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Why your accounting firm needs a branding identity

Nov 13, 2015

When you think of Apple, it’s likely that their clean, white website comes to mind. Or the iPhone in your hand.  (I know that a few of you are saying no, I think of the gala red I had for lunch.)

bite table

Or Starbucks.  You might normally think “strong coffee” or “place to have a meeting”, but over the last few days it’s more “what is the deal with these red Christmas cups?”

These are examples of brand awareness.  We think of a brand name, and imagery springs to mind.  Concepts.  I work so often with Xero partners that the tagline “Beautiful accounting software” just automatically comes to mind when I think of Xero.

None of that is random.  The reason we think of a cool, clean website structure in white and silver when we think of Apple is because they’ve spent a great deal of time and effort defining what they stand for – and what they don’t.

What is a branding identity?

Now, every business has an identity.  And your firm is no exception.

But what I mean by a ‘proper’ branding identity is an actual document. Something that defines – for you, your team, and even your clients – all those critical elements that make up your firm.

Your branding identity is far, far more than your logo.  When we think ‘branding’, we often think of the logo, font, and perhaps colours that a company uses.

Think of a branding identity as the ‘persona’ of your business. If your firm was a person, what kind of a personality would it have? What would it say (and not say)? What kind of coffee would it drink? Would it use an iPhone, or insist that it can’t be bothered with these new fangled technologies?

One of our clients recently had their branding identity document developed, and the introduction says:

“Our branding tells the story of who we are, what we stand for and what we are offering. It explains our history and justifies our future. More than a logo, it’s the messages we’re sending, our beliefs, ambitions, ideologies and personality.”

It’s a story.

A history.

A definition of the messages that you are sending.

And this is why it is so incredibly critical for your accountancy firm to have one: because as more and more of you address your need for good marketing materials, the more stark becomes your need for a branding identity.

Does your accountancy firm have a brand identity?

Recently, I have been surprised to discover just how many accountancy firms do not have a proper branding identity.

It’s no surprise if you’re a new start-up, or even if you’ve been running for five or ten years.  I’m talking about firms who have been around for twenty, fifty, ninety – even well over a hundred years.  And yet there is nothing that defines who you are as a business, what you stand for, and how you want that to come across in your marketing.

You may be thinking, “But I didn’t even know what a branding identity was!”

But now that you’ve read the last few paragraphs, you know – and it’s time for the branding identities to come out.

What’s included in a branding identity

Although I would not recommend writing your own branding identity (there are elements that particularly require a marketing mind and experience), it may help to know what tends to be included.

Not every branding identity document is the same – every marketing agency differs in its presentation of a brand – but they often include these elements:

Persona

  • Purpose (your ‘why’)
  • Beliefs
  • Tone of voice
  • Ideal client
  • What makes you stand out (your USP)
  • Emotions, thoughts, feelings (how you make people feel)

Visual design

  • Logo
  • Font(s) and typography
  • Colours
  • How and where the logo is used (and not used)

It tends to be presented as a document in PDF that you can then share with your marketing agency or team.

Will our firm need to change its logo?

Although a logo is not the only element of a branding identity, it is very important that during the brand identity process you are open to changes in your logo to reflect what you stand for.

So many accountancy firm logos were not actually designed. They were thrown together in Microsoft Word, or sketched out by a friend or family member, or perhaps you just ordered business cards online and took the icon they suggested.

That is not a proper logo.  It’s time to be a real business.

If you have an emotional attachment to your logo, that can be a very good thing. But don’t let the history of your first logo prevent you from moving forward in business.  A good marketing agency will keep the very best elements of your logo, while keeping it fresh and staying away from fads.

What a branding identity does for your marketing

Many businesses have a brand that simply reflects the personality and character of their business owner. If the owner is young, creative, interested in technology, and loves to travel, then those elements will be reflected in what the business does.  If the owner is older, about to retire, and used to working in a traditional manner, then that is how the business will be perceived.

As your firm grows – and grows older – your identity will begin to expand. The additional team members, the clients you take on (and the ones you don’t), the work you do (and the work you never do), all begins to mesh together until you have a branding identity – whether you realise it or not.

And when it comes to marketing, that branding identity reveals itself.

I’ve seen accountancy firms spend a great deal of time and effort on a new website – and the new site does look good. It’s fresh, it’s modern, the photographs are clean and focused….but the content tells the story.  The menu items are the same.  There are 24 different pages on accounting, tax, compliance, VAT, payroll, management accounts, business coaching, tax planning.  The ‘news items’ are generic tax items brought in automatically, and the resources are the same as other accountancy firm websites.

This tells your visitor about the type of firm you are.  Regardless of the bright purple colours, or the fresh new image you chose, there’s a personality and a concept that is coming across – intangibly – to those who engage with your marketing.

