There's No Such Thing As Full Service

By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

One of the things that leads brands to look and sound alike is the tendency to define the brand’s value proposition solely in terms of product or service attributes.  Believing that the more attributes a brand can claim, the more valuable it will be to the customer, brands continue to add more and more features until they appear to be “all-in-one solutions.”

The problem is, of course, nobody buys a product or service because it can do everything, but rather because it can do something.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in packaged goods, where many categories ultimately produce a “total solution” brand (Colgate Total, Crest Complete, Tide Total Care).  Can a laundry detergent really stand for protecting color, enhancing softness, cleaning thoroughly, fighting stains, and preserving fabrics?  After years of marching down the “compete” path, marketers are realizing that a single-benefit brand is often stronger for the simple reason that it stands for something.  It promises to do a specific job extremely well instead of attempting to do a lot of jobs moderately well.  What’s true for packaged goods is true for professional services as well as every other type of brand.

What exactly does it mean to be full service?

When you stop and think about it, there’s really no such thing as full service.  There isn’t a brand in any category that actually can fulfill every need, but that doesn’t stop thousands of professional firms from claiming it.  The promise of full service seems almost to be the perceived price of entry.  Read the first sentence of the home page of the professional knowledge firms in your city and you’ll likely find the words “full service.”

Even many of the highly specialized firms can’t resist preceding a description of their specialty with the words “full service,” as in, “Marshall & Pine is a full-service advertising agency with an expertise in direct response television,” or, “The Lake Partnership is a full-service law firm specializing in divorce law.”  Perish the thought that you might be getting half service when you hire one of these firms.

Being willing to name what you stand for

The full-service promise often is accompanied by other undifferentiating terms like “wide range,” “full line,” and “complete.”  Imagine that you’re a corporation having tax troubles with the IRS.  Would you be looking for a “full-service law firm with a wide range of experience in a variety of industries,” or would you prefer a firm with deep expertise in corporate tax law?  No client ever buys a “wide range of expertise,” but rather a specific kind of expertise.

Whenever “wide range” or full service appears as the main promise a company makes, you can assume that it has been either unable or unwilling to actually name what it stands for.

Marketers fear focus for myriad reasons, but the leading fear is the belief that if they focus their brand to solve a particular problem, they won’t be solving other problems, thereby making the brand less appealing to everyone.  But brands are not marketed to “everyone.”  By appealing to everyone, brands end up appealing to no one.  Standing for everything is the same as standing for nothing.

The problem isn’t that most positionings lack style (which they do), but rather that they lack substance.  They fail to reflect an understanding that a positioning strategy is a declaration of where the firm intends to play in the marketplace.  Positioning means deciding not only what business you’re in, but what business you’re not in.

Excerpted from the new book Positioning for Professionals: How Professional Knowledge Firms Can Differentiate Their Way to Success by Tim Williams.