The surprise winner of B2B Marketing's poll to find the UK's Best B2B Brand is recently formed accounting and business advice firm Tenon. This mid-sized professional services company outstripped higher-profiles nominated brands including Accenture, HP and Viking Direct to seize first place with just under a third of all votes cast (see box out, page 22).
Yet whilst the selection of Tenon may have been a surprise for many readers and those in charge of rival brands, it was no shock for Anna Nixon-Smith, the company's associate director of marketing. "I'm delighted that we won, but although I may be biased, I believe we should have won," she comments. "We have developed a fantastic brand which communicates brilliantly with our target audience."
Her confidence and certainty does not come across as arrogance; rather as the result of a detailed understanding and unrivalled insight of branding issues facing companies in the B2B market generally and the professional services sector in particular. "It's been said that B2B marketing has to be less visible and emotional. But this is not so - I believe the wind of change is on its way," comments Nixon-Smith. "At Tenon, we are using our brand to reach out to the world."
Tenon was formed five years ago, with the merger of 16 different regional accounting and business advice firms under a new umbrella. The company has retained its regional structure, with a total of 27 offices around the UK and 1400 employees, but reassessed its branding last year.
"Our original brand was based on an interlocking cube," explains Nixon-Smith. "This was about bringing the different companies together, but it didn't communicate who we were or what we did. The external brand didn't communicate who we were internally. Our staff are friendly, open and energetic."
One key objective for the new brand, she continues, was to communicate how Tenon works in partnership with its clients. Its target market is owner managers in private businesses in the mid-market arena. As well as providing a range of financial and accounting services, Tenon also offers more generic business advice, on subjects including marketing, HR and interim management. "We offer a full spectrum of management and business services," says Nixon-Smith. "It is all about fulfiling the needs of this audience by working very closely with them."
The primary objective was to differentiate Tenon in a crowded, relatively commoditised and unflambouyant industry (in marketing terms at least). "The typical imagery used in professional services marketing is business men shaking hands," comments Nixon-Smith, identifying one of the most common clichés of B2B marketing which Tenon was anxious to move as far away from as possible. "This has been done to death and says little about the company. Accountancy firms offer broadly similar services, so they can't use them to differentiate. But they can differentiate using their brand," though she says few firms are doing this. "What is missing from branding in professional services is attitude and personality."
Buy-in from the top
The first step in the rebranding process was the appointment of design agency Tayburn, who worked with the management team to draw together the essence of the company through a research programme and workshop sessions.
Far from stuggling to get buy-in or cynicism regarding innovation, Nixon-Smith says the senior personnel have been enthusiastic from the start. "The management and the whole company have been very open-minded about the process. I've worked very closely with Tenon CEO Andy Raynor on the project. He's been pretty visionary about the whole thing, and actually wanted to take it further. Getting buy-in from the very top is absolutely crucial."
She describes the new Tenon brand to have emerged from the consultation process as "radical. We've gone about the whole thing as bravely as we could." It is based around childlike illustrations, illustrating who Tenon is and more importantly what it does. "The aim was to be familiar - people weren't familiar with what we do, so we emphasised the numeric in our name [ten]."
Crucially, the rebrand also introduced two miniature stickmen characters which now feature on all Tenon's marketing material, in various different scenarios illustrating the company's various services or areas of expertise. As Nixon Smith explains, the characters are intended to represent the relationship between the Tenon and its clients, with one helping the other to achieve its objectives. "Each illustration portrays this relationship."
To elaborate, she points to the tax page of the Tenon website, which features one character trying to return a missing slice of a large cake. The metaphor isn't complex.
"We are saying that we are helping clients keep more of the wealth that they have created, rather than give it back to the tax man. The aim is to illustrate that we are close, trusted and personal advisors."
Talking to stakeholders
Tenon's new brand was launched to a conference of directors in October 2004, as part of an internal communication programme. She describes the reaction as "excellent. The new brand is a great platform. It's still early days and we are still bedding it in, but great brands don't stand still and we can have some fun with this and take it a lot further."
A roadshow to Tenon's branch network followed, explaining the new brand to front-line staff. "It is absolutely crucial that a new brand reflects the employees. They deliver the brand. You cannot impose a brand on an organisation."
Nixon-Smith says the company had no problem selling the new brand to employees or other stakeholders, including institutional investors. "Everyone has got behind this straight away. The new brand differentiates us in a competitive market and is very memorable. It creates a talking point and paves the way for us to reach prospects."
Reaction from the wider market has also been extremely positive, she says, despite the absence of a major, high-profile marketing campaign to push the new brand. Instead, the focus has been on more tactical activity, communicating with the core audience of owner managers, including sponsorship of the Daily Telegraph Business Club. "The FT loved the new brand before it was even launched, and called it 'quirky'." She continues, "We didn't have a huge launch, we just slowly pushed it out there using lots of different commercial messages and various strands. We've come as far as we could in the last six months, but things are ongoing."
In a market reliant on prudent financial management, a high-profile launch might even be viewed as a negative point, says Nixon-Smith. "Clients might have been put off by the thought of us spending lots of money on the launch. We want to be seen as down-to-earth, rather than flashy." The approach reflects the brand.
More to the point, she suggests that the success which Tenon has achieved with this limited approach demonstrates that you don't need a big budget rebrand to have an impact. "You don't have to spend vast amounts to differentiate yourself."
This may explain why the top five brands in B2B Marketing's poll all originate within the UK and do not fall into the global category. "Big companies are not necessarily any better at branding than small ones," agrees Nixon-Smith. "I've seen evidence of some small companies being very creative."
To other B2B companies considering their branding, Nixon-Smith advises humour, as well as courage. "You should have fun with your identity. This will make you memorable. You have to stand up to be counted."