The concept of branding is still fairly new to the tax and accounting profession. And even though more firms are recognizing its importance, misconceptions about branding (what it is and what it does for a firm) cling like a sticky residue.

Ask most firms what a brand is and you most often hear: a logo. Plain and simple. And while a logo is an important element, it should be understood that branding is a much larger animal than a stand-alone symbol.

The simplified definition of a brand is: "A name or a trademark associated with a product or service." Today, however, that definition has evolved, and a brand should more appropriately be thought of as an overriding philosophy. Or even better, a set of fundamental principles understood by all those who come in contact with a company. For example, what are the fundamental principles associated with Apple? Groundbreaking technology; bold, brilliant, contemporary communications; premium products; and exceptional customer service.

A brand cannot evolve from a single visual element. Instead, it is the result of all experiences, expectations and information associated with that brand. Not to beat a dead horse, but further clarification never hurt anyone (unless you are the horse). Take retailer Target: Beyond the name and logo, the Target brand is much bigger and more invasive in the minds and hearts of consumers. Target has become an iconic symbol, developed through creative advertising, excellence in customer service, positive imagery, quality products, and a consumer-friendly pricing model. The big red target image on its own, though highly recognizable, says little about the company's philosophy, and certainly does not pack enough punch to have driven the Target brand to legendary status.

So roll out the paper towels - it's time to wipe away the residue and see branding clearly. A better understanding will help firms implement proper branding strategies and ultimately elevate visibility and presence, and define their own set of principles.

FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES

To create a set of fundamental principles that truly define who you are, you have to put in the time. You also have to take risks and let go of branding misconceptions. Nobody likes a sticky residue, so cleanse your mind and start with a fresh perspective. The following tips will help your firm move forward with a strong branding strategy.

* Abandon misconceptions. Proper branding requires a solid knowledge of what it is to brand one's firm. Plopping in a logo with a creative tagline is only one small piece of the pie. Branding takes patience and occurs over time. As you promote your strengths, define your areas of expertise, and communicate your message consistently, your brand image will develop and you will receive the positive attention you deserve. Don't think that you can build your brand in a day. Remember Rome.

* Do what you claim. If you want to build a positive brand image, you must do what you claim. No one firm can be the best at everything, so an honest analysis of what it is that your individual firm does best is critical. If you are famous for outsourced chief financial officer and payroll services, then focus on promoting these services. If you claim to have the best client support, then you better follow through. Remember, the expectations and experiences of your clients are a part of your brand.

* Don't try to appease everyone. You have a choice: You can do a few things very well, or many things just okay. You can't please everyone, so stick with your core competencies to help develop your brand.

* Maintain your branding. (But only if it's all good). Branding is a never-ending endeavor. If you are going to take on branding, be prepared to work at it consistently. Branding is not static; it is organic. So as your firm grows, so should your branding efforts. Would you really use the same marketing brochure for 10 years? Change is constant; your brand needs to keep up. Also understand that there is no sense in maintaining a brand that has failed your firm. If your brand is outdated or doesn't effectively communicate who you are, it may be time to re-evaluate and considered rebranding efforts.

* Maintain consistency in message. Consistency is important, as you don't want to send conflicting, confusing messages to your core audience. Be sure that your message is consistent across all communications - both internal and external. Picture this: Your firm offers technologically advanced, Web-based client services. As such, you market your firm as tech-savvy and progressive, yet your interior office is cluttered with paper files and filing cabinets and your marketing materials are severely outdated. This is not a consistent message and will most certainly damage your brand image.

* Claim your creativity. Get in touch with your creative side. A thoughtful branding strategy, peppered with a fair dose of creativity, will help differentiate your firm from the pack. Launch innovative marketing campaigns; promote your strengths in a cool, quirky way. Ultimately, don't be afraid to stray from Camp "Corporate Blue."

START THE DRIVE

Branding requires a solid understanding of what is involved. Beyond a cool logo and snappy taglines, branding encompasses all of the expectations and experiences associated with your firm.

If developed correctly, a proper branding strategy helps to build your firm's business persona. How do clients and prospects view you and your firm? Do you have a good personality or one they want to avoid? Does your brand make clients want to return and prospects seek you out?

A sound brand strategy is critical in today's competitive marketplace. Just don't be fooled into taking shortcuts. Branding doesn't happen overnight; it takes time and patience and encompasses many elements. Remember, a logo alone is not a brand - unless of course you're leading the cattle drive armed with a hot iron.

Kristy Short, Ed.D, is a managing partner in SAS Communications 360 (www.sascommunications360.com) and RootWorks Communications (www.rootworks.com) - firms dedicated to providing public relations, branding, and marketing services to the accounting profession. She is also a professor of English and marketing at the University of Phoenix and Cleary University. Reach her at kristy@rootworks.com.

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