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Accountancy firms: unfulfilled branding potential

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 03 Apr 2023

A lacklustre performance by accountancy firms in the Business Superbrand rankings rings alarm bells. With current structural upheaval, the need to stand out from the competition is more important than ever.

Branding for accountancy firms is essential. A strong brand has the potential to increase revenues because, when employed effectively, it can help firms to establish trust and credibility, so they can attract and retain clients, ultimately boosting reputation and business growth.

And yet the results of the most recent Business Superbrand index suggest that accountancy firms are falling short when it comes to this essential differentiation. Only marginal year-on-year improvement in the rankings across the 25 accountancy firms reviewed prompted Stephen Cheliotis, CEO of The Centre for Brand Analysis (TCBA) and Chair of the Business Superbrands Council, to warn of a “lacklustre outcome given their size and reach”.

This year the Superbrand index ranked 1,580 B2B brands across 72 categories, taking into consideration factors such as quality, reliability, and distinction. The rankings are based on voting by an independent expert council, comprising 26 senior business-to-business marketing leaders and 2,500 UK business professionals, all with purchasing or managerial responsibility within their businesses.

Big Four remain dominant

Not a single accountancy firm made it into the top 100 Business Superbrands list. While the Big Four were the highest ranking of all the accountancy firms featured in the index, it is clear they have work to do to build the same level of brand equity as the leading B2B brands

Deloitte leads the category overall, but nonetheless missed out on a top 100 placing, securing 109th position in the overall rankings. KMPG came 131st in the overall rankings, PWC 159th and EY 259th. BDO lost traction for a second year and seems increasingly detached from the top four plus one.

Three of the Big Four fell down the rankings compared with last year, while only EY managed to move up, albeit by just seven places. Grant Thornton, meanwhile, was ranked at 469th – a significant 210 positions lower than EY, the lowest-placed Big Four firm.

Cheliotis says: “Although the leading accountancy firms outperformed peers in other professional services categories, including legal services, risk management and HR consultancies, the leading firms could and should do better considering their size and reach, the exposure they enjoy, and the breadth of customers they support.”

How accountancy firms can brand better

Katherine Howbrook, a partner at reputation consultancy MD Communications and a former branding expert at PwC, believes the accountancy sector is facing an identity crisis in 2023. “Without a laser-sharp focus on brand, accountancy firms risk becoming even more lost in the crowd, competing for new business, losing the war on talent, and losing the trust of the customers and communities they depend on to survive and thrive,” she says.

“The Big Four are renowned for their data-driven insights and use of technology to deliver the best results for clients. Complex data-driven insights and investment in the latest technology can feel out of reach for smaller firms, but there is no reason smaller firms can’t make the best use of what they have. Even the smallest of firms either have valuable data on their clients or can obtain it to ensure they’re hitting the mark with their products and services.”

Howbrook believes smaller firms fall short on branding because they devote too much time to focusing on website design and not enough time looking at how their brand mirrors their values and understanding how they are perceived by current and future customers and employees: “Too many firms jump straight into tactics such as website design, social media posts and press releases which aren’t aligned with a brand strategy and don’t have their brand values, or company DNA, running through everything they do.” 

Cheliotis told ICAEW Insights there are many things he could suggest accountancy firms should be doing to improve their brand and move up in next year’s Superbrands rankings, but he suggest a focus on three key drivers:

  • Drive fame – but that doesn’t mean simply becoming more visible and shouting about yourself. Rather, it’s about becoming recognised around a genuinely distinctive and relevant positioning that sets you apart from alternatives.
  • Build admiration, positivity, and emotional engagement toward your brand. Connect with people on a human level, help them with their pain points, and be an organisation that is reliable, trustworthy and has client’s and employee’s backs.
  • Drive belief in the value proposition to ensure that what you provide is relevant and adds value. Have an offer that is recognised as genuinely indispensable and delivered by people you can believe in.” 

Read ICAEW is a business Superbrand, ICAEW’s coverage of last year’s Superbrand index.

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