So You Want to Position Your Firm?

Oct 15, 2001

Start talking about marketing these days, and eventually the conversation will get around to positioning. We use that term— positioning— constantly ourselves here at ZweigWhite. In simple terms, it means making your firm the expert in the eyes of the clients you are trying to reach. Sounds good, right? I believe that most owners and managers of A/E/P and environmental consulting firms have finally come to grips with the notion that positioning is a good thing, a viable strategy, something that they ought to be doing. So then the question becomes one of “how”— how best to do it? Marketing budgets are tight at precisely the time when the money is most needed to launch positioning campaigns. But money is only one part of the problem. A much bigger issue, and one that no amount of money can resolve, is this: If you want to position your firm the first thing you have to do is take a position on something! Many engineers, architects, and environmental scientists go to great lengths to avoid taking a position. In fact, most of you will not take a strong position on anything. You’re afraid to give your true opinion, afraid to alienate someone else, and afraid to answer a question to the best of your ability when you don’t have every single piece of available information. That’s all fine and good when it comes to not making mistakes. That’s extremely important when you are dealing with the safety of the public at-large. But it’s in conflict with establishing yourself as a real leader. And that’s necessary if you want to be positioned as “the expert.” I think a lot of folks in this business can’t make the distinction between the issues where life-safety concerns are the most critical and those where no one’s life depends on the resolution. A good example of someone who knows the difference is Robert A.M. Stern, the famous architect best known for his rambling shingle-style residences. He designed the Life Magazine New American Home one year, and I can remember reading the article on it in which he was talking about not letting the garage open up to the front of the house because it was “like putting your garbage out in front of your house.” A great statement, one packed with visual imagery and one that has stuck with me for at least the five or more years since the article appeared. That’s what I’m talking about: Giving a strong opinion. Creating images. Letting people know where you stand. Taking a position. When you start making statements that some people might object to, you are on the right track. Yet some folks are terrified if even one person disagrees with them or has a conflicting view on anything they say. They avoid putting themselves in this situation. But I think it’s great to be in that situation. If I write an article or give a talk that at least one person doesn’t hate, I know I am in danger of dishing out the typical white-bread pabulum that most people who do what I do spoon out for a living. And that would be the beginning of the end for us! This is not to say that you should be outrageous just for the sake of it, or should take a position on something that you don’t feel passionate about. That’s just dumb, and your audience will see through it. You won’t be able to defend yourself against your critics if this is your path to notoriety. But most people have some things that they do feel strongly about. You need to seek out those issues and clearly articulate them in all of your advertising, proposals, presentations, press releases, and talks or speeches. Hammer on these points relentlessly. Don’t just think that because you have said it once, or used it in a postcard once, or put it in one brochure, that the whole world knows where you stand. It doesn’t. Repetition, consistency in philosophy, and contrariness are three keys to positioning yourself and your firm as an expert. If your company or your practice area in the firm is seen as just another capable service provider but nothing truly special, think about how you can take a stronger position. That may be the problem! Originally published 10/15/2001.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.