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The Contradiction of Specialized Branding

Why Specialization Should Force You Out of Branding

May 8, 2012 at 11:32 am by Blair

The two main positioning variables of the specialized firm are the disciplines they bring to bear and the markets they serve. When one is narrow, the other can sometimes be quite broad. As an example, a UX design firm probably does not need to narrow its market by focusing on certain industries, but a broadly positioned full service, integrated or branding agency likely would be forced to choose a vertical to reap the benefits of positioning.

But even when broad service offerings are aimed at narrow verticals there are some common mistakes to avoid. The most common is clinging on to branding as a discipline once you've narrowed your focus to a vertical. 

The goal of positioning is to reduce or eliminate competition. This is done by amassing a deeper expertise and the easiest path to deeper expertise is a narrow focus. In a profession where inability to focus and desire for variety are rampant there are a lot of half-hearted attempts at focus, or what I might call a focus in language only.

A branding agency that heeds the call to specialize and then picks a vertical (e.g. healthcare, professional services or financial services) should realize that branding as a claim of discipline expertise is nowhere near as relevant to its new target market. Branding for healthcare is still just branding. There isn't a creative firm on the planet that would not claim to be able to do it just because the client is a hospital and not a breakfast cereal. But hospitals (and other verticals) have very real and quite specific challenges that do require specialized marketing and communication programs to help address. Physician recruitment, service line introduction, employee engagement, and, in the US, a whole host of uncertainties in the face of healthcare reform. A firm specializing in healthcare marketing or communication would offer these services, be able to speak to these needs and would open up sales conversations with specific questions in these areas. These specialized areas of need are where the specialist leaves the generalist in the dust. 

Yes, hospitals and other verticals will still require branding from time to time, but for a vertically specialized firm to lead with branding as discipline expertise is to admit that they haven't learned enough about their target market yet. The move from branding generalist to any type of specialist should almost always leave the word branding behind, at least in the firm's own description of itself.

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Kyle said:

Pretty interesting.

web designing said:

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Thomson Dawson said:

I couldnt agree more with your assertion that "branding" has essentially become another word for generalist.

Too bad because "brand strategy" is a very highly specialized skill. It has nothing to do with "branding" %u2013the act of implementation and the making of marketing stuff. Every agency, design firm, PR firm claims branding expertise, but it does not mean they are expert at brand strategy.

In my view there are three catagories of specialization for marketing firms:

- a service discipline (brand strategy, market research, packaging, corporate identity, etc.)
- a market vertical (consumer products, business to business)
- a demographic ( youth culture, boomers, etc)

To "specialize" requires deep knowledge, expertise and experience in one or all of these catagories. For example, you might be a packaging firm specialized in the CPG beverage catagory serving an 18-25 year old consumer. With that kind of focus, you'll know very quickly who your prospects will be.

All business development conversations as well as building the firms reputation would be meta focused strictly on that specialization. Opportunity comes when your firm is known as the "go-to" resource solving a specific marketing problem in a discipline, vertical or demographic segment.

When I was a design firm principal running a 15-person firm, our practice was specialized in the office furniture industry of which we had deep knowledge and expertise, however we covered a lot of ground in our service offerings (corporate identity, print collateral, exhibit, environment, web, etc.) The down-side of our strategy is we were tied to the fortunes of that market vertical. No amount of business development could break us from that cycle.

Today implementation and creative services are being quickly moved down the value chain. Clients have abundant choice of practictioners be they generalists or specialists. This over-abundance of supply makes for an extremely competitive environment. This will only increase in the future as our social media connected world enables clients to more effectively utilize crowd-sourced innovation.

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