Small Firm Marketing: The Art of Branding

Jan 18th 2017
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This might sound strange coming from a CPA, but I’ve always been fascinated by the world of branding and marketing.

I love to ask: How are certain businesses able to separate themselves from the pack? How do some companies build brands that transcend the ordinary and create strong emotional connections with their customers — and become industry leaders in the process?

Maybe part of the reason I’m so interested in these questions is because I don’t have the typical accounting background. I was a liberal arts major in college (Communications, to be exact), and I did a lot of other things before I became an accountant. In fact, I didn’t get my CPA license until I was 33, and before that I spent a decade working in the outdoors and natural foods industries.

In short, I was young and idealistic, I valued lifestyle way above career advancement, and I could fit everything I owned in my 1979 Volvo 242. It was during those years that I fell in love with certain companies – Patagonia, Clif Bar, and Whole Foods Market, to name a few – that followed their ideals and designed the best products and somehow seemed to get everything right.  Those were the companies everybody wanted to work for, and the brands everyone admired.

So is branding important in the accounting profession? Maybe not in the same way, but I think most experts would agree that it is. The Big Four are in a league of their own brand-wise, and the top regional firms also put a lot of time and energy into developing their names and reputations. They know that you have to have a strong brand name just to get in the door with bigger corporate clients.

A more interesting question might be: Is branding important in the small firm space? After all, you don’t necessarily have to create a brand in order to be a successful accountant.

Many sole practitioners just slap a CPA on the back of their name, get a small office in a decent location, and go into business for themselves. And the vast majority of small firms don’t seem to do much more.

They get a bigger office in a nicer location; follow the standard accounting firm naming formula of 'Partner A + Partner B + Partner C, LLP;' then open their doors and start taking on clients. Every firm I ever worked for followed this formula and based on the types of cars the partners were driving (which were always a lot better than mine), this strategy worked just fine.

However, you'd have to be living in Siberia not to see some of the major changes that are happening in the accounting industry these days. And while many of those changes are being driven by new technologies, it also looks like marketing and branding are becoming a lot more important in the small business market.

For example, Xero and FreshBooks are challenger brands with amazingly user-friendly products. Intuit still has its vast QuickBooks desktop empire to run, but is also doubling down on QBO and pursuing its bold new mission to help accountants build firms of the future.

Then there are the app makers, who see big opportunities ahead and look like they’re working 24/7 to create must-have tools and recognizable brand names. (I don’t necessarily have any favorites in this arena, but Hubdoc and TSheets certainly seem like they know what they’re doing when it comes to brand-building.)

And, even though accounting firms usually tend to be the laggards in terms of marketing, firms around the world are pushing the boundaries and doing truly innovative things. Rightway in New Zealand first caught my eye several years ago (I backpacked and hitchhiked my way through NZ for three months when I was in my twenties… I loved it so much I wanted to emigrate there).

LiveCA up in Canada definitely look like they know what they’re doing (FreshBooks and Hubdoc are also Canadian… there’s something strange going on up there!). And here in the USA, Catching Clouds, Two RoadsKregel & Company, and BKE are businesses that all offer useful marketing lessons that the rest of us can learn from. 

Coincidentally, it’s interesting to note that five of the six practices I just mentioned didn’t follow the traditional formula and name themselves after their owners. Kregel & Company did, but they’ve executed their identity in such an honest and refreshing way that their name makes perfect sense.

To me, it’s obvious that these small firms all believe in the importance of branding. They’re building practices that will stand out from the herd and attract customers and be able to take advantage of the shifts that are happening in the industry.

I’d like to close by sharing a few cardinal lessons that I came across last year from Marty Neumeier, one of the Zen masters in the field. If you share my interest in branding, I think you’ll appreciate these.

According to Marty:

  1. A brand is not a logo, identity, or product.
  2. A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.
  3. The best brands are charismatic: they bridge the gap between left brain and right brain thinking, and they’re powerful because they earn people’s trust.

I can’t remember exactly how I found it, but here’s Marty's slideshow that I discovered online. It’s basically an abbreviated version of his highly-regarded book, The Brand Gap.

By the way, if you know of any small firms that are changing the game and leading the pack when it comes to branding, I’d love to hear about them. Sometimes one of the best ways to work through your own branding and marketing questions is to look at examples of what other companies are doing (both inside and outside your industry).

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