So, developing a ‘proper’ branding identity is a powerful way to help your marketing address the right clients.

Here’s what a branding identity does for your marketing:

  • Helps you clarify the types of clients you want. The old joke of “any client with a chequebook” can be retired now.  First, few people use cheque books anymore. (I haven’t written a cheque for three years.)  But secondly, you have learned the hard way that it’s not really about money. Sometimes the clients who are willing to pay the most are those who are also the most grasping.
  • Helps you pinpoint the clients you do NOT want. Even more importantly, if you know right away that there are certain businesses or people that are difficult, unprofitable, or otherwise discouraging – it will help you to focus your marketing in a way that will drive those people away. That’s successful marketing, too.
  • Identifies the issues your ideal clients care about. When you know what they care about, your question of “what kind of marketing will I do” is answered. Our content marketing strategy process exists for this reason. There is no point in saying, “Let’s write an ebook!” or “We need a new website.”  Far more important is to understand what your clients care about – and give it to them.
  • Ensures consistency in your marketing. I still maintain that “not perfect but done” is the right approach – but wherever possible, have a standard your marketing rallies around.  If your emails use one font and your website another, or your website uses a colour that clashes with your logo colours, this sends a clear message to your clients that you don’t really know who you are.  And for a professional service firm whose primary marketing task is to build trust, you’re walking on shaky ground.
  • Improves your brand image. When you are selective about the types of clients you will and won’t work with, and your marketing is consistent across all marketing elements (website, email, printed material, social media), you have a better image in the marketplace. This is absolutely critical for accountants, because as a professional service firm your first purpose must always be to build trust. Trust – or perceived trust – is what causes the best kinds of clients to get in touch with you, and to do business with you. Having a good brand image affects that.
  • Gives clear guidance to anyone who is helping you with marketing. We love it when the firms we work with have a branding identity. It answers so many of my team’s questions straight away.  What font do we use? Can we use the transparent logo? What’s colour theme shall we devise? Easy answers – and consistency, too.
  • Ultimately, it gives you more clients of the type you want. When you have a consistent, focused approach, your marketing will be better. The audience you want will be more likely to find you. And you’ll get more of the right type of clients – the premium clients – and fewer of the wrong sort.

What a branding identity does for your team

It’s also important to recognise the effect a branding identity can have on your team.

The process of building a branding identity, and sharing it with your team, will:

  • Involve the team in your marketing. It’s not just you or a few partners operating alone. Even if you and the partners are the ones who meet with the branding agency, and develop the document, you have a unique opportunity to share who you are and what you stand for – and get feedback and input from the team.
  • Ensure that team members are aware of your firm’s vision and focus. It’s only too easy to hire accountants or bookkeepers or managers, and then leave them to the accounting work. There’s far more to your firm than that.
  • Weed out those who are not in line with your vision and beliefs. As desperate as some accountancy firms are for people who can churn out a good set of accounts, the right firms will know that it’s more important to have people who buy into who you are, why you’re there, and the type of work that you do (and don’t do). Those ones will last.
  • Improve your recruiting. When you’re clear about what you stand for and who you are, not only will the right clients engage with you, but the right team members will also. The process of building a brand identity gives you a clear path and statement for your recruiting process, as well.

How to ask for help with a branding identity

Once you’ve seen the importance of a branding identity for your firm, it’s time to ask for help.

Here are some aspects to consider as you choose an agency to help you:

  1. Use a marketing agency, not simply a graphic designer. Hopefully you’ve seen from this post that a full branding identity is not merely the work of a graphic designer – although graphic designers are absolutely involved.  You need a variety of skills including strategy, design, and most of all, experience.
  1. Be ready to spend good money on this process. Be aware that a good branding identity process is going to be a major investment for your firm. If you’re not ready to spend at least a thousand pounds or two (at a minimum), you’ve got some more thinking and planning to do.
  1. Choose your branding agency based on skill and personal connection. You absolutely want to work with someone who has a great track record and does good design and branding work. But it’s just as important to work with someone you get on with. Are they your kind of people? Do they talk your language? Will they work virtually if you prefer it, or in person if that’s your preference?
  1. Don’t merely pick a client and do a service swap. This is too important to simply choose a client who happens to do some graphic design, or who is keen to give it a try. Swapping services sounds like a good deal, but it often means that you’re putting your branding identity in the hands of someone without experience.  Review points 1-3, and then if a client fits the bill, you have a double win.

In the end, a branding identity is who you are, and what you stand for, all packaged up in a neat little parcel.  Easy to carry around, easy to describe – and easy to share.

That’s the best sort of marketing.

Help with your branding