Professional services firms face increased market disruption from new rivals and regulation. David Shalam provides advice on how their brands can stand out from their competitors
The accounting industry probably isn’t the first place you might look for examples of bold brand strategy. But a changing business environment may reward those firms that have the courage to leave the middle of the road.
Having worked with EY for many years, we’re well aware of the branding challenges for professional services firms. This is a marketplace where everyone cares about reputation but brand sometimes takes a back seat.
1. Invest to elevate
Professional services branding has come a long way in a short time, but it’s still far behind other industries in terms of sophistication and investment. In common with private equity, law and other B2B sectors where the partnership model is prevalent, there has been a reluctance to spend the money required to differentiate and elevate the brand. As a result, most professional services brands are often no more than functional. Some are generic to the point of being interchangeable.
2. Use brand to build trust
This needs to change. Brand strategy should certainly be high on the agenda of accountancy firms right now. Regulators and clients want to see more competition in the audit market. There’s talk of breaking up the ‘big four’ of Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC – and perhaps even introducing a regulatory requirement for joint audits of public companies by big four and non-big four firms working together. For that to happen, these other firms will need to convince clients they are up to the task. This is where brand can help build confidence and trust.
3. Show ambition
BDO looks to be a strong candidate to disrupt the dominance of the big four. Its planned merger with Moore Stephens shows its ambition. Deals like this will help BDO build the scale and the credibility to compete for the biggest clients. Already, BDO is reported to be a frontrunner to succeed PwC as the next auditor of Goldman Sachs this year.
4. Learn from leaders
The most successful accountancy firms have recognised the commercial value of a strong brand. Every PwC brand communication is instantly recognisable. At EY, we saw how brand can help unify a complex global organisation. PwC and EY both understand that brand goes much deeper than a logo. It’s an expression of identity, and personality too: who you are, why you’re here, what your clients and your people can expect from you. Both have defined and communicated their purpose, a sign that professional services branding is maturing. This is the model that BDO and others should follow if they are going to compete on the same level.
5. Stay brave
Any business with aspirations must be prepared to stand out. For those who want to disrupt the status quo, this is the time to be defining brand strategy and – this step is crucial – communicating that within the organisation to bring everyone on the journey. Because what’s more exciting than to be a growing business in a market that’s about to open up for those brave enough to step forward? That’s why our advice to BDO, and every challenger and disruptor out there, is to make sure your brand fits where your business is going.
Download this free guide to learn how to navigate the unique challenges of working as a marketer in a partnership business, such as a professional services or law firm.