How branding powers practice growth

17th Sep 2018
Director Principle Point
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Brand is one area that comes into focus every now and again for firms. However, with a more self conscious evaluation of how to interact with clients via the cloud, this year’s Accounting Excellence data reveals that more firms are taking the opportunity to take stock in a quite fundamental way.

Brand is rarely a subject that many firms warm to. But for some, a ‘drains-up’ review has helped consolidate not only the service mix, but also a rethink on their approach to market, business development, the expectations on staff, visual identity, and how acquisitions are integrated.

Meanwhile, there are some notable examples of smaller firms starting with an ‘in your face’ and fairly radical approach to being in practice - they often have the advantage of beginning with a clean sheet.

However, this radical transformation approach is increasingly pre-occupying medium and large-sized firms too.

Brand and operations

Shortlisted Accounting Excellence firm Nordens is one such example. Having started in 2002, the firm has grown to five partners and 60 staff. Founding partner Mark Norden explained that in 2008 a radical shift had to take place as he had “fallen into the trap of me being in the centre of the wheel, and everything flowing through me. So we systematised completely and that allowed us to grow”.

Subsequently, the firm has taken another fundamental look at how it operates resulting in an important change in the way it thinks about and presents itself to others.

“In the past we had a logo, whereas now it is what we are about,” explained Norden. “It’s not just a logo it’s everything in the background about culture and standards.

“Another reflection of this journey is that the firm was called Mark Norden and Co, which kept me at the very centre. Nordens, however, is a company and is more corporate. As we started to relate this to clients it had the effect that all staff became relevant - not just me”.

There is restlessness in their approach, which means that this issue of brand keeps returning and is constantly explored. Overtime, this has also included bringing in specialist help:

“We appointed a branding specialist, who contacted our clients and it totally changed our outlook. We were delivering premier league service, but our brand was league two. Overtime we took for granted that our approach is what clients wanted and appreciated; however, that wasn’t the whole story. So we rebranded recently to underline that sense of professionalism and success that our clients associate with working with us.”

Internal brand is as important

Rather than this being about external presentation, the internal brand is critical to their success and much time and effort is put into ensuring staff are involved and engaged:

“We invest just as much internally. For example, we now have brand champions, who help us enhance the story throughout the business. We have regular meetings that we work on and find ways to live, that brand. It's about culture and standards, and it’s important for all staff to participate and benefit”.

Brand drives initiatives

Experimenting with this idea of a brand has helped develop initiatives which are proving key to marketing, but also direct fee growth.

“NordensTV started as a bit of fun to begin with. Lots of clients ask similar questions so we decided to make videos to explain - and then it started to take off. We now get emails asking to be interviewed, and it generates thousands of view on LinkedIn and direct calls with specific questions.

“There are nice stories here and we tackle wider issues such as anxiety and mental health. We tackle real issues that businesses and owners face,” explained Norden.

However, it is also tied into developing their service provision such as a new strategy department, where professionalism and success are rooted in business consultancy.

And at the other end is using MTD as a lever to take away the admin burden and gain access to data that feeds this client success. “We have set up a bookkeeping department internally with the idea that it allows people to go digital, and turn negatives into positive. If we can get everyone digital then we can help them make key decisions and work better.”

Brand powering growth

Understanding how their clients see them and playing to those impressions have helped to greatly accelerate the way the business has developed. “Our organic growth is based on clients acting as key referrers, and we work hard to encourage this. While helping clients, their contacts and associates can see them doing well and want us to do the same for them,” said Norden.

Fortunately now, the systemisation means that Norden has a more scalable business: “It can grow and as it’s grown, I don’t get any busier.”

But what about growing through purchasing another practice?

Brand and acquisitions

“In 2014 a sole practitioner was bought, and we used it as a way of learning how we might go about doing it,” said Norden.

“In June 2017 we bought a three partner practice, and we had to train clients, but also the staff on our brand and how we wanted to operate with them. Having systems in place, and a strong identity or story has certainly helped. To begin with their clients didn’t care, but as brand is about internal standards and culture they noticed that, and this has been important to bring them over.”

However, it’s not all plain sailing and while not ruling out further acquisitions, Norden is clear that the circumstances will need to be right. “We wouldn’t buy for the sake of it, only to add specialist skills or teams of people”.

Brand and skills

This idea of success and professionalism also means setting high standards in terms of the relationships they have with clients, which for Norden goes beyond the standard professional skillset. “Accountants are good at getting the hard skills, but we brought in an external consultant to train managers on the soft side. We are committed to this area, and promote leadership, body language, NLP, communication skills; things which help underline our view that accountancy is much more about being partners and working in collaboration”.

A wider trend

It’s not hard to find other firms following this example. Fellow award nominees Jeffreys Henry followed a similar thorough top to bottom brand review with equally compelling results, and this week Buzzacotts released their new visual identity implying a similar comprehensive approach.

While a hard process to do thoroughly, the lesson for the Accounting Excellence alumni is that investing in the full brand transformation can often deliver a step change that would be hard to imagine through normal marketing and service development reviews.

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