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Big Four secure top-10 positions in brand value index

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 17 May 2023

The index has also turned attention to why mid-tier accountancy firms are not currently using brand better in order to elevate themselves above their competition.

Shell has retained its coveted pole position as the UK’s most valuable brand, highlighting how the energy giant’s record profits during a global energy crisis and a cost-of-living crunch have not dented its brand value.

The UK’s Big Four accountancy firms also fared well in the annual survey by Brand Finance, with three appearing in this year’s top 10. EY took second place valuing the firm at £21.4bn, a rise of 26%, while PwC came in third and KPMG secured seventh place.

Brand valuation is increasingly vital in today’s business world, helping companies understand the value of their brand and how it contributes to the overall value of the company. This knowledge can inform decision-making on marketing and branding efforts, as well as provide a benchmark for future performance, David Haigh, CEO and Chairman of Brand Finance, said in this year’s report.

Marketing aside, brand valuation can also be used to attract investors and secure financing for growth via a merger or acquisition. A strong brand can differentiate companies from competitors and establish a unique market identity, which can boost customer loyalty and retention, too.

Craig Cook, Marketing Manager at Monahans, a South West-based accountancy and business advisory firm, says: “A brand is far more than a badge – it is a visual identifier for an organisation, product or service offering. It embodies a set of values, expectation, promise, value and trust to the customer. However, a brand is not just a logo or symbol but a consistent experience across all interactions with its audience and across all media.”

Short and sharp

Notable trends in this year’s research highlight the rise of acronym branding. Of the top 100 most valuable British brands, 20 are acronyms. Of the top 10, half – EY, PwC, HSBC, BP and KPMG – are acronym-branded. 

Other iconic brands such as BT, BBC and GSK have shifted to their abbreviated acronym version over the years. New examples over the past year include LSEG (previously the London Stock Exchange Group), WTW (previously Willis Towers Watson), and more recently the corporate brand JLR (previously Jaguar Land Rover). 

Cook says: “Mid-tier firms like Monahans have the advantage of being more of a trusted partner, providing greater value for money but also providing sound business advice alongside accountancy services. Often they will have a better understanding of the ambitions and needs of their clients.”

Katherine Howbrook, a partner at reputation consultancy MD Communications and a former communications expert at PwC, says one of the big issues for mid-tier accountancy firms, like the Big Four decades ago, is that the firms operate in a marketplace where they essentially offer the same services. 

“The Big Four realised this years ago and they devoted a lot of time into identifying what their brand and their identity is; going right back to the basics, but also acknowledging that they needed the time and the resource in the form of brand and communications experts when it comes to communicating what they’re about and why they exist,” she says.

On a positive note, Howbrook says that the mid-tier are beginning to recognise the need for change in marketing and branding. “We are seeing firms putting out requests for proposals as they are increasingly looking at what their brand identity is and moving beyond what the brand looks like in terms of websites and logos, shiny things.”

No one is, however, expecting smaller firms to compete with global giants like the Big Four. Heike O’Leary, CMO at mid-tier firm Haines Watts, points to ways the marketplace can look to differentiate.

O’Leary says: “Most of that is hard to replicate for smaller firms unless they relentlessly focus on a particular service, topic or niche market. However, branding is about creating a unique proposition and mid-tier firms can find competitive advantages by building brands based on their own strengths such as agility, first-hand personalisation, strong regional expertise and a quicker route to market for new services. This makes them particularly interesting for entrepreneurs and business owners who benefit from long-term relationships with the same partner.” 

Boosting your brand

Tim Prizeman, Director of RB-Public Relations, has been advising accountancy firms on reputation and marketing issues for 30 years. He agrees that mid-tier firms need to move beyond logo and website updates. 

“The biggest branding issue facing many mid-tier and smaller accountancy firms is their unwillingness to be distinctive and memorable. The problem is that your marketing and sales are always going to struggle if you are pretty similar to your competitors in areas that are important to clients. Bluntly, putting lots of effort into a wonderful logo and lovely website is not going to help boost sales if all it does is showcase blandness,” Prizeman says.

Cook’s Monahans is one of the firms that is recognising the need for action. He says: “Standing still is the fastest way of going backwards. Understand who your customers are, who your competitors are, what they are doing that you aren’t, and what sets them apart. How are you seen and heard? A simple audit of these aspects will tell you some truths and things to act upon.” 

Prizeman adds: “One important thing to note is that the Big Four lead with thought leadership and demonstrating the extra value they can bring through showcasing the quality of their insights. They demonstrate their insights with reports, research and other high-value content. 

“The question other accountancy firms should be asking is, ‘How are we demonstrating, not simply asserting, our expertise to prospects and referrers?’ This is particularly vital for firms looking to break out of routine compliance work and be known for providing higher-value services.”

Howbrook also highlights the value of external input. “Firms need to think more about what the brand feels like to the audiences that they depend on such as clients, potential clients or potential employees. Marketing can forget to actually ask the people they’re trying to target what they think of the firm and what they think would differentiate it. All the way through the planning and strategising, don’t forget to ask externally what their perception is of you because that will feed into your brand.”

She also points to personal branding. “People buy people, and often if you’ve got three or four firms that all offer the same thing, then it’s the people that you will be working with that will swing the deal.”

Haines Watts’ O’Leary also recognises this. “It is imperative that professional services firms create brands that attract talent as well as clients. It is vital that marketing and HR professionals work closely together to create consistent and meaningful client and colleague experiences. Strong client and colleague brands support each other symbiotically.” 

It seems there is an awakening among mid-tier and smaller firms about how they approach branding. That, in time, will feed into the value of their brand. Soon we might even see some of those firms featuring among top-value brands within their marketplaces.

Further reading:

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