Having a serious brand strategy is what sets the most exciting and ambitious accounting practices apart and helps them get ahead.
Done right, it will make your firm stand out and help you connect with the clients you really want – the people you get a buzz from working with.
I’ve been supporting accountants in developing brand strategies for years and often, at the start of the conversation, they’ll tell me they think their goal is to make more money.
Brand strategy is about finding something beyond that – a deeper purpose that brings everything together, and to life.
In fact, I’m going to be a bit blunt here: accountancy firms without a brand strategy almost inevitably come across as bland or, worse, totally unprofessional and unappealing.
Let’s break down some other specific, concrete benefits.
Strategy equals consistency
You’ll sometimes hear people use words such as architecture and foundations when talking about brand strategy and that’s a good way to think of it.
It’s about doing some soul-searching and introspection upfront to work out how you want to define yourself, whether it’s in a facilitated brand strategy workshop or through some rough-and-ready DIY activity.
Everything you do after that should then be anchored (there’s another metaphor) by the outputs of this work.
Identity, purpose and values can all feel quite abstract. This is a way of documenting them so that you can share them with people outside or new to your organisation.
For example, you might want to involve writers or designers in the next stage of branding. Instead of starting from scratch, a documented strategy means you can hit the ground running, saving time and energy all round.
Shaping tone of voice and visual identity
Branding doesn’t just mean logos, slogans and colour palettes, but logos, slogans and colour palettes are always better if they’re informed by a brand strategy.
When our design team is putting together websites or brand identity documentation for clients, they always start with the outputs of brand strategy work if it’s available.
For example, after working with me, an accountancy firm’s management team might decide that the brand archetype of ‘outlaw’ resonates.
That gives our designers something to latch onto straightaway, leading them towards bold, vibrant imagery and strong colours.
In fact, you might say it gives them permission, or the courage, to take more risks – and risks are what lead to genuinely exciting visuals.
All of the above also applies to copywriting. Without brand strategy work, it can be a real challenge to find language that will help a firm stand out and make an impact.
‘Professional, friendly, proactive and offering a tailored service’ doesn’t cut it in 2020.
Brand drives communications and marketing
When you’ve got a brand strategy, deciding on a direction for your marketing and client comms becomes much easier.
Because you’ve defined buyer personas, you know who you’re trying to connect with and how to reach them. That means you can target your communications more effectively.
You can also make smart use of data analytics to check you’re getting the right kind of people visiting the website, subscribing to newsletters and following on social media.
And with a clear idea of your brand values and identity, marketing campaigns almost suggest themselves.
If your firm wants to position itself as the champion of independent retailers, for example, that might suggest a quarter-long campaign focused on ideas for how people running shops can fight back against national chains and the behemoth that is Amazon. (You can have that idea for free.)
To put it another way, a solid brand makes generating ideas easy and keeps you on target. If an activity doesn’t fit the brand, or contribute to your strategic goals, why are you doing it?
Strategy makes your brand valuable
If the above hasn’t convinced you, this should: firms with strong brands are worth more than those without.
Last year, at about this time, I wrote about the Interbrand survey of the most valuable brands in the world. It ascribed a value of more than $200 billion to Apple, the holder of the top spot in the chart.
Specifically, Interbrand is measuring factors that will guarantee future growth.
Investors fall over themselves to put money into trusted, recognised brands. Consumers want them not only because the products are functional or the services are efficient, but because the brand comes with a glow. Why else do people buy knock-off iPhones or Rolexes? Appearance almost matters more than functionality in some cases.
Brand recognition is part of why big firms have dominated accountancy for so long: “I’ve heard of them – they must be a safe option.”
Smaller UK accountancy practices might not be able to compete with the Big Four but brand strategy will help them outshine local competition, or gain national recognition in a specialist niche.
That in turn means that when the time comes to exit the business, potential buyers will see additional value in the name.
Strong brands thrive in difficult times
Difficult times? What difficult times?
This year has been a shocker, threatening the survival of all kinds of otherwise viable businesses and pushing accountants to work harder than ever.
The nearest comparison is the 2008 financial crisis and, as it happens, there is one big lesson to be learned from that: back then, strong brands survived and thrived.
We know this thanks to the 2015 BrandZ report which our MD, Mike Crook, dug up and explored earlier this year:
The BrandZ report identified that brands consumers regarded as having a real point of difference grew their brand value by 124% in the 10 years following the 2008 financial crash… By contrast, brands which consumers felt didn’t have a strong point of difference grew by only 24%, on average… Brands which were identified as ‘different’ were also considered creative, in control, and trustworthy.
Strong brands are built on strong brand strategies. If you came into 2020 without a strategy, it’s not too late to stop the rot and get yourself ready for what looks set to be an similarly rocky 2021.
Motivate and energise your team
Brand isn’t all about projecting an image outward – it’s also about helping your team understand what the firm stands for.
I recently undertook a brand strategy workshop with a new accountancy firm. At the end of the session, and with several follow-up conversations, a strategy coalesced around the idea of ethics: ‘I’m fed up of working with dodgy geezers – I want my clients to be the kind of people who do things properly.’
That’s idealistic, clear and comes from the heart.
If it’s going to work, brand strategy has to be genuine. It has to be driven by your beliefs and values, not just what you think clients want to hear.
And that’s how you attract the best talent, inspire new recruits and get veteran team members fired up to do their best work.