Susanna explains the importance of purpose in ICAS's inaugural CA Practice Magazine

Three ways to build your brand in a crowded marketplace

For a long time professional services firms went to market with me-too messaging based on an all too common set of attributes. With a strong economy and plenty of corporate activity generating opportunities, keeping clients happy was quite enough to retain good business.

And then the world changed. Accountancy, legal and consulting firms began to find themselves in fierce battles, competing for RFPs and cutting fees just to retain their trusted long-term relationships. Budgets tightened after the 2008 mortgage meltdown. Widespread bankruptcy and exposure of fraud in the financial industry all combined to affect the reputation and buoyancy of professional services firms serving this industry.

The impact of these external forces resulted in significant change including: 

  • Redundancies, restructuring, outsourcing and mergers
  • Immense competition to win, retain and grow business
  • Employee engagement challenges around reassurance, recruitment and retention of talent

The most common set of attributes identified as important for professional services firms are: client focused, relationships, global services, results-driven, quality and integrity. If this list looks dangerously close to what you stated as your differentiating factors at the last partner away day, then it’s time to think about this….

Would any corporate executive who didn’t believe a firm to have these qualities consider appointing you?

These are the ‘must-haves’, just as there are ‘neutrals’ that neither create a positive nor negative from a brand perspective. Your brand needs be hinged on a differentiator. On what it is that you do that is true, compelling and relevant to your audiences.

If it’s about survival of the fittest then demonstrating specialisms, skills sets, professional standards and attitudes to clients and services has never been more important. But it is by defining your purpose, your unique proposition, your culture and values that will help identify the pillars of a differentiated brand experience that can tangibly guide every action and interaction with your firm.

These three areas can help you think about how to create your differentiated brand experience:

1. Start with ‘Why?’

We’ve all heard Simon Sinek. But have you really defined why you exist? Purpose beyond profit? What is it that you aim to change, or make better in this world? Do your team share this mission? Do they believe it? Can they see their part in it?

It’s not only Millennials looking for a meaningful work-life balance, and caring deeply about their contribution to society. In September last year, LinkedIn surveyed 26,000 users across 40 countries and found that more Baby Boomers (age 51+) and Gen X (age 36-51) prioritise purpose over titles and paychecks than Millennials.

2. Drive a distinctive culture

How does it feel to work with and/or for you? Have you asked your people? Have you asked your clients? Do you dedicate resource to developing, nurturing, supporting and protecting your culture? How often do you celebrate your culture by sharing exemplary stories, told by your teams?

A strong culture is an important marketable attribute. It signals and sets expectations for consistency in the client experience. 70% of brand experience is determined by ‘people experience’* and 41% of customers are loyal because of good employee attitude*. So it is by acknowledging and celebrating your culture and aligning the employee experience with the customer experience that can significantly and sustainably improve customer and employee loyalty.

3. Be personal, meaningful and credible

Your brand plays a pivotal role in delivering the business proposition to your audiences. And delivering your differentiating message in considered, well-crafted communications secures your position in the hearts and minds of existing and prospective clients and employees.

Brands live in image and in words. Visual and verbal. Physical and virtual. Broadcast and conversation. Developing a coherent brand means aligning service, behaviour, environment and communications. And the success of any brand is a curious mix of how it performs functionally and impacts emotionally.

Coordinating your people, your environment, your entire digital estate and all printed communications can be a significant task. But it’s a task made much easier with your brand strategy in place. Making sure the correct content and tone of voice is suited to the right media and target audience and having a range of flexible visual ‘brand furniture’ and messaging frameworks is the foundation for communicating a successful differentiated brand.

By Susanna Freedman, Director, Brand Insiders


*MCA Brand Ambassador Benchmark, Ken Irons – Market Leader, Corporate Leadership Council