Creating a remarkable brand is not a task for the faint of heart. It requires unwavering authenticity, a fierce dedication to values, and an unrelenting commitment to purpose. Mike Jones, the CEO and Managing Partner of Resound, truly believes in these principles. With an unbridled passion for every client, he leads Resound’s vision, strategy, and business development, relentlessly pursuing building brands that resonate deeply with people. Resound is a brand consultancy providing services that enable organizations to create genuine brands and experiences that strike a chord with people, encouraging their return. In our conversation, we unpack everything about brand management and recognition and why it should be a priority for any professional service business. Mike explains the power behind a brand, what makes a successful brand, and what effective brand alignment means. We also discuss whether personal relationships are still beneficial to a company’s brand, how businesses are no longer location by location, the challenges of creating a brand, and much more.
Key Points From This Episode:
- Mike explains why brand recognition is so essential and so powerful.
- Hear an interesting example that demonstrates the power of a brand.
- Discover whether research conducted by consumers influences what they buy.
- The importance of creating a brand in the professional services industry.
- Why a professional service brand needs to be specific.
- We discuss the value of personal relationships in the context of professional services.
- An overview of marketing trends within the professional services industry.
- Why finding your company’s niche is crucial.
- What makes a successful brand and the pitfalls companies should avoid.
- The fundamental aspects of a company’s brand story.
- Mike’s advice for listeners who want to start improving their brand.
[00:00:01] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Branch Out, a Connection Builder’s podcast. Helping middle-market professionals connect, grow and excel in their careers. Through a series of conversations with leading professionals, we share stories and insights to take your career to the next level. A successful career begins with meaningful connections
[0:00:20] AD: Mike, welcome to the Branch Out podcast, excited about the conversation for today.
[0:00:23] MJ: Yeah. Thank you, Alex. I’m excited to be here.
[0:00:25] AD: I’m laughing here, so just to talk to listeners for a minute. Mike and I have been –we’re sitting here and laughing. We both had a couple of issues, a couple of timing things leading up, so we’re a few minutes late, call it 20 minutes late from when we were planning to jump in here. I’m working off a different setup, because my internet’s not working in part of my house, and we’re winging it. We’re going with it here. I think it’s what’s going to make it an even better conversation today. That’s the current situation we’re in. For our conversation today, what Mike and I were just bouncing around before jumping on here is really talking about the power of a brand and how a brand affects organizations and affects decision-making and everything around that. Why don’t we start with, Mike, just tell us a little bit about a brand and what the power of a brand means to you?
[0:01:12] MJ: Yeah. It’s been interesting. I’ve been working in brand and brand strategy for almost my entire career. Over the last, basically almost 20 years, I’ve been learning so many things that – I think even early on in my career, I never would have attributed to brand. I think there are some basic fundamentals of brand and why it matters, the power of it, that a lot of firms get, right? I think we all think of like, “Okay, value matters, right? Brand creates value for my company, for my firm, for the services that we offer, and for the products that we offer to our clients.”
[0:01:47] AD: Why is that?
[0:01:48] MJ: Well, I like to use this illustration. Let’s say you’re shopping for a minivan and you’ve got too many vans, you’ve narrowed it down. On the left is Volkswagen. On the right is Chrysler. Which one do you choose?
[0:01:58] AD: Volkswagen.
[0:01:59] MJ: All right. Most people actually picked Volkswagen about 80% when I asked them. I’ve asked hundreds and hundreds of people this question. I always ask, “Well, why? Why, Alex?
[0:02:07] AD: It’s cool.
[0:02:07] MJ: Why did you pick it? It’s cool. It’s hip.
[0:02:10] AD: It’s much cooler than Chrysler, right?
[0:02:12] MJ: Yeah. Especially when you see them, you’re like, “Okay, there’s a little bit of interesting styling” that kind of thing. Some people will respond back and say, “Oh, German engineering, right?” Like, “Oh, those Germans, they’ve got to know what they’re doing.”
[0:02:23] AD: Is it Chrysler technically German now, one way or another?
[0:02:26] MJ: Well, I think, yeah.
[0:02:27] AD: Probably, yeah.
[0:02:29] MJ: Let’s go back maybe 20 years. All right. First minivan on the market for Volkswagen, right? We’re picking between these two — or safety, that’s another big one that comes up for Volkswagen. Styling, right, German engineering, and safety. These are the first keywords that pop in people’s mind when they think of the brand Volkswagen and 80% and kind of a blind, no pricing, no – you’re not test driving the vehicle or anything, but you’re just looking at these two vehicles next to each other, 80% are picking the Volkswagen just based on the brand, right?
