COMMENT: Thought Leader - PR firm, counsel thyself: think aboutyour own brand, not just your clients'

You know it. You tell your clients all the time. The single most powerful, strategic, and competitive asset any company has is its brand identity. If this sounds familiar, it's probably because you've discussed it ad infinitum with your clients - about their businesses. But when was the last time your agency strategized your own brand identity?

You know it. You tell your clients all the time. The single most powerful, strategic, and competitive asset any company has is its brand identity. If this sounds familiar, it's probably because you've discussed it ad infinitum with your clients - about their businesses. But when was the last time your agency strategized your own brand identity?

The goal is to stay "on purpose,

and stand out so the right clients choose you for what you do best. Can you specify what makes your agency special and why clients would choose you? Are you optimally positioned to attract the kind of clients you want? These answers are your differential advantage, and thereby, the path to your success.

Like a compass, a focused identity, brand strategy, and positioning or platform tells you where to go, why, and if you're on track or not. It informs key business decisions like: What are our strengths? How do we stay focused if we grow through acquisitions? What organizational structure is most consistent with our identity? Moreover, the identity-building process and focus helps your staff see a solid connection between their jobs and the success of the company.

All firms start out with a focus. They see a need in the marketplace and find a way to serve that need. The trouble is that as an agency grows, it may branch into new areas, add to its workforce and become inattentive to keeping its raison d'etre firmly in mind. Or business gets tight, and an agency suddenly becomes a jack of all trades.

Porter Novelli, Burson-Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton, Golin/Harris - what comes to mind? What makes each unique? Here's a quick diagnostic we call the Mission Statement Identity Challenge: Read your mission statement.

Now substitute the name of a very different agency - in fact, diametrically opposed - for your name, and re-read it. The better your mission statement works for the other agency, the poorer it is. Why? If it doesn't differentiate you from a very different firm, it certainly won't distinguish you from the ones with whom you compete.

Positioning is based not on reality, but on perceptions. Accordingly, research - not assumptions - can help determine who owns which niches, and where your best opportunities are. First identify your "customers

- both within and outside the agency. This likely includes employees (whose buy-in from the get-go is critically important), clients, prospective clients, media contacts, referral sources and other intermediaries, ad agencies and research firms you partner with, industry reps, policy makers, etc.

Now set your ego aside and open your mind. Ask what business they think you're in, how you benefit them, who else provides similar services, and what makes you different. Determine what benefits each attribute produces for each constituency.

Try some "outside-the-box

projective questions to stir up fresh thinking, like: If your firm were a kind of transportation, what would it be, and why? How about a kind of music? While the images you get are important, it's"why

that really matters. For example, a hi-tech boutique shop might be likened to a Lamborghini because it's fast and cutting edge. A global full-service agency might be a 767 or a bus because it is big, powerful, and omnipresent. A West Coast agency specializing in Hispanic markets might be seen as Salsa music because they're culturally relevant, active, and hip.

The art in this research is finding the patterns across target audiences and synthesizing them into two or three main brand identity "themes" that collectively make you unique and valued. These themes form the foundation of your brand identity platform. They differentiate you from your competition and serve as a touchstone to influence clients to choose you. If you're not positioned where you want to be, you need an implementation plan to close the gaps and achieve your optimal niche.

The truth is, no agency large or small, can exempt itself from the challenge of standing out in an increasingly competitive marketplace. And competition is not just other PR firms pitching the same account. It's also management consulting firms, design firms, and a host of other "consultants

who lay claim to improving clients' reputation and performance. Your identity says who you uniquely are and why clients should choose you. It is your most valuable asset.

Dr. Moshe Engelberg is founder and president of ResearchWorks a San Diego-based consulting firm. Engelberg holds a Ph.D. in communication from Stanford University, as well as Masters' degrees in psychology and public health promotion.

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