In Business, ‘Branding’ Is a Way of Life

A company’s brand is the perception — both within and outside the company — of what it stands for. ‘A business doesn’t just HAVE a brand; a business IS its brand’

A company I’ll call Max Accounting Services began as a two-person certified public accounting firm thirty-five years ago. Max E. Mumm, CPA, was a top-notch accountant and financial consultant. He was also a genuinely friendly fellow who won clients effortlessly through referrals and community contacts.

 

Max chose his community-service activities not according to their client potential, however, but according to his interests and principles. He was passionate about the importance of sports in children’s lives, for example. Thus he not only coached his own kids’ soccer teams but also organized new teams in areas of the city that weren’t being served.

 

Everyone in town knew that the name “Max E. Mumm” was synonymous with integrity, generosity, good humor, and professional excellence.

 

Max’s assistant, Sunny Disposition, was every bit as highly regarded as Max was. She knew each client’s name and those of the client’s spouse and children. She was invariably kind and friendly, even when, rarely, a caller or visitor was rude or condescending. Her work, like Max’s, was above reproach.

 

When Max’s practice grew beyond his ability to handle every client, he took on a partner and hired support staff, renting adjacent offices as they became available. He refused to consider bringing anyone into the firm whose personal or professional standards were even slightly dubious. After five years, Max Accounting Services consisted of eighteen friendly, honest, capable people who were as pleasant to each other as they were to clients.

 

Suddenly, it seemed, the firm numbered thirty, then forty-five. The client base — once primarily individuals, families, and sole proprietors — had shifted, with a majority of the clients being businesses with ten to a hundred employees. As occurs with many such CPA firms, Max Accounting Services began offering management consulting as well as financial services. The firm’s reputation was such that new clients came knocking and existing clients signed on for the added consulting services. More CPAs and support staff were needed in a hurry –- so quickly, in fact, that Max couldn’t supervise all the hiring.

 

The four senior partners met and promptly agreed to rename the firm “Max Management Consulting.” What was harder to agree on was how to handle the growth. Should the firm move to a larger, posher location — or, perhaps, should it open a second office in a location more convenient to businesses while continuing to handle the smaller clients at the original site?

DEFECTION + STAGNATION = WRECK OF REPUTATION

It was at this point — about ten years ago, when the firm was celebrating its twenty-fifth year in business — that Max began to suspect he had lost control of the company’s culture. His suspicion was confirmed when longtime employees whom he had hired personally began seeking him out for “a private moment,” complaining of Mr. Jones’s brusque manner or Ms. Smith’s habit of calling every female member of the support staff “Honey.” At the same time, a few formerly loyal clients defected to another firm, and growth seemed to stagnate while staff turnover accelerated.

 

When he heard Mr. Brown noisily berating the receptionist for being five minutes late one treacherously icy morning, Max knew the time had come to pull rank. Over the objections of all the partners except one, an eager beaver with an MBA, Max contracted with the firm Brand X to engage in a “branding process.”

 

Max was no fool. When Brand X had made its initial pitch, complete with an elaborate PowerPoint presentation studded with pie charts and organizational maps, Max saw straight through the jargon and its embellishments. He understood that branding was a fairly simple process but also one that demanded a great deal of legwork (for data collection), tedium (for data compilation), and creativity (to develop and present a simple, comprehensible report in complex, multisyllabic terms conveying, above all else, that Brand X had indeed earned its twenty-thousand-dollar fee).

 

The Brand X final report — 127 pages of text plus various supplemental multimedia eye candy — was based on interviews with current and former clients, employees, vendors, strategic partners, and members of the public. Through these interviews, expressed as nuggets of meaning wrapped in rhetoric, Max Management Consultants learned — just as Max had anticipated — that its most important competitive advantage was its reputation for square dealing, personal attention, and professional excellence. Brand X had also uncovered, as Max had known it would, a growing disenchantment within every group interviewed. Max Management Consultants no longer held sole possession of the “friendliest, frankest, most financially astute firm in the region” trophy.

 

Brand X’s crack design team (a guy named Tritt) had developed a friendly, frank, financially astute “graphic identity” with matching sample print ads –- copy provided by Brand X’s crack copywriting team, Jo Beth. At the final presentation, when the last slide had been oohed and aahed over and the Brand X people were packing up their projector, Max stood up and cleared his throat. The room grew quiet, and the Brand X people stood, respectfully if restlessly, waiting for Max to congratulate them on a fine job.

 

“Branding,” said Max in his straightforward way, “is more than a pretty logo and some slick ad copy. Branding is a way of life. If we are the friendliest, frankest, and most financially astute firm in the region, then we must be friendly, frank, and financially astute at all times, in every way. Those values need to be in our hearts, and in our bones. We must practice them not only with clients but also with each other, with our friends, our families, our felines. In this sense, everyone is our client.

 

“All it takes is for one of us, known to be associated with this firm, to be overheard in a rude exchange with her daughter at the mall. All it takes is for a witness to the rude exchange to whisper to his wife, ‘Doesn’t she work at Max Management Consultants, the friendliest firm in town? That didn’t sound very friendly to me.’

 

“All it takes is one person talking to two other people, each of whom talks to two other people, and so forth, before we are known for our hypocrisy rather than our high-mindedness. All it takes is for one disgruntled employee to tell his wife — who tells her best friend, who tells her office buddies — that there is internal animosity at this reputedly friendly firm.

 

“A business doesn’t just HAVE a brand,” Max concluded. “A business IS its brand.”

 

The last time I checked, Max Management Consultants was thriving. It had culled a few chronic manipulators from its staff. It began giving employees paid time off for community service. It encouraged a group of innovators to split off and form their own firm specializing in retail accounting and management. The two firms have a friendly, frank, and fruitful relationship. Every employee is a member of the Max Management Consultants unofficial fan club. Naysayers needn’t apply.

 

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