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The following has been adapted from Tim Williams’s book Positioning for Professionals: How Professional Knowledge Firms Can Differentiate Their Way to Success, published by Wiley.

Rather than investing time and energy in differentiating their companies, most professional service firms are busy comparing. The practice of benchmarking—learning how other companies do something—is mostly just imitation. It produces what could be called a world of karaoke companies, where one firm primarily mimics another. Constantly studying “best practices” is a form of institutionalized imitation.

Actually, mirroring what other firms do is not only a strategic but a tactical mistake, because it just keeps your firm in the “red ocean” where undifferentiated competitors are slugging it out for the same scraps of business. Your job as a marketing communications professional is to unlevel the playing field; to make it difficult to compare your firm with others.

It turns out that the urge to copy is almost universal. Many anthropologists believe that copying may be the human species’ most powerful survival strategy. Breaking this powerful impulse means stepping back and studying the way your firm creates value in the first place.

MAKING YOUR FIRM MORE VALUABLEStart by identifying where your firm falls on the marketing value chain. To understand the changing dynamics of the value chain concept, observe what’s happened to the music business. Consumers are still spending roughly the same amount of money on music, but the money isn’t going to the record companies and music stores; it’s going online, mostly to iTunes. The money in the music business value chain is still there—it just moved.

The same is happening in the rapidly evolving advertising and design business. Marketers are spending, but they’re spending in new and different areas of the value chain. Instead of trying to squeeze the last bit of value from traditional sources of revenue, marketing communications firms should be focused on finding a different spot on the chain.

Defining a successful value proposition means selecting a place on the value chain where the offerings are still scarce and underdeveloped. In the world of advertising agencies, the underdeveloped side of the value chain includes such services as social media and analytics. Conversely, an ad agency with a value proposition based on the idea of “efficient production and distribution of advertising” is selecting a spot too far down the value chain to have any value in the marketplace.

If you analyze the value propositions of most professional service firms, you’ll find they are based mostly on widely available overdeveloped services; they are placing themselves on the wrong side of the value chain. By focusing on the underdeveloped features or benefits of the category, you are in effect positioning the brand not just for where the profits are, but where the profits will be.

BUILDING YOUR BRAND BOUNDARIESHow many times have you heard business professionals rail against the idea of being “boxed in”? As the argument goes, a “box” prevents a company from doing whatever it wants and selling whatever it can to whoever might want to buy it. Exactly. No box means no strategy, no boundaries. Brands actually need a well-defined box to help define what they stand for, what they sell and who their most likely customer is. A “boundary-less brand” is no brand at all; it’s a product in search of becoming a brand.

It’s useful to think of these four sides as the “load-bearing walls” that represent what your organization knows and does best; the four sides of this box represent the boundaries that define your firm’s brand.

What are our core competencies? The areas in which we are best in class?

Who are our best customers? Who do we know best in terms of categories, audiences or brands?

How can we leverage our culture? How do we add value through our methods or approaches?

Why are we in business in the first place? Beyond making money, how do we define our calling?

All four of these brand boundaries represent immensely important strategic questions. The answers form the basis of your firm’s positioning strategy. Let’s take a brief look at each one of these boundaries individually.

Competencies. When it comes to your firm’s abilities, the task is to identify not just capabilities but competencies. Competencies are capabilities of the organization that can be delivered in a dependable, differentiating way. It’s not enough to just identify the things you do well. Competitors may have similar core competencies. You must go further to find what could be considered a distinctive competence. This is often the result of disaggregating your short list of core competencies—breaking them down into component parts to find what’s truly distinctive.

Customers. Defining a clear value proposition means having a clear definition and understanding of your customer—the clients you serve. For every firm, there’s a big difference between clients and best clients. Its more than likely that 20 percent of your clients generate 80 percent of your revenues. More surprisingly, a mere 5 percent of your clients generate 95 percent of your profits. Closely examining the nature of this 5 percent brings great clarity to your value proposition.

Culture. The final crucial element of the value proposition is the culture of your firm. Culture is created by your values, beliefs and principles, the standards by which your firm makes daily decisions. A strong culture provides a framework for decision-making and defines your firm's “rules of engagement.” A company that lacks a set of strong beliefs, values or principles almost always also lacks a differentiating value proposition.

Calling. Without exception, the most notable firms have an ambitious reason for being. This is not a coincidence. In my consulting work, I’ve learned that the primary unspoken questions on the minds of most associates in a professional firm are: “Where is this firm headed? What are we trying to become?” This means not just defining who you are, but why.

SPECIFIC THINGS TO SPECIFIC PEOPLEDefining your firm’s brand boundaries—calling, customers, competencies and culture—is the most important form of strategic development you can engage in. Unless you answer these essential questions, most other forms of strategic planning are pointless. Your firm’s business strategy and tactics must revolve around a clearly defined value proposition.

Remember, no professional service firm can serve all markets with all services. The most successful enterprises never attempt to be all things to all people, but rather specific things to specific people. If you are absolutely right for one type of client, by definition you will be absolutely wrong for another. If you expend all your energies in the impossible quest to try to make your firm appeal to everyone, you’ll ensure that it doesn’t appeal perfectly to anyone. It’s time for the firms that are so expert in developing brands for their clients to become stronger, more valuable brands of their own. ca

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