Home Archive January 2009 Called to account
Called to account
Friday, 23 January 2009 15:29

How can an international accounting organisation create a brand that’s right for its many member firms? Max Hotopf visited Grant Thornton International to find out:

Everyone knows the big four accounting brands – PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Deloitte and Ernst & Young – but what of the firms beneath them? How can they project a brand that will enable them to compete with fi rms four or fi ve times their size? Or one that will help them to grow to a similar size and status? Th is was the challenge faced by Jon Geldart on his arrival as global director, marketing communications, at Grant Thornton International, the world’s sixth largest accountancy firm. A brand expert for nearly 30 years, he had started his career in brewing with Tetley and John Smith, before a 14-year stint at PwC. For Geldart, an accountancy brand is not so different to that of a beer. “All brands are simply promises delivered to the consumer,” he says. But how to make Grant Thornton, an international network of independent member companies, into a contender? The old image was rather tired – distinctly 1980s and a little parochial. Worse, many of the businesses within Grant Thornton International still traded under their own names. Fortunately, however, there was, and remains, a strong appetite for change within the organisation, led by global chief executive officer David McDonnell, who in 2005/06 planned the international strategy. For Geldart, the place to start was inside the firm.

“With brands there is little point in talking to consumers, because they have no vision of what they could have,” he says. “If I talked to a client fi nance director about Grant Thornton’s brand image, he or she would regard me as pretentious. But the people within the business have a clear idea of its potential and how that can best be unlocked.” So Geldart and his colleagues travelled the world interviewing partners. “What emerged was a sense of potential and a proximity to the client,” he recalls. “And a sense of ‘us’ – funnily enough, Grant Thornton people are the same, from Auckland to Rome.” Above all, Geldart needed to take the organisation with him internationally. It would be up to each national firm whether or not to adopt the new image, and whether to spend cash promoting it.

The international office at Grant Thornton International is almost a marketing agency to the member firms and they each pay into it. The marketing managers in all the firms were involved in the brand process. They were the ones who came up with the names for the shortlist and a committee from half a dozen of the larger firms saw all the pitches. Some 18 names were winnowed down to five who were then all briefed at the same session in London. “We felt a single session gave a level playing field,” says Geldart. “Otherwise, your brief changes with every meeting and you end up either misleading the last one you see or giving them the job. One briefi ng also meant that the senior US and UK marketers could attend it.” Similarly, all fi ve pitches were seen in one day by the committee. Geldart says that Angus Hyland, partner at Pentagram Design, was the unanimous choice. “Angus just got us more than the others,” he explains. “He came up with some daring stuff .” Hyland says: “Grant Thornton was extremely thorough, very process driven. We don’t normally do detailed pitches but the briefi ng enabled us to. Grant Thornton gave us the space to proff er decent advice.” Hyland came up with a mobius strip, set next to a refreshed word mark. Unlike the big four, the new logo does not relate to the initials of the firm’s name. And it was purple, rather than the overdone professional blue of accountancy or the red commonly used in banking. Th e mobius symbol is a continuous strip that looks threedimensional, permanent and yet flexible.

The lessons

Think, consult, do – spend time planning the strategy, be clear about what you want to achieve, and discuss it with many people. Then say what you are going to do and go ahead and do it!

You can’t check back too much! Use a few key people as “ground truthers”. “These were people who I respected, who would tell me the truth and not hold back,” says Geldart. “This small but diverse group ensured we remained grounded in the needs of the member fi rms.”

Once you start moving – don’t stop. Like an army on the offensive, when you encounter blockages keep going. Return later when you have time and proof.

Be patient. Don’t try and get everything done in one go. Accept 85-90% and wait for the rest to come later.

Be clear, bold and positive. Attitude makes 100% difference to the outcome. “Conviction that we were doing the right thing and focused on the same outcomes meant real clarity of purpose and objectives,” reports Geldart. “It was clear what success looked like and people could see it as it happened – which maintained the momentum.”

You would be forgiven for not realising these signifi cances, but the abstract image is fresh and could belong to an energy or IT company, rather than an accountancy firm. What really diff erentiates the design, however, is the use of illustration rather than photography on the website and in brochures. Grant Thornton had specifi cally stipulated no illustrations, so Hyland was brave to argue the toss in his pitch. For Geldart, this was a breakthrough. “Photos have a specifi city. A photo of a giraffe on an African plain is normally interpreted as a giraffe, not an allusion to the size and vastness of the plain or perhaps to a sense of loneliness. Yet those allusions can be swiftly and eff ectively made with illustration.” Illustration has three other big advantages. First, it is not specifi c to a nation or culture. Th e viewer doesn’t ask “what is the nationality of the person in this photo?” Secondly, it is cheaper than stock photos, and thirdly, good illustrations are never hackneyed. Grant Thornton International keeps a database of illustrations and images for its national fi rms to use, but each is also free, within the brand guidelines, to come up with its own images and pictures. A new series of advertisements has now been commissioned, each showing a single person in a broad landscape with “Big decisions follow you around” as the strapline. Used internationally, they simply make the claim that Grant Thornton is empathetic and can help with big decisions, such as what steps to take to hit targets or when to cut costs. How do you measure the success of such a project one year on?

One answer is to look at take-up rates. Geldart says 99% of the fi rms are now using the Grant Thornton name, logo and new images with around 20 moving over in 2008 alone. Th e design includes a prefix or suffix add on, so fi rms can move smoothly from being say Terco to Terco Grant Thornton and fi nally to Grant Thornton. Cleverly, the new design highlights the Grant Thornton name, rather than the prefix or suffix. Geldart says: “It’s right to keep references to the old identity at least for a while and this design enables it to be incorporated.” Another measure is how much member fi rms are prepared to invest in the new image. Geldart says the redesign, plus the website and templates and tools to use it cost $1 million. He reckons that member fi rms have spent maybe 8-12 times as much as that on print, advertising and redecorating premises. Another measure is the response from clients. Here, Geldart says, the response has been “worryingly quiet.” Adding: “We’ve asked them enough and I am sure if they disliked it we would have heard by now!” A fi nal measure, suggests Geldart, is revenues. Th ese have risen faster than expected partly thanks to a wave of mergers and acquisitions. “M&A is where we will really see the growth and having the right international image is vital here,” he says. “So, if we are ahead, then that says something about the brand.”

 

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