The year of the business service brand
By Josh Feldmeth
Markets are quickly transforming and organizations of all kinds must change to keep pace. Banks are learning new regulation. Tech players are racing to deliver software in the cloud. CPG companies are reengineering consumer paths to purchase in the post-digital age. Manufacturers wrestle with soaring material costs; airlines labor and oil hedging. Energy companies must learn to market themselves better. Creative companies can’t find enough talent. And just about everyone has an IT issue to sort out. And who is waiting, ready to help? Business services providers.
The business of business service will matter more in 2012 than ever before. But there is real concern that business services brands, long underappreciated by their owners, may not be up to the task. Here’s what to expect in 2012.
Making good on the strategic rationale
of the deal
Many of the big players made significant deals over the past few years, and now is the time to prove that they made the right calls. Brands like Cisco, Xerox, Towers Watson, Aon, and others will work hard in 2012 to ensure that delivery lives up to the original promise of the new business model. Most have good strategies and brand assets in place. The winners will be those that leverage employee behavior to create a new customer experience.
The forces reshaping global markets—resource scarcity, risk, rising regulation, debt crisis, etc.—demand that companies develop radically new capabilities. Energy companies must become marketers, and marketers must become more like actuaries. Actuaries need the soft skills of bank relationship managers. The bankers need to start acting like retailers, and the retailers need to act a lot more like Amazon.
Or perhaps they don’t. Expect a new wave of outsourcing in 2012 as companies, struggling to define and perfect their evolving core capabilities, look to business services brands to shoulder more of the load. IT and BPO is already there. HR, Finance, Marketing, and Legal will increasingly follow suit. It’s good news for the business services community, especially for those that can nimbly adjust their offers and value propositions to match.
Capability is the new capability
What happens when you mix aging populations in the industrial West and Japan, expanded output in Asia and Brazil, and the industrial transformation that is the digital revolution?
In 2012, we will witness professional services firms extending their offering to include capability delivery—teaching the client to fish rather than hauling it in for them. Pure plays, like Brand Learning, the UK company that delivers marketing capability, and commercially savvy in-company executive education programs from the likes of IMD, Duke Corporate Education, and INSEAD will intensify the competitive field.
Pop quiz: Can you name the big four global accounting firms? Bonus points: Name the unique selling proposition of each? This particular stumper gets to the bane of the services existence—differentiation. We know how they got there: years of brand neglect, strong partner fiefdoms, and the fallacy of the low role of brand in B2B business. There are exceptions—Accenture’s sustained marketing investment and McKinsey’s rigorous culture cultivation have both produced distinctive brands—but it’s a common problem that plagues more than just the big four.
Many business services firms will not grow their marketing budgets in 2012, but will combat their differentiation problem through a more affordable and comfortable brand asset instead: intellectual property. Good IP is a smart solution. It is, by definition, differentiated and marginally cost-free. Expect to see more selective, high-end client conferences and integrated digital distribution.
The rise of brand voice
Digital has fundamentally changed the way brands are exchanged. That’s not news. What will be news is the level of investment business services will make in brand voice in 2012. Word-of-mouth and colleague recommendation has always been the key driver in the space, which the social marketing paradigm has only accentuated. Brand voice will eclipse visual design as the key element through which services brands are experienced. Winners in 2012 will be those that define their brand voice and put the training and standards in place to ensure their armies of consultants, accountants, and advisors use it.