There’s an affinity and there’s some like extra value that they’re getting. What’s interesting is when I do this with groups of people and I show them the two minivans, we’re looking at two minivans from about 20 years ago is the first minivan that Volkswagen put on the market and the comparable one that Chrysler had.
[0:03:19] AD: They’re both ugly.
[0:03:21] MJ: They’re both – I mean, they’re both minivans, let’s be honest, right? I always tee it up, like I’m sorry, you’re shopping for a minivan. Here’s what’s interesting is that for Volkswagen’s first minivan, if you take the styling off, right, and you just look at the drivetrain, you look at the things that really matter for a vehicle, getting you from point A to point B and carrying your busload of children. What matters, well, it’s the drivetrain, right? It’s the engine. It’s the things that move. It’s the mechanical parts of it. That original Volkswagen minivan that I show people is a Chrysler. It’s a Chrysler minivan.
They went and licensed it from Chrysler in order to get onto the market a little bit quicker. They charge about 10 grand more, at least back then they were. There’s this immediate value you get out of a brand. That’s not even, I would say maybe the epitome example of that, right? You take brands like Apple. What premium do you get on a basically comparable product, right? You might say, oh, it’s maybe more reliable, or you can come up with some very subjective reasons for why you’re willing to pay that extra dollar.
[0:04:29] AD: It’s mainly because I like how the boxes pull apart when I get the new device.
[0:04:33] MJ: It’s really little things, usually, right? That really doesn’t add up to the actual intrinsic dollar amount that people are willing to pay for it and that really, I think exemplifies why brand creates value. It creates a sense of, I know what you do and I’m willing to pay extra for that, right? Now, not every customer cares, right? Some customers shopping for a minivan maybe don’t care as much whether it’s German engineering or not. Maybe they have an affinity, they have a background towards American-made cars. That’s the other 20% when I ask them about Chrysler or Volkswagen. The other 20% are like, “Well, American-made.” I’m like, “Okay.”
[0:05:14] AD: Coming to you live from Detroit, so much.
[0:05:16] MJ: Yes.
[0:05:16] AD: Yes. Yes.
[0:05:19] MJ: We’re speaking to your crowd. Even that in and of itself is another example of brand, right? Chrysler, GM, and Ford, these brands have this affinity often just based on the fact that they’re made in the United States, right? Are they better trucks? Are they better cars? I don’t know. Maybe.
[0:05:38] AD: Is it fair to say in this – will tie us definitely into where I want to go around professional services in a particular brand, but even in a product like this, a vehicle decision or the iPhone versus a Samsung, for example. How many buyers put in a deep enough level of rigor to really assess the true differences versus their subjective opinions that are based on some feeling of why they – right? I know Samsung is comparable to my iPhone, but I just like my iPhone and I don’t really care what they cost. That’s why I got it.
[0:06:11] MJ: There’s a general adage or general understanding in marketing. There’s lots of data to back this up. Most people have already made the decision before they go into research mode, right? You have an affinity at an emotional level, just based on past experiences. It is why brands like McDonald’s, sadly, market to kids, because they understand that if they can get that affinity early on, earlier in your life, earlier in your experiences with the brand, you can build that differentiation. Then you’re going to be there when the rubber hits the road. And I’ve got three kids and we’ve got eight minutes to figure out what we’re going to eat and eat as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Maybe we’re going to McDonald’s because I have some affinity for that, right?
There’s a reason why I’m on my third Honda Civic, right? It isn’t necessarily that my Honda Civics are better than comparable cars. I had one friend who was like, “Really, you’re still driving a gas-powered car?” I’m like, “Yeah, and honestly, here’s why. I’ve liked it enough that I’m unwilling to do the work to change.”
[0:07:17] AD: Change is ours.
[0:07:18] MJ: That’s another aspect of the power of a brand. I mean, we like to think it’s all about value. We like to think it’s all about maybe brand love. That one comes out a lot. For most people, a brand is not based on love. It’s not based on this really strong emotional tug. There’s certainly loyalty, but I firmly believe that a lot of loyalty is built out of reducing the friction for customers, making it as easy as possible to say, “I’m going to get the same experience I got last time. It is easier for me to continue to get that experience from you than to go jump to another brand and start that whole process over again.”
There are aspects that certainly use emotions. I don’t think you should discount that. Emotions are a part of it. We’re all emotional beings. Even decision-making around B2B like, we work with a lot of B2B professional services firms. Sometimes I’ll fire back and say, “All these examples you’re giving me are B2C. This doesn’t really matter in B2B.” I go, “Yeah, circle up a bunch of business development people and say, ‘What CRM are you using?’” As they go around and they say, “I’m using this one, I’m using that one.” Someone’s going to surface, probably Salesforce.
