Insight: Branding – Making Your Mark.

Historically, many accountancy firms may not have viewed their reputations and standing in the market from what might be labelled a ‘marketing perspective’.

Can you imagine the cries from the partners when branding is mentioned?

‘Branding!? Isn’t that what consumer goods companies do? Why waste time and money on clever names and fancy packaging. After all, we aren’t shampoo or baked beans, we’re a professional services firm. Our success is built on the quality of the work we do, who we do it for and the work ethic of our people.’

But in fact that is branding. Whether or not you call it that, understanding your customers, what you offer them, and why it’s different from your competitors is the very essence of brand strategy.

A professional firm is what we term a service brand as opposed to a product brand. At the core of a service brand is its vision and values. The vision states the company’s ambition, which may not be unique, versus competitors, but it gives the organisation direction for the future.

What makes a brand unique is its values. The values define who we are as a company, and guide behaviour. Furthermore, good branding creates ‘brand capital’ for companies – those unique aspects of a brand identity which are ownable and therefore valuable.

The most important thing branding can offer is value on the bottom line.

The additional value that Coca Cola extracts each year from its branding is estimated at #2bn. Substantial brand capital by anyone’s standards.

A strong brand, or clear, relevant and differentiated customer offer, helps to identify your firm quickly along with its associated package of benefits and attributes. In short, it helps you stand out in your market and get on the short list of the right kinds of clients. The emotional response to the brand is as important as the rational response even in professional service sectors.

Being known for something builds stature and credibility within your professional world. Do clients look through the phone book, or do they look for the thought leaders in your field?

Often the internal benefits of branding are overlooked yet they are perhaps the most critical. A strong brand is a magnet for top talent. A clear brand positioning means a better informed candidate pool. This translates to less time wastage for the company, a higher conversion rate to employees, and a stronger alignment of brand values with personal values.

In a world where all of us are bombarded with brand messages, from when we wake up to when we doze off at the end of a long and tiring day, there is a major battle in progress to carve out and own a territory in the minds of those with whom we want to communicate. Our targets only remember a few brands – those that manage to capture attention and communicate clear and relevant messages. There just isn’t enough time, and we lack the ability to recall every brand message we are exposed to.

Other professional service firms are raising the stakes by adopting new marketing and branding channels (for them). Some examples are television campaigns from the likes of KPMG and JP Morgan, and high visibility poster and print campaigns from Accenture and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Recently, the EC has submitted a proposal to force all listed businesses within the EU to adopt international accounting standards. The contextual change in the market may present an opportunity for accountancy firms to promote their brand offer to a receptive audience. Additionally, the nature of the market is changing.

Springpoint has recently conducted qualitative research in the professional services industry to identify the key branding issues they are facing today.

– There is little differentiation between ‘premier league’ professional services firms. They all share some generic traits: professionalism, acuity, meticulous approach, and round the clock service for their clients. Functional points of difference, such as a specialism, track record or international capability, have long been established, but are now becoming more common and less discriminatory. What are emerging as real differentiators are deeply held company values, both hard and soft, such as rigour, consistency, quality of staff, or the shared working style of the firm.

– Relationships with individuals can be more important than relationships with firms. This is a liability for the corporation. When a valuable staff member leaves, valuable clients also tend to leave. By elevating the stature of the corporation and by communicating with clients through more than one channel, and by assimilating brand values into the systems and best practices of an organisation, branding can help build loyalty towards the organisation.

– Image is beginning to count for a lot, especially among younger colleagues. As the employment force becomes more mobile, and opportunities to become quite rich quite young present themselves, businesses that traditionally attracted the best talent, are finding that they now must fight hard for those people.

– Traditional marketing tools are losing relevance. Customers only have time to skim newsletters and mailers. More engaging communication is required, whether that be seminars, intranets or personal briefings.

– The product is the people. This is another key challenge which is not new. And branding people is indeed a challenge. For these companies, internal and external branding is the same, it’s about developing a unique culture which reflects the corporate values. Everyone in the company is essentially in the marketing department. The corporate values need to be reflected in the individuals. And corporate HR policies need to be aligned to recruit employees who naturally embody the corporate values.

– Determining whether you want to be big and international is going to be one of the big challenges of the future. There are now a number of international brands and the issues for those who are local will be to compete against the giants.

Some of these firms may decide to develop loose federations around the world and others may opt for niche positionings. The problem for the middle-sized firms is that they could end up getting squeezed between the Goliath and the niche. For those firms needing to develop international brands finding common values which transcend language and cultural barriers will be crucial. The chosen values should not necessarily just be those of the acquirer.

If that’s not enough reason for accounting firms to take branding seriously, there’s the added complexity of merger, acquisition and alliance activity going on in the market.

While there are many benefits to joining forces – sharing of client relationships and skills, staying ahead of the competition, or to build credibility in new markets – there are an equal number of challenges on the road to making the merger a success.

External audiences may be confused about what the new entity will stand for – how much of each constituent part is relevant. Customers may worry about losing their personal contact, dropping service levels and rising prices. Employees may worry about disrupting their career path or being forced into the wrong job, losing valuable client relationships, or ultimately losing their jobs.

So how can two brands be brought together? What should the new culture and positioning be? How can companies win the hearts and minds of their staff, clients and prospects during and after the merger or alliance completion so that they really buy in?

Developing a brand strategy and identity can help the process of migration.

– It establishes a plan. Knowing where you want your brand to be at the end of the merger process is central to the process of getting there. For merging companies, it is important not to lose any of the value of the merger. Rigorously take stock in existing brand equities, decide which to keep, build, or discard. Research the competition to ensure your brand values stand out.

– If done correctly, it can be a rallying cry to enthuse the people inside the organisation. It is possible to address and dispel much of the anxiety employees feel during a time of organisational change. Developing a compelling and believable brand positioning, supported by an impactful and motivating identity, which is communicated and used throughout the company often breathes new life into people. Accenture has recently developed a heavy weight external and internal communications programme and certainly created impact as well as a feeling of rejuvenation for its employees.

Stating what the new organisation stands for clearly and with meaning signals change to the outside world. Stakeholders and customers want to see benefits from a merger or alliance. A relevant new or updated visual brand identity states the company’s commitment to change and should embody the core values of the new organisation. Midland’s transformation to HSBC signalled the emergence of a new global financial services player. The gradual incorporation of the Hexagon was a recognisable demonstration of this change. HSBC now has the challenge of aligning brand values with personal values for each of their branches around the world.

It’s not smooth sailing. While there is potential for branding to facilitate a process of merging two or more organisations, it’s not easy. However, accounting firms can embark on this journey well armed with lessons learned from the mistakes and experience of other companies who have done it.

– Fiona Gilmore is CEO and joint founding partner of Springpoint, a leading brand and corporate identity design consultancy. In part two of this series, she will look at some brand migration examples from other service brands, and set out some best practices for professional service firms

For more on branding go to For more on the brand value of accounting firms see NOT JUST BRANDING FOR ITS OWN SAKE Branding benefits lead to business benefits – Clear points of difference – Clear and consistent messages delivered to all markets – Increased visibility gets you on clients’ shopping lists – Improved customer loyalty – Better informed target market – Competitive advantage helping to secure market share – Strong identity both externally and among employees – Value to the bottom line (Coca Cola at $72.5 bn) – More profitable customers – Improved conversion rate and lower customer acquisition costs.

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