Branding – Bigger fish: smaller pool?

A Goldfish credit card? You must be joking. Yet Goldfish, along with US brands such as MBNA, have left traditional credit-card providers, including Barclaycard, struggling to maintain market share.

And it’s not just the credit card sector which is suffering from competition – just think of First Direct, Virgin, Egg and Tesco – they have all managed to slap existing suppliers around the face.

These highly targeted launches are all perfect examples of the dangers of complacency in a market which is over-supplied and keen to embrace new ideas. And accountants, be warned. It is not just personal finance services which are feeling the crunch of competition – yet another two Group A firms, Pannell Kerr Forster and Robson Rhodes, have just announced their engagement in recognition that that they cannot survive alone.

This is not to suggest that Virgin is likely to consider launching its own accountancy practice (although you never know), but that clever marketing has become a crucial tool in differentiating one player from another.

The term ‘Group A’ lumps some 20 firms together in a notional classification which, from the outside, could be taken to mean that there is little difference between the names on the list. And it does not matter how much the firms bang on about culture and specialisation. It can fall on deaf ears unless the message is delivered in such a way that there can be no mistaking one firm for another.

But how can the firms reach that level of instant recognition that brands like Goldfish have achieved, when even the marketing partner for a major Group A firm admits that all the others claim to possess the same core audience (owner-managed business and small public companies)?

Beneath the surface, of course, there are important distinctions between what the firms cite as their unique selling points. For example, Horwath Clark Whitehill points to its strong expertise within business advisory services, particularly for not-for-profit organisations and professional practices.

Saffery Champness, on the other hand, has a strong private client base, particularly from landed estates and their owners, while BDO Stoy Hayward says simply that it works for ‘growing businesses’.

But, while it is necessary to have USPs, what is even more vital is that the client can spot such differences in an instant, and that is where marketing strategy becomes a lifeline between the firms’ perception of themselves and the existing and potential client base they are trying to reach.

HCW national marketing partner Zahir Fazal sums up the view of the three firms to marketing: ‘We believe marketing is absolutely essential and integral in the whole strategic direction of the firm.’ All well and good, but how far is that statement carried through when the ideal is to elbow the competition aside to get into the face of the client?

Morison Stoneham chairman Stephen Chang is only too aware that there are many firms chasing the same business, and he believes the sooner accountants face the fact that choosing a firm can be much the same as buying a can of beans, the better.

‘We are selling a commodity. Although the firm does not believe in competing on price, we know that we have to position ourselves in a similar manner to the rest of the financial services industry. Gone are the days when we were doing clients a favour,’ he says. Harsh words, but then Chang puts his home telephone number on his business cards, just to give his customers that extra bit of piece of mind.

And it would be wise for Group A firms to take this attitude to heart if they are to survive. Yet, although they can take some comfort from their size, the manner in which firms reach the client is quite different in focus.

HCW’s Fazal says: ‘We do the whole package – newsletters, client contact – and we also have a partnership with Kingston University Business School and sponsor some research which we look at in focus groups and publish the results.’

BDO’s outlook is wider, and marketing director Richard Emanuel is emphatic the firms that will succeed in the future are those which play across the spectrum from marketing through to tailoring products for the client, rather than putting a ‘wrapping’ on it.

‘We do everything from big brand-building activities and sponsorship to direct marketing (advertising to a select group of individuals) and telemarketing,’ he says.

Saffery Champness, on the other hand, relies on indirect methods to attract new business, such as referrals from professional advisers and opinion formers (selected media). Executive partner Philip Hall argues that its client base, particularly the landed families, expect to be treated a certain way and so the firm does not engage in advertising in significant volume.

Critics could perceive this as rather quaint at a time of such stiff competition, but Saffery’s softly-softly approach is possibly the best approach for its target audience.

Yet for other Group A firms, Morison Stoneham’s Chang has some harsh words of wisdom. He is clear that focusing on technical ability in marketing will simply confuse the customer and that it is far more important to deliver a clear message of service that is relevant to that business.

Another accountant, who prefers to remain anonymous, is even more scathing.

He says: ‘All professional services firms sit down and write their mission statement at some weekend retreat with towels wrapped around their heads; and all come up with the same thing. What they don’t ask themselves is how they differ from everyone else – and for that, read marketing and branding.’

He vehemently agrees with Chang that accountancy is a commodity, but adds that the Group A firms are in denial that much of what they do is identical and so do not price their services accordingly.

‘You only have to look at how some firms are offering audit as a loss leader in order to cross-sell other services. Only when Group A firms realise that they should price and pitch their services accordingly will they succeed.’

EXPERT VIEW: HOW SUCCESSFUL ARE THE GROUP A MARKETING STRATEGIES? The beauty of financial marketing, writes John Paterson, is that, unlike fast-moving consumer goods, you never have to show a pack shot – the picture of the cornflake packet, Mars bar or whatever. The creative people producing the ads for a financial products, thus liberated, can concentrate on the users of the service.

There are parallels with accountancy services in that their product is intangible. The Group A firms, however, have a set of problems and opportunities different from financial service providers. Rather like funeral directors, they provide a useful service but have nothing to put in their shop windows.

They’re big, but not that big. They have no performance figures to boast of. No star players to lionise. It follows, therefore, that high design standards are an important way to differentiate one firm from another and help them to win business.

So, let’s turn to the offerings of three firms.

Step forward, Horwath Clark Whitehill – ‘where people make the difference’. We learn that HCW is ‘committed to your success’ and that ‘the difference is our approach’.

I know it’s difficult, but doesn’t that sound just a tad banal?

HCW does establish what’s different about the firm and does a good job signposting the reader around the material.

The overall look and feel is consistent, if a little dated. I liked ‘Business Action’, particularly the article on banks. The ‘campari and ice’ acronym caught my eye, but ‘unputdownable’ is not a word that comes to mind.

BDO Stoy Hayward avoids some of the cliches and has some neat copy lines.

Of all the material I looked at, my favourite piece was the leaflet ‘Business Grow How’, even if it does owe something to NatWest’s in-branch literature.

In particular, the understated use of some great-name client case studies works well.

Finally, Saffery Champness, whose ‘concept of service is ‘to solve problems, exploit new opportunities and turn advice into action’.

Saffery Champness is so proud of this positioning that it is all over the cover in different font sizes and is repeated on the inside flap.

Once inside, the material (with the exception of a leaflet on Guernsey) all sings together. The information ranges from the arcane ‘Quarry tax may be introduced’ – a headline if ever I saw one – to a more accessible piece on the euro. There are also mini brochures which spare the reader from ploughing through pages of detail irrelevant to them. The corporate brochure is well put together, but it makes the mistake of believing that the more information put in the more the reader will take out. The reverse applies.

If pressed into choosing a firm on the basis of what I saw, I would probably have gone for Stoys – on the strength of one brochure but they could all do better.

In an undifferentiated, not to say commodity market, the Group A firms have to fight hard for their share of voice, simply to be heard. There is no secret formula except to avoid the cardinal sin of sameness. Moreover, they need to believe that expenditure on marketing and brand building is an investment which will bear fruit. That means not doing it on the cheap by getting an in-house ‘accountant with flair’ to write the stuff.

Of course, there is no substitute for service excellence, but we live in a visual world where form is often as important as substance.

John Paterson is strategy and planning director at leading financial advertising and marketing agency Citigate Albert Frank.

Related reading