Everyone else is going to go, “Oh, you guys get this Salesforce? That’s great.” Like, they’re even in B2B and it’s not as strong maybe, right? Even in B2B, you’ll find example after example where emotions are driving the affinity to a brand, right? Some of that is just based on like, “Hey, they’re the top dog. We want to be top dogs too.” Some of it is like, “We want to affinity our brand with theirs.”
[0:08:55] AD: Sorry to cut you off there. Let’s talk about this purely in the context of professional services now, knowing that our listeners are largely folks that are either professionals themselves working in a firm or some level of ED or growth mindset within services and understanding that it is different from selling a product. We can’t say it’s the same, but where is brand? How does brand play into it, especially in today’s marketplace?
[0:09:20] MJ: Okay. Let’s just be fully transparent here. I’m totally biased, right? It’s not just like, this is my livelihood, right? This is what I love. Like, I could have done a lot of things. I was going to be a history professor and really fell in love with brand. It was something and that very particular element of marketing really attracted me. I think it’s because it really comes down to identity. This is where I think professional services firms actually have a great opportunity to leverage brand and really make it a difference-maker.
I think some of them really get that and they’re trying or they’re actually doing it really well. You look at ones who are like, “We really understand our culture. We understand what makes us different. We have unique processes. We have unique specialties, either within specific niches or as an entire firm, we’ve gone all in on one industry.” These are things that give you very specific power in the marketplace that allow you to cut through when everyone else is just, “We serve anyone with all of these services.”
Look at accounting firms, it’s like, I cannot tell you how many say, “We’re full service.” There could be an argument, I guess, that maybe full service provides value to certain kinds of clients. I would argue that’s not specific enough. I don’t see people banging down the door for a full-service firm, to me is a cop-out. Again, I’m totally biased here. I think it’s a cop-out to say, “We don’t want to be so specific that we turn certain people away.” We would rather just say, “We do everything for everyone and just hope that we get enough people.”
Here’s the reality, right? When you’re not specific in your branding, what you end up competing on is not brand, it’s not the value you bring to the table through your brand and what you’re known for, your identity as a firm. You end up competing on price, right? I like the example, again, we’re going back to B2C. This is only because everyone can relate to products, right? Everyone can put themselves in a position as a buyer of products. It’s harder for me to use examples in B2B because not everyone relates to every brand that’s out there.
Imagine the last time you went into the cereal aisle in your grocery store and you didn’t have a plan, right? What do you do? Well, there are a couple of things that happen. One is you might gravitate towards that cool box with the funky character you remember from when you were like eight, right? The super sugary cereal that you loved and your parents would never let you have, right? Okay. That’s brand, right? Brand’s cutting through.
Let’s say you don’t have an affinity with one of these, because of brand, right? Some nostalgia or something else like that. What do you do? You’re there shopping. I’m there. I’ve got three kids. They love cereal. I’m like, “I got to get like three or four.” The first thing I do, if I don’t have a plan, I’m like, “I know what they like.” I’m like, “I don’t know what they like. I don’t know what I’m getting today.” If I walk in there and I see like a thousand boxes of cereal on the wall, I’m going to look for a tag that tells me, “I’m getting the best value for my dollar.” This is why those tags exist on every single aisle of every category. It’s because when the brand itself isn’t working, it’s not cutting through. It’s not doing enough to get you over the finish line. Then they have to discount it. They have to. Because that’s how our brains are wired.
Our brains are actually biologically wired to conserve calories. Decision making, the longer I take to make a decision, the more calories I burn. My brain is looking for shortcuts. One of those is brand, right? I can actually cut through and go, “Wow, you specifically offer services that I need that solve my problem in my particular niche, my industry, you really understand my business. I’m going with you accounting firm A.” A, B, and C don’t differentiate.
Now I’m left with three proposals and what am I probably going to do? I’m either going to resolve down to either price, right? Or who do I know, right? Personal relationship. That’s an incredibly fickle thing to trust your entire business on, right? When we think about how many of your accountants may or may not be in your firm in the next five years, are you relying on their personal relationships to be the driver?
[0:13:52] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, a Connection Builders podcast.
[0:14:00] AD: I want to share my and experiences coming to mind, talking about this. I think, it actually ties in really well. I believe that the relationship is really important to get that seat at the table to originally get the opportunity to put the bid in oftentimes, right? There’s some element that is hyper-valuable in getting there, but in terms of that final decision making, if you will, and knowing that there’s one of two sides that it tends to fall toward in my experiences. Either the decisions are made based on exactly what you’re saying, price, peer price, right? How can we do this the lowest or it’s made on credibility and trust?
