The Professionalism Paradox: Why Boring Branding Hurts Accountants
I love accountants. I especially love the forward-thinking innovative accountants we work with around the world, because they can have such a positive impact on their clients’ lives.
That’s why we do what we do here at PARADOX—to create that ripple effect of change, and help great accountants and advisors become catalysts for societal change and prosperity.
Accountants are the advisors at the heart of every economy: small business. That’s why great accountants can and do change lives. We see it all the time with our members.
But few accountants ever reach this level.
In previous posts we’ve explored some of the reasons why the accounting profession has been inadvertently limiting its growth and impact, including:
- the way it sees (and defines) itself — The Numbers Paradox
- the people it continues to recruit — The People Paradox
- the skills it focuses on (and, as a result, neglects) — The Expertise Paradox and The Skill Paradox
- its focus on measuring the wrong things within an accounting firm — The Proactivity Paradox, The Active Ingredient and The Write-Offs Paradox.
And here’s another challenge (and opportunity).
The public’s perception of accountants
When I’m at a social gathering I sometimes do a handful of impromptu word association exercises with people as I chat with them, especially after they ask me what I do and I explain that PARADOX is a digital marketing agency for accountants. This usually prompts a, “But why…?” response!
After I explain how brilliant and helpful accountants can be when they focus on helping their clients with their future, instead of just reporting on their past, I ask them to say the first word that comes to mind after I say the following professions:
What do you think they commonly say for each one?
For ‘doctor’, people say words like ‘medicine’, ‘pills’, ‘hospital’, ‘nurse’ and so on. For ‘lawyer’ they say a range of things—‘court’, ‘contract’, ‘ambulance chasers’ and a few other terms I won’t share here.
For ‘accountant’ they usually say one of two things:
One is ‘tax’.
The other is—you guessed it—’boring’.
The accounting profession has an image problem. You don’t have to be Sherlock to pick up on that.
While many people think accounting is boring, those who work in the accounting profession know it’s anything but. It’s an advisory profession where you solve problems for clients. You get to reduce their stress, give them a plan for the future, help them avoid financial distress, and help them keep their business on track. You can help them take their business processes to the cloud, build their wealth, and enjoy a better life.
That’s an incredibly rewarding vocation.
So why do many outsiders think it’s boring?
One major contributor is the lack of ‘people people’ in the profession, which we’ve covered in previous posts. (See The People Paradox)
The current ‘branding for accountants’
Another contributor—and the focus of this post—is the way accounting firms typically present themselves to the world.
The way accountants brand themselves needs a major overhaul. In fact, the entire accounting profession needs a rebrand.
The typical accounting firm’s branding is the epitome of boring. They have:
- a boring name.
- a boring logo that completely ignores the importance of good design. Often in equally boring colours, it looks amateurish and out-dated; the branding equivalent of a cheap, crumpled suit.
- a boring website design that looks a decade old and isn’t mobile-responsive.
- website content that’s even more boring than the design. Dry, technical information that clients don’t read and hasn’t been updated for months.
- a social media presence that’s either boring or non-existent.
The 16 year-old
Put yourself in the shoes of a 16-year-old thinking about which career to pursue. They’ve heard good things about accounting, and how it’s a trusted and solid profession. So they get online and search on ‘accountant’ plus their city or region (and they probably search using a mobile device).
And they find your website.
What are their first impressions? What thoughts run through their mind as they read:
- your home page
- your ‘About’ page
- your ‘Why we do what we do’ page
- your blog (assuming you even have a blog. If you don’t, then you need to start one. Now.)
- your team photos (are they amateur stand-against-the-white-wall passport ‘mug shots’, or do they show a bit of flair and energy?)
Would this 16-year-old be inspired by what they see on your website? Would they be excited about being part of your team? Would they think, “Wow. Accounting looks cool. And these guys look really cool!”?
For 98% of firms out there, the answer would be no. Instead the 16-year-old thinks, “Hmmmph. Boring. Next.”
Yes, it’s a problem. But it’s also an opportunity, provided you have the right attitude and are willing to take action.
A blind spot for most accountants
For most accounting firm principals, ‘design’ is well outside their business competence. They don’t ‘get’ it, and haven’t been trained in how to harness it from a business perspective. They have unconscious incompetence: they don’t know what they don’t know. Design is completely off their radar.
And it shows.
But design matters. It’s a powerful influencing tool. People often don’t realise they’re being influenced by great design because it happens at the subconscious level. It stimulates a part of the brain—the limbic system—that has nothing to do with language. Instead it focuses on emotions, learning, and memory.
Hmmm. Emotions. Memory. Massively important stuff when it comes to influence.
