What’s in a brand?

FOLLOWING THE RECENT rebranding of PricewaterhouseCoopers to ‘pwc’, I suspect, like me, many former employees of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand will be mourning the loss of these illustrious names from the world of accountancy. From now on, the firm will be known by the moniker ‘PwC’, although strangely its logo will consist of the initials ‘pwc’ in lower-case type.

At the time of the merger in 1998, many, including myself, saw the adoption of the cumbersome PricewaterhouseCoopers name as a compromise to appease both sides – a fairly common occurrence when professional services firms merge. So, more than a decade later it comes as no surprise that the firm has finally decided to ditch its legacy names and go for the shorter PwC – which, to be honest, was the name that most of us were already using. PricewaterhouseCoopers will, however, remain the name of the global organisation for legal purposes and it will still be the name used to sign company audits.

According to statements released by the firm, the rebrand follows a three-year strategy review of its positioning that looked at ‘what we mean by PwC and how do we articulate this relevancy’. In effect, not just a simple name change and visual makeover, but a freshening of the brand’s value and positioning going forward. So, what is the relevance of the PwC rebrand for other accountancy firms? Why would a firm want to rebrand, what are the benefits and what are the pitfalls to be avoided?

What is a ‘brand’?
As consumers all of us are familiar with brands, be they product brands like Coca-Cola or service brands like Virgin Atlantic. In effect, names that we know and trust. So, perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that the word brand is derived from the Old Norse “brandr”, meaning to burn, in reference to the practice of producers burning their mark or name onto their products or livestock.

But from this early incarnation, branding has moved far beyond the visual identity – name, term, logo, design or colours – associated with a product or service.

These days, organisations talk about the ‘brand experience’, which also encapsulates psychological aspects like thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, experiences, beliefs and attitudes that they wish customers to associate with their products or services. In doing this, organisations want customers to feel that their brand has certain qualities or characteristics that make it special or unique, and for which they can then often charge a premium.

It sounds simple but, unlike a new visual identity that is relatively easy to create and implement, communicating and delivering the values of your brand – in such a way that individuals respond positively to your message and choose to use your products and services over others that are available to them in the marketplace – is a much more difficult challenge.

The challenge of delivering the brand experience becomes even more difficult for service providers as they are at the mercy of the behaviours of their staff, who have to deliver the service to the required standards on a consistent basis. In a factory, provided the manufacturing process is robust, every product will look and perform as well as the next. Human behaviours are not as easy to control.

Branding and professional services
The science of branding has been most fully developed in B2C (business-to-consumer) markets and revolves very heavily around advertising. Coca-Cola, the world’s leading brand, is supported by annual global advertising of more than $2bn. In professional services, branding is less well understood. Many agencies have attempted to apply their B2C branding experience in the sector, often with disastrous consequences. This is because they do not fully understand how clients purchase services from and interact with their business advisers.

A professional services brand has three components:
• positioning;
• behaviour; and
• image.

Accountancy firms wishing to manage their brands effectively need to understand how these three elements work together. Unlike in B2C markets, where image plays an important part in promoting the ‘brand promise’, in professional services markets it is the least important of the three elements. Lack of recognition of this fact is often the reason why accountancy and other professional services firm rebrands fail to deliver the hoped-for benefits.


branding washing up liquidPositioning
An effective brand is one built around a clear, differentiated proposition. In professional services this equates to an identification of the types of clients that are going to be targeted, in what markets, with which services, and the ways these services are to be packaged, priced, promoted and delivered.

PwC claims it had recognised that it needed to go beyond being seen as a large global business advisory firm. Its brand communications had focused on its capabilities and product and service features. Going forward, the refreshed brand will focus on the added value that the firm offers clients, not just on it products, services and size.

Videos on the firm’s website, featuring employees from around the network, emphasise listening to clients, building relationships and offering value. Personally, I find this slightly amusing, as these factors have always been at the core of what professional services firms ought to be doing. However, I can easily see how a large firm has, over time, become too preoccupied with processes, methodologies and products at the expense of providing tailored solutions to meet clients’ specific needs.

In the service sector, the brand experience is heavily dependent on the interactions between the organisation’s employees and its customers. In professional services, these interactions are even more important, with the brand image that a firm builds in the market being the aggregated result of all the experiences that clients, targets and opinion formers have when they interact with the firm’s staff, from partners at one end to receptionists at the other. Rude and arrogant behaviour and sloppy or negligent advice from just a few people can easily damage a firm’s reputation and hence its brand.

So, a firm must think very carefully about the sorts of individuals that it wishes to employ and what behaviour traits it expects from these, as the resulting culture will either underpin or undermine the brand. For this reason, recruitment, training and career development are very important for a professional services firm and the success of its brand.

The final element of the brand is the firm’s visual identity, which comprises its name, logo, strapline, and other components associated with its visual communications including fonts, colors, and graphic elements. It also includes the style and production values of its advertising and other promotional activities, as well as the design and feel of its offices and reception areas. In a professional services firm, all of these have to be aligned with the positioning and behaviour for the brand to work effectively.

In the past, many professional services firms have attempted to rebrand by just changing their image, usually by changing their logo and corporate design styles. This does nothing to enhance the brand or the fortunes of the business as, fundamentally, there is no change to the brand offering.

One large Scottish law firm that I came across a number of years ago operated out of a Georgian terrace in Edinburgh and had a very traditional image. In an attempt to make the firm feel more contemporary and modern, the interior designers were let loose on the reception area and the result was a sea of red leather, chrome and glass. However, the receptionists were still little, old ladies dressed in black and the lawyers greeting clients looked like they had just stepped out of a Dickens novel.

When to rebrand
So, when should an accountancy firm rebrand? Well, if the aim is to just tinker with the logo and design of your website and brochures, good luck, but in my book this is not what branding is about.

The main reason why firms will want to rebrand is at the time of a merger or because the strategy for the business has changed significantly. But remember, just changing the name and communicating this is to miss the opportunity to stress the strengths of the merged firm – which is presumably why the merger happened in the first place – and to build an internal culture around the expected staff behaviours which support the new desired brand experience. Only then can the firm claim to have really rebranded.

Kevin Wheeler, principal at Wheeler Associates, joined Coopers & Lybrand in 1987 and advises professional services firms on marketing and business development


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