I know this is going to work. That might be, because of part of the relationship, but if I have a relationship with a good individual and I’m purchasing a complex service and there with an organization that doesn’t have a strong brand behind them, just because I like them doesn’t mean that I’m going to do business with them. It may be a qualifier. I may have to have that relationship –
[0:14:51] MJ: Yeah. It gets you a seat at the table often, right?
[0:14:53] AD: But you have to have that trust and credibility for the broader organization. Now historically, that was firms were built by size and scale and they’ve got the names of the partners on the wall and how long they’ve been around, how many clients they serve. In today’s world, it seems that there’s some shift behind there and some more value being placed on the uniqueness of the offering. I know you do a lot of work in the space. Can you share some thoughts on what you’re seeing for organizations and firms that are trying to differentiate?
[0:15:22] MJ: Yeah. Okay. Back up one-half step, the world that we live in now, where everyone can basically be a client, right? The geographic boundaries that used to hold a specific professional services firm, especially accounting firms, and law firms to a specific market that was geographically defined. If you look at accounting firms and I keep coming back to them because I’m doing this massive study of 1500 accounting firm brands right now. What we’ve seen over and over and over again is that most of them are coming from this historical niching based on geographic region, right?
It wasn’t based on industry, and it wasn’t based on a particular service type, right? It’s based on we serve clients and businesses in a specific geographic area because, for a long time, that’s what mattered to clients. I want to be able to go pull up, go in and meet with my accountant, or have them come by our office, have them come by our shop and talk with us, work through whatever the issue is that we’re working on from an accounting or tax or financial standpoint.
That, I think, is quickly dying, because now we’re finding that like, I mean, not least, accounting firms are struggling to grow staff-wise, right? Recruitment is a huge issue. Many of them are going overseas, they’re offshoring, they’re accounting. Does it matter where my accountant works? Does it matter what state they’re in? Case in point, this is a personal example here, so totally anecdotal.
We now have employees in three different states as compared to four years ago, where we were only in one state and we’re a very small firm like, we’re 10 employees. That’s insane to me that we’re having to manage state and local taxes in three different states now. I’m trying to find an accounting firm, we have been for like the last year, that can help service us at our scale of business and at our complexity where we’re in multiple states. That is the –
[0:17:25] AD: It’s the new conditional local firm. It’s not your traditional firm –
[0:17:28] MJ: No. No. I’m shopping the entire United States, right? I’m a little west coast biased because two of the states are in the west, but we’ve got an employee in Ohio. It’s like, I don’t really care where you are as long as you can solve my problems, right? Ideally, quickly and very well, right? I don’t want problems. I don’t want more problems caused by accounting issues or tax filing issues. It’s very anecdotal, right? But that’s the new norm. Businesses across the country are moving more and more to either distributed, flexible work. They’re servicing customers all over the place. I mean, just the growth of e-commerce is a great example of that where now you’re dealing with state sales taxes across the United States, maybe even globally, right?
Small companies and small e-commerce firms are dealing with complex tax issues that are not geographically contained. I think that’s proving that brand now matters, probably even more than it has in the past work. Before it was like, personal relationships. If we just network enough, if we put our city in all of our messaging enough, then we’ll cut through. I don’t think those things matter as much anymore. Now it really is like, “Well, what are you good at solving? What problem are you really, really good at solving?”
[0:18:53] AD: I think, the point you’re hitting on that I think is wildly important under all of this is I would refer to as the shift to an advisory. In accounting it’s very easy, you can see it very clearly, right? The traditional compliance and regulatory, right? Compliance and regulation –
[0:19:07] MJ: CPAs and head advisors.
[0:19:09] AD: Right? Because of advisory, I even think legal, you’re seeing some transition into that area AON and risk management, absolutely there. This advisory capacity, it’s really about solving a complex problem that there is a unique perspective on. The more complexity there is the more value that can be driven by the knowledge and the knowledge worker behind it, which tends to mean the higher margin the service can be because you can charge usually a larger fee for what amounts to a smaller amount of work on your end because you have expertise in solving it where it requires that expertise to be able to do it the way you are. That’s niching in many ways, right? That is –
[0:19:50] MJ: Even E&Y gets this, right? What was it? Like eight, or ten years ago, they merged their advisory and accounting practices. What’s hilarious to me, and this is every ten years this cycle happens within the accounting world, right? It’s like, merge them and then break them up and E&Y is breaking them up. There’s some legal reasons why they’re breaking them up. There are some cost-saving reasons, but one of the reasons is that their advisory services actually are far more profitable than their baseline CPA services, right, their accounting services. To break them up, even though you’re not going to change the name, allows you to go to market differently.
