There has been a growing interest in branding and differentiation among A/E firms in recent years. Yet brand remains an elusive concept, misunderstood by most in our industry—even among marketing professionals.
Branding is predominantly thought of as a marketing activity, something that is assigned to the marketing department to do but is largely ignored by the rest of the company. But, in fact, your marketing department has limited control over your brand!
What is brand? There are various definitions in the literature, one of the reasons for the confusion. But considering the composite of all I've read on the subject, the best definition in my opinion is: Brand is the perception in the customer's mind that differentiates (or doesn't) a product, service, or company. Branding, then, is about shaping that perception.
People often think about names, logos, marketing copy, and other tangible representations of your firm as constituting the core of your brand. But these symbols mostly evoke responses to your brand; they don't define the essence of it. That's because your brand is defined by direct and indirect customer experiences with your firm.
So how you serve your clients is far more critical to your brand than anything your marketing department (or an outside consultant) can concoct. That's not to diminish the role of marketing. Marketing creates important customer experiences too, but they are meaningful only to the extent that they are reinforced by the experiences of actually working with your firm.
I worked with a large engineering firm that was undergoing a major reorganization and brought in a well-known branding consultant to package the new image. As is usually the case, the company spent a lot of money on what amounted to a superficial makeover. They got a new logo, color scheme, positioning statement, website, marketing collateral, etc. But they gave little attention to optimizing their project delivery process or improving their service—issues their clients really cared about in the face of the unsettling changes.
Their story is unfortunately all too familiar. Most "branding" efforts sell only the sizzle without the steak. Again, I don't want to dismiss the value of the typical marketing-oriented branding activities; I have led and supported these kinds of efforts for many years. But if your firm is serious about branding and positioning, I'd like to challenge you to look beneath the surface to where brand is really created—the client experience.
I outlined a process for building your firm's brand in a previous post. It's a substantial undertaking, which is probably why most firms prefer to tackle brand only at the symbolic level. But going the extra mile is also what will differentiate your firm. As I wrote in another post on differentiation: "Real differentiation isn't about what you say [i.e., your marketing]; it's what you do and who you are. It's how you deliver distinct value to your clients. It's not easy to achieve. But it's even harder for others to replicate."