Accountancy and consultancy firms are packed with talent and often have sizeable resources – so why is professional services branding no fairy-tale? For every Accenture, there seems to be a week of Mondays. Why do firms make such a poor job of convincing their clients, or each other, that they are unique?
It’s certainly not for want of marketing materials or intellectual energy. Firms’ shelves and clients’ wastepaper bins are overflowing with artfully written copy and expensively commissioned photography. Days of potentially billable time have been spent deciding to use a picture of a chessboard to represent ‘problem solving’.
Given the opportunity provided by, for example, mandatory rotation of auditors, now is the time for accountancy firms to take branding more seriously.
The failure to exploit brand potential is the result of a combination of elements. A contributory factor is poor advice from creative consultants. More significant factors are the difficulties of brand definition, ownership and leadership issues.
Brand definition – the essence of what makes a firm unique and valuable – is often difficult to encapsulate.
As a result, few firms have the patience and bravery to look beyond ‘motherhood’ values – ‘trust’, ‘integrity’, ‘results-driven’ and (the new favourite) ‘passion’.
Such values are common to the industry, but not individual firms, and consequently many firms promote points of parity. That is why most people associate characteristics with the ‘Big Four’ or ‘second tier’, preferring talk of categories to single firms.
Differentiation, combined with relevance, is the principal aim of branding. Across all industries, superior differentiation correlates with premium pricing and higher levels of loyalty – thus being different is a vital commercial asset.
Definition of relevant differentiation can found by analysing qualitative character not quantitative characteristics – relationships not resources. Culture and service-style is the fertile ground for determining a powerful brand promise, and for good reason. Behind the numbers, accountancy is a people business, dependent upon the excellence of relationships between colleagues and clients.
Another frog that must be kissed is disseminating the brand idea within the firm and to clients. Colleagues should not be passive receivers of ‘information’ – arriving to find a new screensaver with ‘our values’ on it.
They must actively participate in shaping the definition and turning it into the reality of client experience.
You must encourage the whole firm to translate abstract ideas about ‘who we are and how we work’ into tangible reality, and ensure it is supported by marketing communications.
‘Brand’ should be seen as synonymous with reputation building. The whole firm is responsible for reputation building, which is shaped by actions, interactions, gossip, and most powerfully by the success of work being done for clients.
At a senior level, too many people hear ‘brand’ and think ‘logo’, which they dismiss as inconsequential, or inefficient advertising. They are missing a couple of important truths. Firstly that marketing activities are as much about validating choice as stimulating churn – a positive profile helps secure your existing clients as well as attracting new ones. Secondly, that a distinctive name, logo, look and feel becomes the cypher for brand reputation through use and association.
Brand is a huge opportunity. In addition to shaping your reputation, a clear brand promise can yield major improvements to productivity, client satisfaction and profitability. There is a direct relationship between degrees of ‘brand engagement’ and a raft of desirable and measurable outcomes.
But don’t expect immediate results. Branding is not a short-term ‘campaign’, it is a long-term commitment that takes years to implement. You can raise awareness by an expensive advertising blitz, but awareness is rarely the problem. Satisfying clients is the ultimate goal.
Patience is required as well as the courageous determination to embrace change and be egregious – setting the agenda and creating expectations. You have to lose the self-deprecating habit ‘of course we are boring, we’re accountants’.
Successful branding boils down to a focus on clients not competencies, roles not departments, creativity not conservatism and behaviour not communications. Ultimately it is a question of leadership. Brand must be central to an organisation’s strategy. This means spending time and resources intelligently, driven from the top.
Professional service brands usually fail because the business leaders either can’t bottle the definition, or do bottle the delivery. Branding can be the genie in the bottle – but your wishes are only as good as your commands.
Alec Rattray is director of consultancy at branding agency Henrion Ludlow Schmidt
Mark McMullen joins the private client services team from Smith & Williamson
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