Studying this technical article and answering the related questions can count towards your verifiable CPD if you are following the unit route to CPD and the content is relevant to your learning and development needs. One hour of learning equates to one unit of CPD. We'd suggest that you use this as a guide when allocating yourself CPD units.

This article was first published in the February/March 2020 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

In any sector where there is plenty of overlap between the services that firms offer and the value they add, branding may be the only way to stand out from the crowd.

Why be more punk, you may ask, if we need to be seen as a safe pair of hands? The answer is that your market is already brimming with long-standing incumbents, including the Big Four. These are seen as the safest bet and, if in doubt, clients will always default to the market leaders.

But building a bold, fresh brand needn’t come at the expense of trust or credibility. We only have to look at young brands that have successfully disrupted saturated markets to understand this. Earlier this year, the millennial-appeal of branchless, app-based banks Monzo, Revolut and Starling was identified as a leading cause for diminishing the brands of seven UK high-street banks, which lost a collective £1.6bn in brand value in one year, according to Kantar.

Part of their appeal is what they offer – something that’s refreshingly different from normal banks, such as digital-first banking with no queuing in branches, the ability to budget income and ring-fence ‘pots’ of money within the app, and no fees or exchange-rate markups for spending abroad. But the deeper appeal of Monzo, for example, is its commitment to transparency and simple language: it has even published its ‘tone of voice’ guidelines on its website. It’s striving to create an emotional bond with its customers, as well a brand worthy of social media sharing.

Anyone can do it

But given that most accountancy firms are neither disrupters nor challengers – and simply smaller and more agile than their rivals – is it still possible to stand out? Certainly, and cutting through the complexity and jargon of tax matters is something that any accountancy firm can replicate.

True disrupters create and iterate their products to alter and improve the status quo, and their branding follows suit. Firms without a disruptive product can still borrow from that mindset, changing the game in how they engage with clients and prospects.

Many accountancy firms today still make the mistake of producing marketing material that is all about them, and often at great expense. Yet for the most part, their clients don’t care about them at all. The trick is to rethink your brochureware to make it far more about your clients and their challenges, while still showing how you can help solve their real-world problems. The target here is to achieve radical empathy – talking to clients about what really matters to them in a way that exudes humanity, and delivered in a format that’s easy to consume.

Mapp is a good example from another sector; its punk brand philosophy goes deeper than its rebel sheep mascot. The US-based cloud marketing technology platform finds numerous opportunities to drum home the message that it has built a product for marketers that don’t want to follow the flock. Its content is evidently created to help its marketing clients do their jobs better.

In reality, most products and services in any competitive set are broadly comparable. There are very few bad ones. If social media has done one thing of real value in the world of B2B, it’s been to kill off the lemons. Today, there’s nowhere to hide for poor products and rubbish customer service. This also means that competition is stiffer than ever before.

To be more punk, figure out your point of differentiation. A good rule of thumb is this: when you clearly have a unique product, focus on that in your branding and marketing. But if what you offer is broadly at parity with your rivals, then focus on differences in how you do what you do. If everyone does it the same way (and many accountancy firms do), then focus on why you do what you do.

This means creating a brand that has real purpose that is relevant to clients. A great example is HSBC. In December, the bank announced that, as part of its ‘commitment to supporting the people and communities of the UK’, it would offer current accounts to the homeless, making it a lot easier for those with no fixed home address to receive benefits.

Importantly, you can’t simply pay lip service to your purpose. It must be rooted in what matters to the leadership of the business – a good place to start is exploring why they started the firm in the first place, rather than simply climbing the ladder at another established practice. What were they trying to fix?

Another is to find an enemy. What do you hate about the way firms in your sector operate? Is it the jargon, the glacial speed of change, the tendency to put numbers before people? For example, what would it mean to become the un-accountancy practice?

This is the direct route to becoming more punk and making sure you stand out in the market.

Jason Ball is founder of B2B marketing agency Considered Content.