Branding is often overlooked in accountancy. But in this competitive market, the right brand can attract the clients you want and stop you from blending into the crowd.
It was a rainy morning back in December 2018 when my co-founder Sophie and I looked around the business we had been building for the last 12 years and realised that our brand just wasn’t “us” any more. The fun purples, pinks and stars that we had been so thrilled about when we started the business didn’t look right any more.
We’d just moved offices, investing money in furniture, fittings and IT infrastructure. We’d built the office of our dreams, custom made for us and our plans – all glass walls and modern prints. It had taken a year of planning, many shouty phone calls to builders and sleepless nights worrying about servers and downtime, but we had finally moved in with minimal disruption and fuss.
We had been so excited to move into our new home. And yet, as the signage went up on the wall, something just didn’t feel right any more.
Blending into the background
Over the years we’d always prided ourselves on standing out from the crowd in terms of our branding. We’d never been afraid to be a little bit bold in our messaging; shunning the norms of the industry to make an impact.
What we hadn’t noticed was that over those years, other people had followed suit. Where our cartoon-led style had once been fresh and exciting, it was now common-place.
In the areas where we had revelled in our quirky tone of voice, the rest of the crowd had caught up. Now, instead of differentiating ourselves from everyone else, we were blending into the background.
And not just that, we were blending in but still claiming that we were different. It was incongruent and quite frankly, embarrassing when we realised what had happened.
We’d taken our eye off the ball
That isn’t to criticise branding that communicates familiarity to the customer. That sort of branding absolutely has its place. It just wasn’t what we wanted or who we were. We’d taken our eye off the ball and we knew it.
Our focus as a growing business had been elsewhere: people, systems, strategies. We hadn’t focussed on our messaging to either our current or prospective clients in a very long time.
When you first start a business you spend a long time thinking about your brand. Hours are whiled away agonising over a logo or a letterhead. It’s exciting and thrilling. And it’s great because it gives you something to focus on when your client book isn’t as full as you’d like.
But as your practice grows and you take on more clients, your time is taken up with them and their needs, not you and yours.
Then when you grow again and take on staff your time is suddenly demanded by even more people. That brand that you were so excited about at the start becomes an aside, a footnote in the busy practice you are now running.
That’s what happened to us.
We had some soul searching to do.
We weren’t business babies any more. Or even toddlers. It was time for our brand to grow up and facilitate us moving into the next stage of our business.
Not a half-hearted job
I knew that things were serious when my co-founder Sophie agreed to spend a good wedge of our budget on the branding.
We have the sort of business dynamic where I want to spend all of our money and Sophie wants to spend none of it. Overall it works out quite well. But there is a joke in the office that whenever I get a bit of design work done or a website update that I must have paid for it out of my own money. Anyway, I digress…
The point is that we both knew that this wasn’t a job to be done half-heartedly. Deep down we knew we were a little bit lost brand-wise and we needed someone to help us find the right direction. If we were going to do it, then we had to do it properly. So we got an agency and they got to work.
The branding magicians
The process itself was equal parts terrifying and liberating. We no longer really had a say in how our brand looked and felt, after 12 years of holding the reigns we had completely relinquished control. It felt very strange.
Their branding magicians came in, ran workshops, wrote a lot of things on coloured post-it notes spoke to our team and then went away again. A couple of weeks later they came back, MacBook in hand to present our brand to us.
“So do we get a couple of different options?” I nervously enquired.
“No. Just the right one” came the answer.
My stomach flipped.
If I’m honest I didn’t really pay attention to the first part of the presentation about how they got to our current brand from where we were. All I could hear was the blood thumping in my ears and I was trying very hard not to have a panic attack.
What if it’s terrible? Sophie will never let me have any budget again!
What if we hate it? Does it even matter if we hate it if our clients love it?
And then suddenly there it was. Our new brand in front of me on a big screen.
It was perfect.
It was us.
Staying on brand
After 12 years of bootstrapping and experimenting, suddenly our brand message was clearly and concisely presented back to us. The new imagery, fonts and tone reflected exactly who we are now and who we hope to be in the future. Importantly, it also gave us a very transparent set of guidelines to use as we move forward to make sure that our brand always stays, well… on brand.
That’s the thing about having the right brand: it’s completely unique to you and your business. You can’t copy someone else because it won’t feel like you, and your clients will pick up on that.
Your brand should reflect who you are as a business and speak clearly to the sort of clients you want to attract. Are you budget or high end? A high-end price will never be achieved with a budget-looking brand. There’s nothing wrong with either of those approaches, but your brand has to fit.
In accountancy, the firm's brand can be a hugely overlooked area, and yet having the right brand can add serious value to your business and your bottom line. You don’t have to spend a fortune on getting an agency to do the work for you, but you do have to be prepared to really look at your business and question what makes it tick for you, your staff and your clients.
- Having been through the process with an agency, my biggest takeaways from it are this:
- Not everyone will like your brand. OK as long as the right people like it.
- Try not to “take inspiration” from other companies.
- Prepare to do a lot of admin (changing everything across the company takes time – account for that!).
I’ve learned that your brand is something that you live and breathe as a business. Our approachable and conversational tone and colour scheme wouldn’t feel right if everyone in the office turned up in a three-piece suit every day.
Likewise, if your workforce turns up every day in their athleisure wear but you’re doing client meetings and charging top dollar for that, you may want to think about whether company dress code forms part of your brand.
The best bit is that there are no real rules when it comes to creating your own brand. It could be as minimal as Apple or as quirky as Innocent. The most important part is that it fits you like a glove.