In this issue of “The Friedman File”, I’ve asked Brand Strategist Nancy Jenner of D&CO (Carlisle, Massachusetts) ( to discuss the importance of understanding and communicating your firm’s value and differentiators. Each year, I conduct hundreds of third-party interviews with my clients’ clients. In these interviews, I’m often told that my client looks/sounds/feels a lot like other AEC firms. Knowing your firm’s “special sauce” is more important now than ever—not just in business development, but also recruitment and retention. I look forward to your comments and questions at or 508-276-1101.

Understanding and leveraging your company’s unique assets and value to build awareness and engagement

When asked, most people can name a company or brand that feels distinctive and strong, one that seems particularly clear about what they do or sell. Large global corporations with long histories or huge marketing budgets might come to mind. Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and Uber are a few. Many of these companies do one thing consistently and well. If you walk into a Starbucks in New York City or in Shanghai, you can get the same cup with the same brew — clear expectations and consistent products.

But what about a professional services firm? How does a design studio, engineering firm, construction company, mechanical contractor, or sustainability consultant differentiate themselves, build awareness and engage clients? And how do they do it with limited resources? Does it make sense to spend time and money on social media? Website content? Speaking engagements? Sponsorships? The answer … it depends!

To determine how best to build a positive reputation and engage new clients, start with understanding.

Perceptions may or may not be accurate or true.

In marketing, “client perception” refers to clients’ awareness, impressions, and opinions about your business, services and brand. Client perception is shaped by many things, including direct and indirect interactions with your company.

Perceptions are squishy… many things can be seen or understood in different or even opposite ways. The glass can be half empty or half full, words can mean different things in different contexts. Importantly, perceptions may or may not be accurate or true. A person may be perceived as standoffish when they are simply extremely shy. Your company’s services may be perceived as expensive when they are well-priced when you compare the extras your company includes with the up-charges typically charged by competitors for the same work. You may be perceived as the same as another company that does similar work when your approach is vastly different.

The bottom line is that all the work you do to build brand understanding and awareness is about building, managing, and shifting perceptions.

So, how do you want to be perceived?

As a brand strategy and design firm, we begin a new engagement with a discovery process that’s designed to engage stakeholders and understand a company’s unique assets and attributes. We use what we learn to create a brand positioning document that becomes the foundation for creative work. While it can be helpful to engage an outside consultant to lead the process, it’s also possible to do in-house with engaged stakeholders and an open mind.

Understand your special sauce

What do you want to be known for? What’s the first thing you want clients to know? What do you want them to remember? Your special sauce is not surface decoration. What makes you unique is integral to how you operate, but it’s not simply your list of services or fees, or your location. Your special sauce is a combination of assets and attributes that are distinct to your company. To begin to understand your special sauce, create a list of questions and ask your colleagues and your clients. Questions to consider include:

  • What does your firm/company do really well?
  • Is what your firm/company does well what it’s known for?
  • What is your firm/company known for?
  • What is the value you provide?
  • Are you first-in-class or best-in-class?
  • Who are the experts and what is their expertise?
  • What do you wish people knew about your firm/company?
  • Are there any misperceptions in the marketplace?

What did you learn? Are the answers to these questions consistent among various audiences? Do employees and clients agree? Do perceptions mirror reality?

Understand your market

Once you have a sense of how your company is perceived and the qualities that make it distinctive, it’s helpful to understand your competitors. Consider 6-8 companies you compete with for work or clients. Investigate them as you did yourself. What do they do best? How is the company different than yours? Is it bigger? Part of a national corporation? Highly specialized? The goal is to understand how your company’s expertise or services is distinct from others so you can elevate the specific value your company offers.

When we do this work as brand strategists, we often map out the competitors in Venn or matrix diagrams. We note where a company is currently perceived and where they aspire to be.

Now that you have a better understanding of differentiation and value, it’s time to think about character.

Are you spicy or mild?

Pushing the special-sauce metaphor a bit more, think about your company’s culture and vibe. Is it conservative? Avant-garde? Somewhere in the middle? Is it more suit and tie or T-shirts and jeans? There is no right or wrong answer; what’s important is that how your company is perceived reflects the culture. It sets expectations for the client experience and is reflected in the messaging and visual representation of your brand.

Is the character of your company the same as how the character is perceived or is it important to shift perception? We have found that for legacy companies, especially those with strong founding leaders, the culture may shift as younger leaders assume more responsibilities, yet the perception lags. The shift may be subtle but can make a difference when attracting employees and clients.

There are fun exercises you can do to understand culture, and it’s a great opportunity to engage employees. You can “draw” the company as a person, choose adjectives from a list and rank them. Search for “brand character exercises” to find a few that fit your culture.

Do your brand assets reflect your special sauce?

If your company logo and website are dated or tired, it may be time for a brand refresh. A logo and website that reflects your unique assets and culture is a strong communicator and will build and reinforce an accurate and distinct perception. Building a brand awareness campaign and/or social media posts that look and feel different than your website may create brand confusion. One of the central tenets in branding is consistency. Your website may not be the first thing a prospective client or employee sees, but it’s likely they will visit the website if they are considering engaging with your company.

A brand refresh can be subtle or extreme depending on how significantly you are shifting perception. The logos of major brands that have been around for years shift gradually over time. The original Starbucks and Apple logos looks nothing like their logos today. Significant early shifts become more gradual as the company’s brand solidifies in the minds of consumers. Small changes keep them feeling fresh without losing brand integrity.

Look objectively and ask the younger members of your team, “Do the logo and website feel fresh and, most importantly, feel like the company?”

Audiences and campaigns

With a better understanding of your company’s special sauce, the next step is understanding your audiences and the best way to communicate your company’s value. List your audiences and how they get information about companies like yours. Is it a young crowd on social media? Is it a professional group that reads specific blogs or attends conferences? You may discover you have distinct audiences with different needs. Prospective employees may be young and socially engaged. Clients may be active in professional networks or reading industry news.

When you begin generating messaging and content, don’t only talk about expertise, talk about value. How does the expertise of your service provide value to clients? Does it save time or money? Improve outcomes or quality of life?


Understand your company’s unique assets and value, identify target audiences, and leverage your special sauce to build awareness and engagement. Every company has a brand, although not every company understands or uses its brand to its advantage. Intentionally and strategically building brand awareness strengthens perceptions and builds engagement. Your brand is reflected in every aspect of your client’s engagement — the way they first learn about your company, the sign on your door, the feel of your office, the messages on your website. Your company’s special sauce is communicated by your company’s brand. Celebrate your sauce and build your brand!

Nancy Jenner, Brand Strategist, D&CO