You’re not confusing the marketplace with like, “Wait, am I talking to you about your baseline accounting services or am I talking to you about your advisory services?” That’s a common thing that I think we’re going to see continue to grow. I’m seeing it a little bit right now, but this is like break up, which is hilarious to me, because I’m like, “Everybody went through it ten years ago. Like, oh, we’ve got to put them together. We’ve got to start our advisory services. It’s all going to be under one roof with our accounting services. It’s going to be – it’s back to full service. It’s all under one brand, so it’s really great and you can cross over back and forth and we’ll provide all this value.”
The reality is, brands that are specific are the ones that cut through. I think you’re even seeing that where it’s like – even what like E&Y is, E&Y advisory, right? That’s slightly more specific than just, “E&Y, oh, what do you do?” “Oh, we do accounting, we do advisory, do consulting. We might even now own an ad agency.” I mean, some of them were doing that over the last ten years, which is fine. Like I get that, but your gut-of-market has got to be one that really cuts through on what are these set of problems that you’re really good at.
I think this is one of the things I think I’m challenged by as a brand guy when I see a lot of professional services firms when you start trying to add on more and more different services, just because clients want them, right? They’re like, “Oh, you’ve been helping us with our accounting for years. You’ve given us some advice on our financials. Hey, your marketing team is really good. Could they maybe help me with my marketing, too?” That might not be a bad business decision to say, “Yes, we’ll offer that as an add-on or like a value-add for existing clients.”
When you start going to market with all of those services, it gets really, really confusing. The one time it’s not confusing is if you say you do that for a very specific kind of business. So like, if I say I’m full service, but I’m only full service for e-commerce firms. That gives me a specificity and it gives me a – again, you go back to what you said, trust, right? Do I really trust you to have expertise with my business? You’re going to be touching so many aspects of my business. If you’re going to offer me all these services. I’m going to give you a lot of my money, right? A significant chunk of my revenue is going to go to you. I better feel like you really, really know my business.
I think that’s where the power of full service comes in. It’s not full service for anyone. It’s full service for one kind of business, one specific industry or a type of business or a particular set of, maybe like a particular place of growth. I’m not sure that actually even is narrow enough, but that’s one of the things we work a lot of our clients on, is just like, how narrow can we get, right? How specific can we get and really like live and die on that hill that we’re going to claim is our expertise as a firm?
It doesn’t mean that you are never going to take any client on who’s outside of that really narrow bullseye, right? We talk a lot about a target is a target. It’s larger than the bullseye, but you never aim for the target. You aim for the bullseye, right? If you hit the bullseye, great, you win, right? But if you’re just a little bit off of the bullseye, you’re still going to land a decent client, right? It might be a little off-center. They might not be quite in your bullseye target, but we’re always aiming at the bullseye. We have to tell the marketplace what we’re aiming at, right? We have to tell them. This is ideal for us. Yeah. I think it’s a helpful one now. It’s been a helpful one for me.
[0:24:10] AD: Based on your experience, what are, I guess, two sides of the question. What do you see for those organizations that are doing it well? What are they doing that makes them do it well? For those that are tripping over themselves, what are they tripping over? What’s getting in the way of doing it well?
[0:24:26] MJ: I think, I’ve already said it, and I’ll just say it again because I think it’s that important. How specific are you? Right. The ones that are really doing it well understand that there is a specific market with specific problems that they are uniquely suited to solve, and they’re building their entire marketing, and even really their business, around that. It’s funny, we’ve been doing this study as a team. We’ve collected data on just over 1,500 accounting firms and their brands. Over the last – I mean, it’s been taking us — but it’s slow. It’s very slow because we’re manually doing it right now. I’d love to automate in the future, but this is round one. We’re still in the early stage of trying to get our hands wrapped around it.
One of the things we’ve been finding is that — it was funny, I had team members collecting data on it, and one of them pinged me and said, “Hey, I don’t think this firm is actually an accounting firm.” I looked at it, and I was like, “Well, every service they offer is accounting services. What makes you say they’re not an accounting firm?” He says, “Well, they don’t say CPA. They don’t say accounting and that is their main line messaging, and they’re really focused on the oil industry. They were positioned more as an advisory firm.” I said, “Yeah, that’s because they’re just that well positioned. They don’t even look like a public accounting firm in the traditional sense.”
