Building a resilient brand identity in the professional services sector

A quick guide to unlocking the potential of your brand to help drive client trust, differentiate your offer and deliver long-term success.

In the highly competitive world of professional services (think accountants, legal practices, management consultants etc.), establishing a strong and resilient brand identity can be tricky.

And that’s largely because the outside world has preconceived ideas about these professions.

The stereotypical accountant (for example) is professional, formal, serious, reserved and conservative (with a small ‘c’). They have a keen eye for numbers, love spreadsheets and understand the intricacies of tax law. They’re seen as people who can be relied upon to help you navigate financial minefields, provide advice and take away the pain of accurate bookkeeping.

Sounds like a pretty useful business partner to have. Who wouldn’t want that?

The problem is, of course, that (according to the stereotype) all accountants do the same thing. It’s our collective perception of what accountants do. Stereotypes are collective perceptions, and perceptions are our reality.

From a brand perspective, this is a problem.

If I go looking for an accountant, I’m looking for someone that will help me crunch the numbers effectively, do my books, sort the payroll and help me to be tax efficient. That’s stuff I don’t want to do myself – it’s painful and time consuming so I need someone to sort it out for me.

So, I head to Google.

This is what the first 4 local accountants I found said about themselves:

  1. We will work with you as financial partners to help you save time, money and tax. We provide straight forward, no nonsense accountancy services, tax advice and business support.
    OK, that sounds like just what I’m looking for.
  2. As well as accountancy, business advisors and tax skills, our directors also have individual specialisms which enable us to provide clients with a first class tailored service. With our wealth of experience we pride ourselves on delivering an unparalleled service to all clients, whatever their size or sector.
    Well, I’m ‘whatever size or sector’, so that works for me too.
  3. We offer a wealth of experience in accountancy management for local, UK and overseas based businesses – both small and large, from start-ups to more mature businesses.
    Well, I’m ‘mature’ and small(ish) so now I haven’t got a clue what to do.
  4. Like many accountants, our services cover all aspects of accounting, including bookkeeping, tax and VAT returns, tax planning, auditing and payroll across a wide range of clients, from sole traders to multi-million pound corporations. What makes us different is, as well as focusing on the numbers, we also focus on understanding your short, medium and long term objectives, not only for your business but for yourself and your family.
    So at least this one has tried to say something different – it’s just taken them a little while to get there, and given I have the attention span of a gnat, I’m probably not going to read on that far. The opening sentence doesn’t offer much differentiation.

You can see the problem. Most accountants are perceived to be pretty much the same because most accountants sound, look and feel the same. In the examples I looked at, there was no discernible positioning, no differentiating visuals, and not a killer headline in sight.

How to stand out

Ask your local, neighbourhood AI chatbot the question, “how do I make my accountancy firm stand out in a crowded, homogenous market?” and this is the type of response you can expect:

  1. Define a unique value proposition:
    Identify and articulate what sets the accountancy firm apart from competitors. This could include specialised expertise in a particular industry, innovative service offerings, a client-centric approach, or a unique service delivery model. Clearly communicate this unique value proposition to potential clients to differentiate the firm from others in the market.
    OK, so that’s a lot easier said than done, isn’t it? How do you go about finding a ‘unique’ value proposition? I don’t think I know of any ‘unique’ value propositions in this market. They’re like hen’s teeth, so good luck with that. Part of the reason that accountants say the same things, is that they (by and large) do the same thing. Even if they’re savvy enough to highlight the benefits of what they do, they’re the same as the benefits of using ANY accountant (mostly).It’s all very well saying ‘be unique’, but that’s like saying ‘be KFC’ without providing the secret blend of herbs and spices.
  2. Focus on specialisation:
    Instead of trying to be a generalist, consider specialising in a specific industry, niche, or service area. By positioning the firm as experts in a particular field, such as technology startups, healthcare, or international taxation, it can attract clients looking for specialised knowledge and experience.
    OK, that’s decent advice. Being a specialist in a specific sector or industry may give clients (in that industry) confidence that you’re better than other accountants, because you understand their ’unique’ needs and challenges. Having experience in the industry may mean that you’ve come across the problems they face before – making you better placed to solve them. The downside here, is that narrowing the market down in this way could actually reduce the size of your potential market. There will always be a balance to be had between being laser focused on a specific target market and being open to any business whatsoever (and therefore more generic and perhaps a bit fuzzier in your messaging). But all in all, at least from a marketing perspective, specialisation has merit.
  3. Emphasise personalised service:
    Highlight the firm’s commitment to personalised and tailored service for clients. Showcase how the accountants go beyond mere number-crunching to understand the unique needs and goals of each client, offering customised solutions and a high level of attention and care.
    Not sure this helps. I’m kind of expecting personal service from my accountant – it’s a hygiene factor, not a differentiator. And I’ll believe it when I experience it.
  4. Leverage technology and innovation:
    Demonstrate how the firm embraces technology and innovation to enhance its services and provide value to clients. This could include leveraging cloud-based accounting platforms, using data analytics to provide actionable insights, or employing automation to streamline processes and improve efficiency.
    I’d expect AI to say something like that. OK, well I’m not a huge accountancy expert, but I’m pretty sure cloud-based accounting is increasingly the norm. Personally, I don’t care how it’s done, as long as I don’t have to do it. I need an expert to sort it out and tell me what to do, plain and simple. How you do it is your business, not mine – so unless you’re telling me that you’ll get better results BECAUSE of how you do it, I don’t care. If you’re telling me that the tech enables you to do stuff others can’t, then maybe you’re onto something. If anyone can do it, it’s hygiene.
  5. Showcase expertise and thought leadership:
    Position the firm’s professionals as thought leaders in the industry by sharing valuable insights, knowledge, and expertise through thought leadership content such as articles, whitepapers, webinars, or speaking engagements. This helps establish credibility and positions the firm as a go-to resource for industry-specific insights.
    Yep, sure – do that. But of course, saying it is easy. Doing it is harder. Much harder – it requires ongoing commitment and many hours of content creation to establish a ‘positioning’. There’s way more to it than saying ‘let’s be thought leaders’. And why can you be more of a thought leader than the next firm? If we assume that all your competitors want to be seen as the experts, they’ll all be doing it won’t they? And if everyone’s doing it, there’ll be a lot of noise to cut through. Not being defeatist, but there’s so much shite in my Linkedin feed that I’ve all but given up reading anything at all. By all means. try to be a thought leader, but don’t expect it to be easy.
  6. Foster client relationships and referrals:
    Focus on building strong relationships with existing clients by providing exceptional service and value. Encourage satisfied clients to become advocates and refer the firm to their network. Positive word-of-mouth and client referrals can be powerful in a competitive market.
    That sounds a lot like number three in this list? Feels like we’re scrabbling around here.
  7. Engage in community involvement:
    Demonstrate the firm’s commitment to the local community by participating in charitable initiatives, sponsorships, or community events. Engaging in community involvement not only creates a positive brand image but also helps establish relationships with potential clients and referral sources.
    Yeah, sure, why not? I’ll be honest though, I’m getting bored.
  8. Cultivate a strong company culture:
    Highlight the firm’s unique company culture, values, and approach to client service. Emphasise factors such as teamwork, integrity, responsiveness, and a client-first mindset. A positive and distinct company culture can make a lasting impression on clients and differentiate the firm from competitors.
    I totally buy company culture cultivation. But it seems a little trite to simply include this in a list of eight things you should do to stand out. Plus, it’s not something you can just switch on, it’s the very essence of what you do, the thing that lies at the heart of your organisation. There’s got to be an entire blog article on this one (note to self), but if you can capture that, then you could be onto something big….

People don’t buy what you do

Ever heard of Simon Sinek? Of course you have. If you haven’t, look him up and listen to his TED Talk about The Golden Circle.

A brand is way more than a snazzy logo or a catchy strapline. A brand goes to the very heart of the organisation.

A brand positioning is not derived from what you do. Pretty much any accountant can do what you do.

A brand is not derived from how you do it. Most accountants will employ similar techniques, most will try to offer good service and most (these days) will try not to bamboozle you with numbers you don’t understand.

Your brand is your DNA

There was once an egg your business was hatched from.

Somewhere, at the heart of your business, there was an idea forged from a belief – a reason why your company came into existence.

A purpose.

If your business has a noble purpose at its heart, that’s an idea you can sell.

People don’t buy what you do. They buy WHY YOU DO IT.

Not just customers. If staff buy into why you do what you do, they’ll be proud to act in a way that fits with the ideology.

They’ll be your ambassadors.

The brand story will feel real and authentic – because it’s genuine.

And your brand will have an opinion, a stance on things – because when there’s a reason why you do what you do, you’ll always have an opinion.

And strong brands have opinions.

Think Nike. Think Dove. Think Apple.

If you want to build a robust brand, whether you’re a solicitor, management consultant, accountant or any professional for that matter, then you have to get back to the authenticity of your raison d’être.

Your brand should be underpinned by your core values and personality. It should help prospective clients to understand not only what you do, but how you do it differently to your competition (if that’s helpful), and most importantly of all – why you do it.