You’ve worked hard to earn your professional qualification and build and grow your own practice. But when did you last pause to review your firm’s brand? Does it accurately reflect your professionalism and the services you and your team provide? Is it a brand you’re 100% proud to own? If you hesitated to answer either of these questions, you’re not alone! Many small and medium practices lack time, expertise or access to good counsel to realize their brand’s potential, so here’s some simple tips and an easy check-list to help your practice differentiate itself in the market—and compete for new clients.
IFAC’s study The Role of SMPs in Providing Business Support to SMEs—New Evidence revealed many SMPs do not actively market their service. In today’s world, relying on ‘word of mouth’ recommendations and ‘waiting for them to call’ are not viable marketing plans. These days, your website is an advertising billboard to your services and its quality ‘look and feel’ will be key to ‘attracting eyeballs’ and keeping their attention.
However, there’s strong realization that marketing is important. The 2016 Global SMP Survey revealed:
- 46% rated attracting new clients a high or very high challenge
- 39% rated competitor differentiation as a further challenge.
- These were the first and fourth top challenges, respectively.
- In addition, competition (e.g., other practices or professions) was the third highest environmental factor SMPs expect to impact their practice over the next five years
Releasing the tangible benefits of your brand—attracting new clients and indeed making hiring easier—depends on a clear, compelling marketing message. It should be purposeful, consistently building an emotional connection with its audience. And it should be supported by, and reflected in, your team and practice culture. The IFAC SMP Committee recently focused on SMPs branding and marketing challenges. Members from around the world shared their brand and marketing top tips and best practices.
What constitutes a good brand?
- believable, recognizable and trustworthy;
- easy to remember, distinctive and unique;
- relatable to clients;
- in line with the firm’s values (e.g., integrity and expertise);
- consistently applied: colors, logo, “tagline”, etc.; and
- contemporary, but able to evolve over time.
How should practices develop their brand and visual identity?
- Consider using an external expert to establish the brand.
- Understand your client priorities. Your brand and services should reflect those, and align with the firm’s longer-term business strategy.
- Develop a workable visual identity. Consult with stakeholders on what resonates with them—you may discover new strengths!
- Staff must reflect brand positioning and firm’s core values—at all times.
What techniques can be used to market services to new and existing clients?
(Note: Firms’ need to be aware of any local regulations or legislation that may restrict certain marketing activities.)
- For existing clients, the firm should have a practice management system to capture potential client needs.
- To reach out to new clients, social media is low cost but requires a longer term commitment. Advertising in newspapers and magazines can be expensive; ensure your spend reaches the audience you want!
- Existing clients can provide testimonials, which can be circulated as part of the firm’s marketing material for a targeted audience. Consider them for video content.
- Attend business networking events and become involved with your local chambers of commerce.
- Explore opportunities around cross-selling services (again, recognizing any ethical restrictions).
- Consider using a newsletter or email updates to existing and new clients.
What tips can be shared on using social media channels?
- Choose the most appropriate social media channel for your audience, message and needs (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook and/or Twitter). Consider where your audience already is, any cost implications, overall effectiveness, etc.
- Determine what types of useful and timely information can be shared on social media (e.g., content about a tax update or regulatory changes). Mine the knowledge and expertise at your firm to share content potential clients will find useful and relevant.
- Keep the content you share current and accurate. While best practices for posting frequency differ for each social media platform, a general rule of thumb is 3-5 posts a week.
- Identify how often and by whom channels will be maintained.
- Use scheduling platforms to posts to manage users’ expectations and staff workload commitments around busy periods.
- Consider using videos instead of long text articles. This is particularly appealing to younger audiences.
- Include images and video when possible—visual content is always going to gain more engagement than text alone.
- Consider outsourcing if your firm does not have adequate internal resources to maintain a consistent social media strategy. As with any strategic initiative, a budget will need to be set aside.
- Social media does present a risk for firm’s reputation, which needs to be managed. Consider not only who is responsible for your social media channels but what type of content is appropriate, any guidelines, how to handle any comments or questions, etc.
How can firms differentiate from competition?
- Leverage the firm’s network locally and regionally; your clients need to know your firm can easily connect and refer them to experts in specific areas or geographical locations.
- Specialize in a niche service area or particular industry.
- Invest in staff development through continuing professional development and training.
- Demonstrate empathy—that is, credibility with a personal touch.
- Embrace technology that can lead to cost optimization (e.g. using virtual offices and meetings).
- Establish a strong brand with a consistent underlying message.
- Create a positive firm culture. It is a great way to attract and retain high-quality staff.
The updated IFAC Guide to Practice Management for Small- and Medium-Sized Practices includes the module Building and Growing Your Firm, which covers developing a brand, marketing and promotion.
In addition, the recently launched PM Guide includes ten questions for consideration as your firm embarks on its branding journey.
- What are the qualities and value characteristics that the firm expects clients to experience in each service line?
- Is the brand going to be for a specific service line and/or the whole firm? How will these correlate to one another?
- Does the firm have a logo or a slogan/tagline? If not, should the development of one be prioritized/outsourced?
- Is the branding in line with the firm’s strategy? Has it been documented?
- Has consideration been given to intellectual property protection/patents?
- Does the firm have an adequate budget that is sustainable over time?
- Is the brand visually presented consistently on all of the firm’s written communication with clients (letterhead, emails, proposals and reports), office premises and marketing and advertising materials?
- Has a communication and implementation plan been developed covering staff, clients and press?
- Have responsibilities been clearly assigned and direction provided for all social media activity?
- Has a plan been developed to monitor, measure and review the results? Have you identified your audience and set realistic expectations?
A simple checklist below has been prepared which may be of used by SMPs to move forward in this area – as a start.
On Preparation & Assessment
List the qualities and values that the firm expects clients to experience – by segment
What are the common denominators (based on the above)?
Reviewed & confirmed by:
Is the branding going to be on a firm wide or a specific service line? Why?
On Application/ Implementation
Ensure that the branding message is consistent with the firm’s strategy. Is it simple and easy to communicate? Please tick as appropriate.
Note – If not, how can it be simplified further?
To develop your brand visual distinction and apply it on:
Done by :
All written communication with clients: proposals and reports
Marketing and advertising material
Note – Firms should consider engaging an external designer if there are no internal resources/ talent available.
Communicate to employees
Communicate to clients
Consider whether to protect the brand and logo (IP/ patent etc.)
Evaluate the impact on the firm’s operation post implementation (suggested 6 months after implementation)
On Promotion strategy
Press release (where possible)
PR and advertising (is there a budget for this?)
Clients’ outreach and events
Note – This promotion strategy has to be on-going for a period of time.