I think the time has come to start preparing to celebrate a success.
The success hasn’t quite been achieved yet. To some people still struggling to reach it, it may seem a long way off. But even if it does take a while, I think it is inevitable.
After a long and arduous journey, the objective is now in sight.
What’s this all about? It’s about brands – about understanding what they are, why they matter and how you go about building them in professional services firms.
These were ideas that, until quite recently, were misunderstood at partner and senior management levels. There was a perception – a frustrating one for those of us working in the field – that branding is fluffy stuff about brochure covers.
In many parts of the industry, that perception is dramatically shifting.
It would still be too much to say that it’s now generally understood brand is now one of the most important items on the professional services management agenda. But, this view will be widespread very soon now.
When it is, those of us who have been preaching this message for a number of years may be allowed to indulge in a bit of a celebration.
It’s interesting to think about how this success has been achieved, and what changes in mindset, both of the branding professionals and the senior decision makers, have made it possible.
I would argue that the change in attitudes has depended upon the acceptance of three key propositions, each of which is hard to resist in its own right and taken together make an overwhelming case that brand matters.
The first of these propositions is the simplest but also the most important.
It is the deceptively obvious thought that brand is more or less the same concept as reputation. ‘So what?’ you may say.
But at senior levels in partnerships, people don’t think they’re involved in building brands. What they do think is that they’re involved in maintaining and developing reputations. They believe brand is something the marketing department should worry about. Replace ‘brand’ with ‘reputation’, and the topic becomes a board-level matter.
The second proposition has more complex implications. It is that in people businesses, brands are built through behaviour.
Not so long ago, marketing professionals used to argue that brands were built largely through the development and strict enforcement of visual identities. This was a ridiculous conclusion: how does the choice of typefaces, colours and images on the cover of a brochure in a partner’s briefcase say more about the firm than the behaviour of the partner?
What’s more, developing a brand visually was perceived to be disagreeably expensive, calling for a good deal of money to be taken out of the budget and spent, not only on brochures, advertising campaigns and web development work, but also on hugely intricate and elaborate brand guidelines.
This campaign was aided by large numbers of enforcement staff (known in the trade as ‘logocops’), whose role was to pounce on any leaflet produced by, say, the Sunderland office, in which there was insufficient clear space around the logo. Branding and marketing specialists would look for funding to adopt this kind of Spanish inquisition-like role, and concern themselves with the letter of the brand, but completely ignore the infinitely more important question of the spirit.
In the end, most executives are bound to realise their error. If they haven’t already, they will come to believe that if ‘brand is behaviour’, then there is a much more interesting and important role to be played by the board in determining how the behaviour of everyone in the firm can help to build the desired reputation.
This moment of enlightenment coincided, in many firms, with the recognition of my third key proposition, which is that behaviour is shaped primarily by the firm’s culture and values.
This proposition joins all the others together. Because seeking to define and develop their firms’ culture and values is one thing that appeals instinctively to the most senior members of a partnership – in the same way that enforcing brand guidelines and pulping the Sunderland’s office brochure appeals to logocops.
The interconnection of these three propositions gives individuals a clear and compelling rationale for doing something they would instinctively do anyway.
The basic logic should be clear: define and promulgate a clear culture and distinctive values, and they’ll be reflected in the behaviour of the firm’s people. That in turn is the main driver of the external reputation or brand.
And yes, if absolutely necessary, the branding and marketing people can have a new brand guidelines document, provided it’s only a single volume and they’re not too fanatical during visits to Sunderland.
This, in essence, is the brand rationale everyone can support. For waverers, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is the example of Andersen, which acts as an awful warning of what happens when these three propositions aren’t accepted (bad culture and values equals inappropriate behaviour equals astonishing collapse of reputation).
The good news, correspondingly, is Accenture, which by a mixture of good luck and good judgement, had rowed its boat far enough away from the parent company to escape damage when the latter hit the iceberg.
Some firms still don’t understand these concepts. Some do, but still don’t market their brand very well. To be fair, it’s far from easy, especially in large firms. Over a number of years, KPMG has probably put the most effort and resources – and achieved the greatest results – from the culture and values piece, but has struggled to get full value from the reputation benefits that should follow.
PwC has arguably put all three pieces together very successfully, but then found itself uncomfortable with some of the reputational consequences (and perhaps especially with the idea that if it’s not a FTSE-100 or Fortune 500 company, forget it).
Below the Big Four level, structural change in the market still creates very difficult problems. Probably the hardest question for advocates of the holistic branding approach outlined here is how you’re supposed to proceed when there’s a 50% chance you’ll be merging your culture and values with those of your deadliest rival within a year or two.
Difficulties like these are real, but they’re second-level difficulties.
At the primary level, there is now a widely shared understanding among brand builders and partners in professional services firms of what a brand is, why it matters and how to develop one.
Considering that only a few years ago, the two groups might as well have been speaking in different languages, this is a state of affairs that represents considerable and welcome progress.
- Lucian Camp is chairman of marketing and branding communications agency CCHM