I think a lot of firms are maybe still afraid to leave. I think that’s – if you go back, if anyone’s familiar with Seth Godin, this is one of his mantras for years was, “Your goal as a marketer is to create a new market.” That’s the epitome of great brands, are ones that are so uniquely positioned that it’s like, “Oh, you’re not even an accounting firm.” You’re like, “Well, actually we are. The services we all offer, all of our staff are CPAs, we’re not doing anything really intrinsically different at a base level, but we’re so expert at this particular field, this industry with these particular set of problems that when we go to market, you don’t even look like an accounting firm.” Right?
You probably look more like a very niche advisory firm. You maybe look like something a little bit different. I kept telling our team, I said, “Those are the ones that are nailing it.” Now we’re going to see if the data proves that. That’s my supposition. That’s my hypothesis, based on a gut feeling of what I’ve seen from them. I want to see if the data really proves that. I would say the more specific you can get. That’s probably the epitome example. I know not every firm is going to be in a position to be able to pull that off. Some I think are going to have to still look at like, “Hey, are we just hyper-local?” That’s not a bad strategy necessarily, but you need to know where the limits of it are. You’ve got to go all in.
It’s like, we have a client in a specific city. We’ve been working with them on their new website. I just, I keep telling them, I’m like, every single page on this website has to scream that you love this city and not just say it, you got to prove it to me. Show me why people would think that you care about this city because you’ve leaned in, you’ve said, “This is our city. This is our market. We’re going to stay hyper-local. It’s our differentiator. It’s how they’re winning business over a lot of the bigger big four and some other more national or bigger brands.” I said, “It’s great. If it’s a great strategy, it seems to be working for you. You got to lean all in on it.”
That even comes down to like decisions like, are you going to allow your team to work remotely from other states? Can you really say that you’re all in on a city if they don’t live there? I don’t know. They’re going to have to make those decisions. I would argue probably not. If my accountant lives in California, but I’m in that city in a different state and this firm has been all positioned around it, I just – I’m going to be like, “I don’t believe you.”
[0:28:26] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, bringing you candid conversations with leading middle-market professionals.
[0:28:35] AD: You’re highlighting alignment and brand alignment and going back to – I’m not in no way a brand expert. I look to you for your reaction to this, I guess, is that typically in a product market, it’s easier to define what that brand is and to have control over it. In a service-based business, what you’re really selling is some derivative of your people’s knowledge and time, right? Whether that be actually building the hours or selling a project or – right, but at some level, what you’re putting out there are your people and your people will be a direct representation of that brand versus the product packaging, right? You can’t put your people in a packet and deliver them so they look consistent everywhere they go.
[0:29:20] MJ: Your people are delivering the experience, right? It’s a branded experience.
[0:29:24] AD: I like that. Talk to me about that. How does that affect service-based firm? How should they think about that in both creating the brand, but also ensuring their brand is consistent in and developed out amongst their people?
[0:29:35] MJ: Okay. I think there are a couple of things there. One is I do agree. I think people are the primary means by which you deliver your brand when it comes to services. I mean, you think about that, service is me as a person serving someone else, right? With time, talent, expertise, skillset, whatever it is I’m really good at, right? You talk about accountants, right? There’s a select set of services that we typically associate with them. Baseline, you’re solving financial problems, right? If you want to really boil it down.
The people are the experience or they’re at least the delivery mechanism of your experience. There are lots of other touch points in there, you can talk about if you want to automate some of that experience and create client portals. There are other ways to touch clients in that process to make sure that there are other parts of the experience that aren’t just the people. I do think that the people are probably one of the most untapped parts of your brand that, I think some firms really get and they try to lean in on like, “Okay, here’s our culture. These are our values. We’re going to live them out every day.”
I think county firms actually as a whole do a pretty good job of culture development. They really care about it on the whole, not everyone, right? But really trying to deliver this culture, right, consistently over and over. I think where I don’t see it with a lot of accounting firms and even professional services more widely, law firms, engineering firms, depends on how broad you want to slice the professional services slice of cheese.
I think one of the untapped places is actually in just what your people say. When people ask, “What’s your firm? What do you guys do?” You’ll probably get a different answer from almost every person in the firm, including all the partners, right? This comes down to like, I think the story is not there for most firms. There is not a clearly defined brand story if you want to call it that. We like to call it a brand anthem, because that’s really what we’re aiming at, right? We want something that is almost like a mantra. It’s maybe an extension of your tagline. It’s your identity. It’s like every single time someone says, “Where do you work? What do you do? What’s your firm all about?” Everyone has basically the same answer.
Now, they can nuance it a little bit with their own personality, their own style, and their way of saying it. That requires training because you can’t just like open source that. I think that’s a really, really important piece of brand experience that a lot of professional services firms could lean even more into. Define that story and then distribute it and really get everybody to own it and say, “Hey, we’re not going to make up our own stories on the fly about what our firm does, what we stand for, and what our expertise is, and what our market is.” Right?
