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Elizabeth Sosnow is managing director of BlissPR and an expert in personal branding. She works extensively with those in personal service professions—consultants, attorneys and accountants, for instance, and says that the fundamental question is the same: “How do you package you?”
“If you don’t know who you are, it’s impossible to brand yourself,” she says. When working with clients, she coaches them to identify what they think is compelling and what is unique about themselves and what they have to offer.
Robert Friedman, president and founder of Fearless Branding agrees. He adds that “branding services is different from branding products because there is no stuff to rely on.
“If you make a good cookie, the cookie starts ‘speaking for itself’ as soon as the consumer takes the first bite. When you sell a complex and intangible service that’s more expensive than a cookie, getting someone to try you is harder,” he says. “You need a strong value proposition before someone will be willing to take the first bite.”
Brenda Garratt, CEO of The Delve Group, a firm specializing in brand development, says that a personal services brand needs extra work to deliver a message clearly. “What you’re branding is intangible—you can’t quite hold it, smell it or shake it,” she notes.
Defining a value Proposition
An important first step for HR consultants, say branding experts, is to define their value proposition clearly. What—specifically—do they have to offer clients?
Friedman offers a five-step process for defining a compelling value proposition:
·Identify a specific client base.
·Identify their needs—or “pain.”
·Identify your “gift.” “This gift captures what makes you unique and lets you speak to your clients’ hearts and guts—not just their heads.”
·Define your offer.
·Communicate a message that wraps up your gift and your offer—and addresses your client’s pain—all at once.
Sosnow takes a similar approach. She suggests that consultants respond to some “starter questions” to help them become focused around “who they are,” such as:
·Can you define your reputation? Is there a pattern to your consulting engagements, such as work in a particular industry or on a particular type of project?
·What has your experience taught you? Are there common themes that you use to help clients overcome their problems or challenges?
·Are your thoughts different? Can you identify your competitors and what they are saying about their services and then differentiate what you have to offer from those competitors?
·Are you passionate about your area of emphasis?
Sosnow notes that consultants need to ensure that they are linking their unique ideas to today’s “burning issues.” “In this environment you cannot be an HR consultant without referring to the recession and its impact on human resource issues—it’s impossible.”
Focus on the Unique
Perhaps the most challenging of these steps is defining clearly that unique something that makes an HR consultant different—the gift.
“To figure out what your gift is, you’ve got to do some competitive analysis to see who else is competing in your space and assess your business practices step by step to see what really makes you different,” says Friedman.
“There are always going to be plenty of folks who do what you do—and may be larger or smaller than you—but what you need to figure out is what makes you and your organization unique,” says Garratt. “How do you want to be perceived, and why should folks want to work with you?”
HR services can be differentiated in the marketplace through the conveyance of attributes like market leadership, trust, perception, empathy, confidence, empowerment, stability and predictability, says Garratt.
Rob Frankel, a branding expert and author of The Revenge of Brand X: How to Build a Big Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else (Frankel and Anderson, 2000), says that the process of differentiating services from competitors is critical but rarely practiced. “I’d advise all consultants to line their branding materials up with their competitors. They will be amazed at how similar they are to one another,” he says.
One of Frankel’s favorite tests is to run a client’s sales copy through a “search and replace” test, searching the client’s name and replacing it with a competitor’s. “In just about every case, the copy works just as well to sell the competitor. No kidding,” he says.
To be successful in what is an increasingly crowded field, HR consultants need to be able to answer a critical question: “How are you different from competing consultants?” says Garratt. “You need to clearly communicate your differentiating proposition—to clearly state what you bring to your clients that no one else can,” she says.
Not a Logo—But Images Matter
Once it is defined, a brand is strengthened over time through consistency, the secret of any strong brand.
While many people believe mistakenly that brands are defined through visual images—like logos, colors and the like—these elements serve to achieve consistency with the delivery of messages that are committed to some sort of tangible format.
“Take a look at your business system—collateral, web site and messaging—to be sure all are in synch,” suggests Garratt. “Make sure your marketing, proposals and on-site presentations all sing from the same song sheet. Build confidence by having a strong, direct and consistent message about your value.”
Of course, the true brand goes beyond a logo or graphic image. For HR consultants, everything about them contributes to brand consistency—the areas they specialize in, the advice they offer, where they choose to meet clients (McDonald’s? Starbucks? Home office?), the clothes they wear, even the car they drive. And, in today’s growing social network environment, the profiles and postings they include on sites and services such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
“The key to branding personal services is to understand that you are the brand,” says Linda Popky, president of L2M Associates, Inc., a marketing consulting firm. “How your clients perceive you directly impacts how comfortable they’ll feel using your services and referring you to others.
“What’s critical is that you are aware of how your personal brand relates to your audience and their needs,” says Popky. “Credibility and authenticity are key—you can’t pretend to be something you’re not.”
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.
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