Superglueing Professional Services Firms: Brand Identity for the Future

When – and how – should professional services businesses rebrand? More than just getting a new logo, that means evolving from their original status as teams of partners, into mature organisations with their own distinctive culture and brand identity.

With the original team departing and their once-familiar names diluted, a special kind of glue is needed to hold the organisation together through wrenching changes that in some ways resemble post-merger integration. After all, your best assets walk out of the building every night. Will they came back next morning?

As the succession process gathers momentum, tradition based on personality gives way to a new collective identity based on shared values. Core motivations or skills that individual partners have championed individually, are “blended” into the new identity as a values-driven organisation takes shape.

Early kinds of Superglue packaged their active ingredients in two separate tubes, which bonded only when mixed together. These days, the “Superglue ingredients” bonding professional services firms are brand and internal communications.

You can’t deliver full employee engagement around a brand without good internal communication. It works the other way around too: good internal communication, set to “receive mode,” is the best way to test and ensure that the new brand makes sense.

Empirical Solutions.

Rebranding professional services firms is about much more than a superficial coat of paint, or a PR campaign. Like pulling in a piece of string, starting the process can lead managers and their advisers in unexpected directions, as issues arise that are swept under the carpet in the daily battle of business-getting.

Professional services firms like management consultancies – used to dealing with the “hard stuff” of strategy, need to keep an eye on the “soft stuff” of people engagement, too.

To resolve issues of succession, culture and long-term commercial effectiveness, partners old and new must sit down to hash things out. The agenda can be summarized in three linked questions: “Where have we come from (culture); where are we heading (shared goals); and what guides us along the way (values)?”

To rebrand one’s firm is an experience sometimes surprisingly loaded with emotions. Greater confidence, excitement and camaraderie are signs of success. Likewise, new clarity and clear contracting between partners results in advances with recruiting new employees and teamwork. Clients notice that too. They like to see that a trusted advisory firm is looking after itself as well it looks after them.

This process is a science, not an art. And cultural transformation tools are available for the Barrett Values Centre to ensure decisions are based on empirical evidence harvested from deep inside the organisation. In contrast to a “top-down” decision hashed out by handful of managers that may have little resonance either in the marketplace or in the staff cubicles, this process ensures every employee at least has a voice – if not a final vote. If you want everyone to sign up to the future, then you’d better ask everyone what he or she thinks.

That’s what a Cultural Values Assessment can do, using a simple three-stage online survey. Firstly, what are the personal values that each key decision-maker or employee holds dear? Second, how do they see the culture and values of the organisation today? Finally, what is the cultural profile of the organisation they would really like to work for in future?

The aggregated answers to these three questions don’t just provide a snapshot of the prevailing culture, as well as pointers toward the future. They represent the raw material for the collaborative process of designing Mission, Vision and Core Values, upon which the entire rebranding exercise should be based.

This ensures the new corporate story – when it is directed toward external communications channels – resonates both inside and outside the company, and satisfies both old and new generations.

Rebranding Stories

The actual decision usually makes itself. The retirement or death of a founder triggers the step forward from a successful, but personality-based alliance, to become a “larger than the sum of the partners” corporate entity.

That’s when law firms – whose original titles can be longer than one of those New York Times four-decker headlines – generally start to “go corporate” by shedding a few names, defunct or otherwise.

Auditing or accounting firms with their own management consulting arms, often choose this moment to “do the splits” and rebrand as separate legal entities. In the US, Cornerstone Accounting Group a specialist auditor for the real estate industry, renamed itself in 2008 and simultaneously spun off its consulting arm.

Among the “Big Four” consulting groups, the latest rebranding operation came in September 2010 with the rebadging of that hard-to-write-and-harder-to-speak PriceWaterhouseCoopers name as the simpler PwC. But strip away the pizzazz, and it’s just another case of “old family names give way to new acronym.” It’s the final stage of the process that went to warp-speed in 1988 with the merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand.

It may have taken a few years for dunces to recognize that fallen-over dunce’s hat sitting on top of the Accenture logo is in fact a “fast-forward” sign with its “accent on the future”, but the company’s branding and subsequent stellar performance has effectively hidden its past from view.

Accenture started life in the 1950s as a branch of accounting giant Arthur Andersen that in 1989 became the standalone Andersen Consulting. By 1998 the two firms were ready for an acrimonious divorce and the consulting arm took the name Accenture in 2001 – just in time to see its old parent Arthur Anderson self-destruct over the Enron scandal.

Likewise, architecture practices tend to slim down to acronyms that only dimly recall their founders.  Look in Architect magazine and you’ll see five of the top 10 US firms have now gone to “alphabet soup” names. Architecture firm Quinn Evans, is a 25 year-old specialist in revitalising landmark properties with offices in Michigan, Wisconsin and Washington, DC. Quinn Evans rebranded and reinvented itself and handed the leadership baton the firm’s younger generation of architects — without sacrificing historical preservation focus conceived by its founders.

This changing of the guard can be a painful process for families and dependents of the original partners. Yet to a rising generation of associate partners and ambitious young rainmakers, it’s a crucial demonstration of trust and faith in the future, from responsible stewards willing to hand over the reins to create an evolving business that blends the best of the old and the new.

With the ‘Superglue ingredients’ of brand and internal communications well mixed, professional services firms are well positioned to face the future.

Richard House is a licenced practitioner of Cultural Transformation Tools from the Barrett Values Centre.


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