Now I might have a particular niche that I’m going after as a particular partner in the firm or as a particular service group in the firm. We can create some sub-stories for that, but the top-line story has to be consistent. It’s got to be all the way across in all of your messaging.
[0:32:43] AD: What confirms do to help improve that?
[0:32:45] MJ: Well, I think the first thing is just actually sit down and define your story. There are lots of frameworks out there for doing that. We use one that we’ve created. We call brand anthem. I mean, it’s really go pick up any – well, not any book, but Joseph Campbell has a book that he produced in the 20th century is a philosopher, historian, professor in the 20th century. He’s dead and gone now, but he really took storytelling and tried to define it in a framework. Most people are familiar or some people are familiar with The Hero’s Journey. That’s the process that he created.
There are lots of other frameworks that we developed off of that. Ours is definitely a derivative of his. It’s nothing super unique. We argue that there’s like five fundamental pieces of a great story for a brand. The first is that there is a hero with a problem. Those are the first two things you must have. The hero is not the brand. It’s not the firm. It is always the client, right? You are speaking to your clients. You’re always in service to your clients. They are the center. They are the hero. They are the focal point of your story, but they have to have a problem that you are uniquely suited to solve. That brings in you as the brand, as the guide, right?
There’s a hero with a problem, a guide with a solution. There are different ways to nuance that in terms of how wide are you going to make your story at a brand level. That’s a pretty broad story, right? You’re going to talk about your hero, but again, this is where specificity helps so much, right? If I have 18 different markets that we’re going to niche into or we are niche into, my brand story cannot have a hero in 18 markets, right? Those 18 markets can’t be part of my brand story. There has to be something else that makes us unique, that makes our hero unique, that makes this a very pointed and specific, and compelling story. That’s where if you can lean in, you lean in, right? Narrow it down.
Then the fifth thing that you have to have. Again, hero, problem, guide, and solution. Then there has to be some change to their life or their business, right? For B2B, that’s often nuanced, right? You’re often changing every client is a person first, right? With unique personal desires and needs and problems that they want to solve, not least like maybe they want just the prestige from a growing business, or if they’re a CFO, they want to hit certain specific goals that help them personally, right? In their career, in their job, amongst their peers, right?
Also, they have a business that they represent. That’s nuanced with B2B, and that makes B2B marketing storytelling process a little bit more complex. If you just have a single product on a shelf in a store, that story is actually pretty simple, and that’s where like a lot of gimmicks come in. You get more of like, “Okay, we need a character for our brand. We need it.” It’s like the Michelin man, right? I mean, he’s literally the guy, right?
[0:35:48] AD: Yeah. Focus group with a shade of blue.
[0:35:52] MJ: Yeah. It’s funny like these principles are all over the place in marketing. If you just start understanding these five pieces of a great story, you’re like, “Oh my goodness. They’re everywhere.” Every brand is using these in some way, shape, or form. All the way down to like mascots. B2B should not be mascot free. The example I always give is like, Apple doesn’t have a mascot. They have Steve Jobs, right? Even when he’s dead and gone, he is still the mascot of that company, right? Welch for, what was it, GE, right? For years, not just when he was in the position, but long beyond that, right?
B2B brands are not free from that process, because it is actually a reflection of the story. When you have a personification of the brand as the guide that you can bank on and show people, we work with some smaller consulting firms and one of them right now is going through a transition in leadership. They have really, I mean, just phenomenal brand recognition with the previous – he’s retired now. He’s still technically part of the ownership group, but the previous managing partner.
Case in point, they put out a LinkedIn post with his face and name on it, tons of engagement. They put out a LinkedIn post with anyone else in the firm on it, not as much. Significantly not as much engagement. I told them, I think it was two weeks ago, I was on a call with them and I just said, “We have got to start figuring out how to transition to your next – you have two new co-managing partners that you’ve named. You’ve put their names out there. You’ve made announcements about it. You’ve put PR about it. It’s clear that that isn’t resonating in the market yet. What are you going to do to put their face —”
I said, “and honestly, you’re probably going to have to pick one of them. It’s going to be really hard to take all of that equity that you’ve built in one person’s name and transfer it to two people.” It’s just going to be hard. One of them is probably going to have to be the face. It’s like, “Hey, can they get on podcasts?” Every time that original managing partner’s face shows up on something, I said, “That other, the new managing partner, their face has to be there. They have to just always be together for the next 18 months.”
