to the firm’s internal reality.

Implement tactics that are measurable, scalable and repeatable.

A brand plan captures the essence and concepts that define a firm, its unique offerings and ideal market position. The brand plan comes to life in an integrated marketing communications (IMC) plan and a business development (or sales) plan, which capture the actions a firm takes to enact its strategy—as well as the metrics that measure the success of each tactic. Because brand, IMC and business development plans are essentially about growth—whether quality or quantity or both—the approach must be flexible enough to scale up and continue to serve the firm as it advances.

The best time to break from the traditional approach to brand, marketing and business development invariably feels least convenient: when times are good and the firm is busiest with existing client projects. It is much like the old bromide “it’s easier to find a job when you already have one.” While time constrained, busy firms have not only more financial resources to bring to building a successful strategy and plans, but also positive momentum and optimism. To be truly meaningful and effective, a brand, marketing and business development program must remain about envisioning and implementing a better future, not scrambling to cover shortfalls when times are tough.

Bob Fisher is editor in chief of DesignIntelligence.


Photos by Mark Asthoff and Brandon Wong on Unsplash.