Subtle Impact

In professional services, the downturn favours those who are clear about their offer and communicate it distinctly. Maeve Hosea hears the case put by law firms and chartered accountants on what they are doing with their brands to stay on top of their game

A Donna Karen suit teamed with a pair of stiletto heels cut a dash in a classroom in east London, just as a piece of naive art makes a mark in a corporate law firm in Covent Garden. From helping children with their reading in an inner city school to funding Poetry in Wood, a charity that gets people with learning difficulties to express themselves with wood and mosaics, law practice Memery Crystal has made its work with local charities central to its brand identity.

Lawyers make a weekly commitment to a classroom in a Tower Hamlets school where many of the pupils have English only as a second language. Meanwhile, back in the firm’s offices, its specialisms in corporate finance, real estate, tax, litigation, intellectual property and employment are communicated with commissioned art works from the East End-based charity.

Corporate social responsibility is about finding solutions to problems while aligning your brand with a given value. The fresh use of colour and imagery found in the work of Poetry in Wood (see inset example on this page) also serves to provide Memery Crystal with a distinct look and feel in an area most known for bland, understated confidence and stock corporate cues.

As much as it is a challenge to the business, the recession is an opportunity for movers and shakers in this sector to really demonstrate who they are and what they stand for. ‘Professional services clients should be setting their brand on a fundamental truth,’ says Caroline Tremlett, account director at consultancy Brand Remedy, which refreshed Memery Crystal’s brand in April. ‘Businesses in this sector should currently be maintaining their brand and position and getting themselves ready for the upturn.’

Not so many years ago, professional services was a solid, predictable sector. The world has changed and those businesses are finding that not only has the nature of their chosen occupation irreversibly shifted, but the way they present it to their audiences has also had to move with the times. Richard Hayter, creative director of advertising agency The Gate, believes creativity in this area is stifled by the inherent problems of being trapped between wanting to look old and established, and needing to look fresh and nimble. ‘People need smart thinking delivered quickly, so professional services businesses need to think what their brand looks like when the economy and business has changed,’ comments Hayter.

Added to these parameters, professional services concerns often offer intangible, confidential and complex products, so it is hard to express the key compelling differences. ‘The company can’t be too overtly branded and you need to work with subtlety to deal with challenges such as how you demonstrate and differentiate the capabilities of a firm with one pithy statement that resonates throughout,’ says Ian Ellwood, head of consulting at Interbrand.

When law firm Laurence Graham took the decision to move its constituent parts to swanky new offices on London’s South Bank in May 2007 it sparked the decision to rebrand the firm as LG and completely reassess its identity and communication. It wanted to make sure everyone in the firm was singing from the same song sheet and brand was integral to that. ‘The LG brand serves to represent the clean, sharp and straightforward approach of the practice,’ comments an LG spokeswoman. ‘Alongside this, we took on the strapline of ‘Lawyers. Just Different’, embracing the overwhelming feedback from clients and staff that there are a number of small, but significant things that make us just that bit different’.

As the tide goes out on the economy, those wearing recognisable elements of their expertise and identity on their branded sleeve will win out. ‘At face value, the professional services businesses with strong brands should clean up because in a recession clients become risk-averse and they want a known entity that will deliver,’ says Fred Burt, managing director of brand specialist Siegel & Gale. ‘Professional businesses have to stay true to what they have been good at. Stick to the knitting, focus on what makes them the best.’

But is this sector, historically slow to embrace branding, using the discipline to its best advantage in difficult economic circumstances? Nigel Salter, director of strategy at consultancy Salter Baxter, which works extensively in this area and counts the LG rebrand among its success stories, thinks not. ‘The big four accountants are in desperate need of being jolted out of their “group think”, while the big law firms, which might have a brilliant example of the power of understatement in the coherent branding of firm Slaughter & May, are completely missing a trick with storytelling and positioning,’ he says. ‘The recession may well be the trigger for some innovative thinking, being seen most obviously with smaller firms, and some sparks of creativity that will lead them to understand the opportunity to differentiate themselves that is staring them in the face.’

Although boldness in branding is not as prominent as it could be, Salter notes that smart professional services firms are now starting to embrace a new approach to marketing. Because they are very much knowledge-based, social media channels and digital marketing are a good fit. He cites Ince & Co, a shipping and insurance firm, as working well within this context. ‘We thought they would be reluctant on Web 2.0-type features, but they have got very excited about how some of their industry experts can reinforce their position as thought leaders by using special-interest blogs and webinars,’ says Salter. ‘There is a feeling that professional services are only investing where they see results, so it not only forces them to think harder about what websites are doing, but it means they are doing more individual things.’

Another professional services firm that recently moved to stand out from the crowd with its branding is Kingston Smith, an established and developing UK top 20 chartered accountancy firm. The company has worked with 300million this year to develop its brand identity, find a way to express its core proposition, systemise its brand architecture and improve the quality and impact of its print and digital communications.

A set of brand guidelines and brand templates reflect the friendliness, proclivity to care and diversity of the firm. ‘The brand refresh sets us a million miles apart from our competitors,’ comments Amanda Merron, partner at Kingston Smith W1.

Like many firms in this sector, Kingston Smith needed to bring its staff fully together under one identity. A central part of the rebrand was an exercise in creating a common thread and a banner that the group can stand behind for the whole to be greater than the constituent parts. ‘A brand identity book was a crucial part of the process to show employees how grounded the project was and the rigorous research behind it,’ comments Merron. ‘The firm needs to live the brand, understand it and articulate it, because if there is tension, clients will see it.’

‘We understand the balance every professional service brand needs to maintain,’ comments Dom Bailey, business director at 300million. ‘The right tone of voice, the appropriate degree of impact – wrapped up and expressed consistently at all touchpoints.’

Standing out from the crowd to attract clients with their talent, expertise and business understanding while delivering an appealing and cohesive identity on an employer brand level are the key challenges of professional services firms – and these are only highlighted by the recession.

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