That’s no different, and accounting firms go through this all the time. Professional services firms go through this all the time. You have succession, right? Maybe your managing partner is not the face, right? Someone is probably. I’d bank that someone in your firm is the most public-facing, most notable, is doing a lot more of the face time for the brand and really evangelizing for the firm. I would say, lean in on that. Just go all in. There are things to consider in that. What’s the succession plan? They have to be an upstanding character.
If there are any skeletons in the closet – It’s like running a political campaign at that point, right? If there are skeletons in the closet, they’re going to come out and they’re going to bite you. Maybe get ahead of that. Weird, random stuff I think about.
[0:39:06] AD: No, this has been a really helpful conversation. I think we went down some good pathways there that highlighted some good thinking around brand. My final question, a simple question I want to round you out with. If someone’s listening and they say, “Hey, I think that we need to improve branding.” Regardless of where they are in the organization, whether they’re directly wearing a marketing, branding, or growth hat, or they’re in a decision-making seater, they’re just a person in an organization who cares about their own personal brand and how to tell their own story, what would you recommend is the best first step to start bringing some clarity around that?
[0:39:37] MJ: Yeah. We have lots of free resources. I always tell people, please take advantage of them, because they’re free. At least, I’ve been running a podcast for I think four or five years now called the Remarkabrand Podcast. There are tons and tons of episodes where we dive deep into brand story, and brand anthems. We talk about differentiation. We talk about positioning. We talk about, I mean, you name it, the value of brand and a lot of things that we’ve touched on today, we go much deeper on those. We have lots of stories in there. I’ve interviewed lots of brand leaders, and brought them on the show.
If people are interested, you want to dive a lot deeper, just search for Remarkabrand Podcast, wherever you get your podcasts. We’re on there. It’s an easy one. It’s free. There are transcripts, there are articles for every one of them. That’s an easy one.
[0:40:26] AD: We will link that in the show notes, too, to make that easy to find.
[0:40:30] MJ: If you want to go another layer deeper and yes, you do have to pay for it, try to make the price really, really accessible. I have a book. It’s called You are Remarkable. It’s really talking about all these principles and the tools that you can use in your business to really maximize loyalty and create differentiation for your firm. I mean, you search for that on Amazon. It’s available there. You Are Remarkable. I think it’s very affordable. I hope it’s affordable. I’ve tried to make it –
We wrote the book really as – we kept running into potential clients who wanted to work with us and we get down to the budget conversation and it’s like, we are just not a good fit for you. You’re too early maybe, like startup mode, or you’re just small and we’re just not built for that as an agency. I’d love to give you ideas. I’d love to give you help. That was when I was like, “We just need to write a book and talk about the things that we’ve been talking about.” At that point, we’ve been talking about it for 10 years. We finally got that out a couple of years ago and I’m working on the next book now. It dives a little bit more into the nuts and bolts of day-to-day marketing with that inside-out concept of brand.
Brands really need to be built from the inside out, not the outside in. Don’t go out into the marketplace to define your brand first. Looking at the marketplace is great. Looking at your competition is fantastic. I don’t say don’t do that. But maybe don’t start there. Don’t look at the marketplace as the way to define the identity of your firm, because what you’ll end up doing is you’ll start chasing trends and fads that probably won’t be here next year. You’ll also start imposing things on your firm that it does not have strength in. You’ll start saying like, “Oh, we’re really good at this.” Because there’s a gap in the market. It’s like, can all of your people back that up? Do they all have expertise in that? Are you built around that? No? No? Okay. Well, now it’s a lie. Even if it’s a wishful lie, we’ll get there. Well, it’s a lie. That’s not going to work. That’s just not going to work.
[0:42:36] AD: This has all been really great advice. We’ll make sure we’ll link the podcast and the book below. I appreciate the frameworks and the way of thinking around this. Even, I’m sitting here in the back of my mind running like, “Okay, there’s a couple of things I should be going back to the drawing board and thinking on.” I really appreciate this, Mike. For listeners, where can they get a hold of you, if they want to reach out to you? What’s the best way?
[0:42:54] MJ: Yeah, [email protected]. That’s my email. Just hit me up there. You can also go to resoundcreative.com. Go to our contact page. If you use the form there, you can get a hold of me. I’m very involved in the accounting world as I probably became very clear in today’s interview. If you’re around the Association for Accounting Marketing, I’m there.
[0:43:15] AD: It’s our connection point, right?
[0:43:16] MJ: Yup. I’m on a couple of committees. Got a public speaking circle there, a networking group. If you’re involved in that, just hit me up. I’m pretty accessible. If none of those work, then you can blame Alex.
[0:43:28] AD: There we go. One of those, hopefully, should work. I really appreciate it. It’s been a great conversation and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with us today.
[0:43:35] MJ: Absolutely. Thank you, Alex, so much for having me on.
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