Want people to remember you? Want a remarkable business—one that people often talk about? Want people to feel positive about—even love—your accounting firm’s brand?
Then start investing in design, and treating it like the serious business tool that it is. (You should also start investing in content, but that’s a topic for another day.)
And please, stop being boring. It’s the first step towards the kids thinking you’re ‘cool’ (or ‘sick’ or ‘wicked’ or ‘deadly’, or whatever term they’re using these days that for them means, “We like this”).
To help explain what I mean by design and creating ‘non-boring’ accounting firms, let me share some examples with you.
What’s in a name?
Earlier I listed “a boring name” as one of the characteristics of boring branding for an accounting firm. What do I mean by that?
Traditionally, accounting and advisory firms use the surnames of the founders/partners in the firm’s name. They think it makes them more ‘professional’. That may well be the case, but it certainly doesn’t make them very memorable.
I sometimes jibe accounting firm practitioners about their ‘dilemma’ while deciding on the name of their firm:
“Gee. I just can’t decide. Should we add ‘and Associates’ to the end of our names? Maybe we should add ‘and Partners’ instead, or perhaps ‘and Co.’? It’s such a big decision. And we’re almost out of creative juices.”
Here are some firm names imbued with the essence of their core brand message:
- ADVISE Accountants
- Change Accountants & Advisors
- Get A Life Accounting Solutions
- NEXT Accounting
- Inspire CA
- Maze Accounting
- Quantum Accounting Group
The first five are brand names our strategic copywriting team created. The other five are names the firms already had when they started using our marketing support services. (All those firms listed have sought marketing training and/or support services from PARADOX.)
Now, if these firms had stuck with ‘traditional’ names, here’s how that list of firms may have looked:
- Matt Sharwood & Co.
- Timothy Munro & Associates
- Debbie Innes & Partners
- W. James & Co.
- Smith Partners
- Steph Hinds Accounting
- Ben Walker & Associates
- Bottrell & Bottrell
- Dent & Associates
- Poole Bookkeeping Services
Memorable? Not really.
But is a message-centric brand name the be all and end all for marketing success? Of course not. You can still have great branding and effective marketing with a traditional name.
But it sure helps to have a name that encapsulates what you’re all about. It helps explain what your firm stands for, your values, and your WHY. A strategically formulated brand name keeps your marketing theme and message consistent, and makes it more ‘sticky’.
More people will remember you, and talk about you. You’ll attract more referrals, and more new clients.
Logo design and branding for accountants
Now that you’ve come up with the perfect name for your business, do not skimp on logo design.
Don’t ask a family member to design it (unless they’re graphic designers who specialise in logo design). Don’t get the work experience kid to do it. (Many accounting firm logos look like that’s exactly what happened.) And don’t get the local printer’s graphic designer to design it. (They’re usually layout graphic designers, not logo designers. And yes, there is a difference.)
You’re a professional. Use a professional designer. Or you’ll come across as amateur, like 98% of accounting firms.
Example logo designs for accountants and advisors
Here are some of the logos PARADOX has designed for accounting and business advisory firms:
A well-designed, professional logo (and colour palette) is the ‘seed’ for all your marketing material. You can’t have a ‘wow’ website if the logo in the corner is amateur and dated, and done in the navy blues, maroons, teals and greys that were popular in the 1990s.
An ordinary logo brings down all your marketing material: your website, your business cards, your letterhead and other stationery, your printed brochures and fact sheets, your advertising, your signage. Everything.
Note that I said it should be ‘professional’. That doesn’t mean:
The Professionalism Paradox
The Professionalism Paradox for accounting and advisory firms is this:
Accounting firms place a high importance on
‘appearing professional’, but mistakenly interpret it
to mean ‘traditional’ and ‘serious’.
And so branding is usually conservative and boring.
This poor branding holds back not only the growth of individual firms
but also the image of the accounting profession as a whole.
And the good news?
The good news is the bar has been set very low. It’s easy to stand out and be a remarkable accounting firm amidst this vast ‘sea of boring’!
But first you need to acknowledge and embrace the strategic importance of design in business. And then you need to invest in it. For things to change, first you must change.
And if you’re still floating around in that crowded sea, so must your branding.
What should you do next?
Download our ‘Boring vs Not Boring’ Branding for Accountants Checklist (see button below) and assess your firm across each of the 9 areas listed. Then ask some of your team members to also complete the assessment. See if there’s a gap in perceptions. Then—if you’re brave enough—ask some of your clients, referral sources and suppliers to also assess your firm’s brand, using the checklist.
If you think you might be in need of a rebrand or perhaps a brand refresh, get in touch.
So… what conclusion did you come to? Is your brand boring? Bold? Progressive?
Or being left behind?