Valuable values

Aug 19, 2019

Branding and growing a diverse firm while staying true to your roots is possible, but you have to know why you’re in business.

If you track AEC news daily, like I do, you probably notice a constant theme of consolidation among firms. Maybe you’ve even been part of a team on the buy or sell side of a merger or acquisition. For those concerned with strategy and branding, all this merger or acquisition activity raises these questions: How does this affect our identity? Who are we now? If your firm’s strategy has a strong M&A component, you may even be wondering if branding a growing and diverse firm is even possible.

Possible is an understatement. Although growth brings its challenges, it also brings you a unique opportunity to build something truly magical that keeps your firm true to its roots while staying flexible for the future.

Build growth on your values. Outside the AEC industry, advice is abundant for how to differentiate a company. Search the internet and you’ll see many articles offering six, seven, 10, and even 21 ways to brand a firm, including everything from price, making a better product, having better service, reaching buyers/clients more efficiently, and building trusted relationships. AEC firms – even those growing through M&A – can spend valuable time thinking about those things. They’re the basics of every business.

And that’s the problem – they’re the basics of every business. Your competitors are trying to do the same thing you are.

What if you took a different path? What if you built your company’s growth on values, and let your values influence your approach to M&A, not to mention pricing, who you serve, how you serve them, and the many other ways firms distinguish themselves?

What we’re talking about is the difference between a firm serving a specific function that happens to have values, and a firm with values that happens to serve a specific function. The firm built on values will have more flexibility to serve a variety of markets in a variety of ways, and will also have a much easier time recruiting and retaining amazing people who are not only competent, but great fits for your firm.

Build your brand on your values. Maybe you can get behind the idea of building your firm’s growth on its values. But how, specifically, do you build your brand on values?

Let’s flip that question around for a moment (though we’ll come back to it). What other options do you actually have? If you’re trying to brand a growing and diverse firm, you can’t build your identity on your location, your services, your client base, or pretty much any other way companies typically distinguish themselves. You can’t even build your identity on your nationwide scope, variety of services, or diverse client base – odds are, one of the “big guys” has you beat on every one of those.

So, how exactly do you build a brand on values? Here are a few steps:

  • You probably already have a values statement at your company. That’s a great place to start, though you may choose to revamp it during this process. For example, the company I work for, Salas O’Brien, had for many years a “Shared Vision Statement” that we reworked into our “Ownership Values” when we became a 100 percent ESOP company in 2016.
  • Look at that existing statement and ask yourself if it’s what you want your company to be known for. Watch Simon Sinek’s classic TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” (44 million views and counting), and think about his statement: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” What is the “why you do it” for your company? Figure that out, or even get close, and you’re onto something.
  • Talk with your marketing and communications staff, and explain that you want to make your company known primarily by your company’s values and what makes you tick. Watch your team’s jaws drop. Then watch as they get behind what you’re proposing – and listen as they bring you ideas for how to make the strategy come to life.
  • Use one of the many tools available for creating a “content strategy” that backs up what you are trying to achieve. (Email me and I’ll send you some options.) This doesn’t mean you need a new website or logo, although you might for other reasons.
  • Make sure your strategy permeates not just your outward-facing communication, but literally everything your firm does, from HR and accounting to recruiting and proposals. Every interaction people have with your firm needs to ooze values.

Follow that approach and you’ll have a firm that is built on a solid foundation. You’ll also have a firm that can fulfill its values in a variety of ways and in many different locations, not to mention at many different sizes.

Build your values into your team. The final piece of this is to make sure your values permeate your team, not just your operations. A brand built on values is only as good as the team that lives them out. This means you’ll need to mention them often – way more often than you’d think. If you don’t feel like you repeat yourself excessively, you probably aren’t talking about your values enough.

This also means that in your recruiting and retention, your team needs to evaluate people not only on their competence, but also on their fit with your values. If you’re building your brand on values, you can’t afford an otherwise high-performing team member who isn’t on board with your strategy. Even if the person takes work and clients with them, the relief to the rest of your team and the consistency of your values will be well worth it.

Does growing in line with your values mean you’ll grow more slowly? It might, especially at first. But once your strategy is firmly in place, your attraction to clients, team members, and potential M&A targets will be magnetic. And if your experience is anything like Salas O’Brien’s, the results might just surprise you.

Eric Anest is AVP and director of marketing at Salas O’Brien. He can be reached at

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.