The accountancy brandscape is shifting

August 2019, Written by Sholto Lindsay-Smith

When one company rebrands, others tend to follow, like a domino effect. We have recently seen the mid-tier networks following the lead of EY, Deloitte, PwC and Grant Thornton, with Nexia International, RSM and Kreston all rebranding in the last 12 months. So, what’s the impetus for change and what strategies are these networks deploying?

The need to look modern and relevant, or at least, not to look out of date and out of touch, is one very straightforward motivation. A firm with a tired, old brand can send the wrong signals that may raise other doubts. Does this firm use the latest technology? Does it employ bright young graduates? Is it up to speed with current business trends and changing legislation?

So, when a number of firms rebrand others tend to follow, to literally keep up appearances. The risk then for those firms in the following pack, is that they take a superficial approach to the process, focusing on the look and feel.

A closer look at the rebrands undertaken by the bigger global firms and leading networks shows that they have gone much deeper than making a change to the logo. They have all addressed a number of important challenges.

Digital first
Firstly, they have adapted their brands to make them fit for the digital age. When it comes to digital presence, the shorter the name the better. Most have either truncated their name or moved to a set of initials, for example, Ernst and Young has become EY, Price Waterhouse Coopers has become PwC and Deloitte &Touche has simply become Deloitte.

The digital era also brings with it the opportunity to create more dynamic and vibrant brands. The PwC rebrand was the first to consider this with the introduction of its animated red, orange and yellow square graphic device, which works brilliantly in moving formats like video. From a field that was once dominated by the use of corporate blue, firms that have rebranded are now more consciously owning a colour. EY owns yellow. PwC red, Grant Thornton purple, Deloitte green, and Nexia teal.

A purpose-based positioning
The second challenge that these firms have addressed is the need to create a point of differentiation that is not just about colour, but about the deeper positioning of the firm.In an industry where everyone broadly has the same professional qualifications, being different is challenging. Firms need to find something more than technical expertise and experience to set them apart from their competitors.

PwC opted for a benefit-led positioning ‘building relationships, creating value’ that emphasises the way it works. Grant Thornton positioned itself as the go to brand for entrepreneurs and SMEs, encapsulated in its strapline ‘An instinct for growth’. RSM has built a position around a client commitment, ‘The power of being understood’. Whereas EY has created a brand built around a common sense of purpose, ‘Building a better working world together.’

The development of a purpose based positioning which embraces a social as well as a commercial imperative is a recent trend in branding. It is a response to the wider breakdown in trust in business, catalysed by the financial crisis. But having a strong core purpose is also seen as a powerful way to connect to the next generation of talent, whose concerns run deeper than simply making profit. A strong core purpose helps to answer the question: What is our reason for being?

Employer branding
The third brand challenge is the war for talent. For professional services firms, whose staff and partners are at the heart of shaping the client experience, branding today is as much about attracting, retaining and engaging talented staff as it is about winning clients. Employer branding, as this specialist aspect of branding is becoming known, is very much the new branding battleground.

Variously, PwC talks about opportunity, RSM talks about realising potential, Grant Thornton signals its desire to recruit independent thinkers and EY, building on its core purpose, talks about joining today and changing tomorrow. Each are considered and will attract different personalities to their firms.

Challenges facing the mid-tier networks
Consolidation brings with with it some other branding considerations for the mid-tier accounting networks which do not concern the global firms. A key preoccupation for them is the relationship with member firms, which are key to maintaining a dominant global position. For this reason, many of the network brands are more member-oriented than client-oriented. But as these networks consolidate, they must reconsider their proposition and become more outward looking. Both RSM and Nexia have made this transition successfully. A quick look at their websites shows they now lead with client-oriented content.

A second challenge for the mid-tier networks as they consolidate is how to create a global brand that will enable them to chase global audit work, whilst not eroding the equity in their established member brands. Both Kreston and RSM are pursuing a similar transition strategy, through the application of a shared branding platform, with the goal of quickly moving to a global brand. As Kreston acknowledged, ‘audit committees sometimes feel it is safer to go with a recognised global name’.

Focus on the truth
The key to success is to find a truth and build on that. The recent Nexia rebrand was underpinned by extensive research amongst member firms and their clients. Like the other mid-tier networks, they have an incredibly strong position with the SMEs and entrepreneurial class – the business leaders of tomorrow. The key purpose of the network is therefore to provide support for clients as they grow internationally. The research explored what clients value about doing business with Nexia today versus the bigger global firms. The answers included higher partner level engagement, stronger working relationships and better continuity of staff, which is captured in the new brand proposition, ‘Closer to you’.

Asset or cost?
Organisations contemplating a rebrand must ask themselves: Do I see brand as an asset or a cost? If it’s the latter, you probably won’t succeed. Building a brand advantage is a strategic discipline that requires focus, discipline and time. But it’s worth it. A strong brand can help you defend your position, grow your business, attract the brightest candidates and even charge a premium for your services.