Denver-based Top 100 firm Hein & Associates didn't want to be anyone's secret -- even a good one, as managing partner Brian Mandell-Rice had become accustomed to hearing from clients.

"It's not all that appealing to say 'best-kept secret,'" he explained. "We had to try to get our brand out there a little more and think that, as a firm clearly interested in growth, we wanted a much more visible brand. We needed refreshing."

The refresh became a two-year rebranding effort headed by the internal team of national marketing director Dorothy Donnelly, national marketing manager Kim Daly and marketing associate Caitlin Mead. And it began with research into the firm's messaging and positioning. To discover Hein's current market buzz, the team polled: Hein's 32 partners; a cross-section of its 201 employees from each of the firm's four offices in Denver, Houston, Dallas, and Irvine, Calif.; and 20 of Hein's audit and assurance, tax, and business advisory clients across the firm's five industry specializations.

And the one word that everyone was hearing was a familiar one -- or, at least, a more concise version of it.

The firm was known in the marketplace simply as "Hein," a discovery that both dovetailed into the next step of the marketing team's process, but also threatened to derail it.

After Donnelly joined Hein, a few months before the firm kicked off the rebranding plan in early 2010, she knew partner buy-in was critical, and it hit a crossroads when talk turned to simplifying the firm's name in new logo art.

"There was some debate," Donnelly recalled. "The original logo was Hein & Associates, LLP, and 'Certified Public Accountants and Advisors.' The firm is really proud of our professionalism and adherence of a professional standard. That really communicated the sophistication of the firm."

 

MOVING CAREFULLY

Donnelly knew the team had to tread lightly in suggesting drastic changes, and she did so by selecting a few words of her own. "It's not a 'change of a logo,' but a 'refresh,'" she remembered explaining. "Exploring is good, instead of dictating -'Take a look at it.'"

Hein interviewed eight different agencies before selecting Boulder, Colo., design and interactive agency Vermilion to handle both the visual branding and Web site revamp. The original plan was to start with the site, but "secretly the marketing team knew if we went down the road of the Web site, the logo would need to be refreshed as well," Donnelly explained. "We let the partners come to the conclusion themselves that, 'Yeah, I see this isn't working.'"

This strategy of steering while conceding approval was essential when presenting logo options.

"One way to convince them, is because the visual brand could reinforce what the verbal brand was," Donnelly continued. "As we developed the Web site, we had the old logo plugged in to various concepts and were showing [the partners]. We had six different directions that were whittled down to three. They could kind of see, [the old logo] doesn't present very well. I just suggested they allow us to explore the options and they could stay with [the old logo] if they wanted to, but just throw a few dollars toward exploration."

Before even broaching these suggestions to the partners, of course, that dollar amount had to be clarified.

"As a marketing team, we stepped back and did a lot of research and broke down work into phases and what we could do to manage in a budget that would be palatable for the partners. We debunked myths, like that building a new Web site has to cost $100,000 - it's something very different from that in terms of what it costs. To stay in budget is palatable, by using in-house talent and looking for outside help where we needed it. They agreed."

In addition to the agency, Hein also brought in a freelance professional writer to help with messaging, a graphic designer to uphold new branding standards, and, later, a separate agency to implement search engine optimization once the new site was complete.

 

MAKING THE DECISION

Donnelly stressed the importance of not rushing any part of this process, with open communication at all levels throughout -- especially since partner approval at each stage was never a given.

"Wholesale change is very difficult for organizations and, in general, accountants are particularly skeptical of sweeping change," she said. "We presented multiple versions of changing logos, from a close change to a drastic new look, and [the chosen logo] ended up in the middle or closer to progressive than we expected."

In addition to excising the wordy "& Associates: Certified Public Accountants and Advisors" from after the "Hein" name, the overhauled logo features a new font and three curved arches in warm colors, and solves old format-readability issues.

The final decision was made by the marketing team, Mandell-Rice and the partners-in-charge of the four regional offices, causing some friction.

"We received some heat on that after the fact," Donnelly acknowledged. "When we rolled it out internally, there was some criticism for not including the broader partner group on the decision, and we knew there would be. We were kind of making a decision between including everyone and slowing down the process with 30 decision-makers, which was almost close to a path to failure. In retrospect, we could have done more to involve the broader partner group, but ultimately, we would have ended up where we were -- we ended up with a brand that really suits the firm."

The Web site had to match, but with room to accommodate the firm growth that Mandell-Rice anticipates.

"A year and a half ago, we really put a much larger focus on acquiring specialized talent, and the development of our people," he reported. "We have our eye out for strategic acquisitions and new service lines."

Hein's current service lines encompass five industries: energy, manufacturing, private equity, real estate and construction, and technology. Each is highlighted in-depth on the new site in an attempt to create greater interaction with the marketplace, Donnelly said. That will soon extend to whitepapers, articles, webinars, blogs and other online resources. Energy is one industry in which Hein is well-equipped to share expertise, as a provider of specialized tax and advisory services in the areas of alternative energy, mining, and oil and gas.

"Our first focus is energy, and we're clearly growing that practice," shared Mandell-Rice. "From the compliance side, it's more important to bolster that expertise nationwide."

Hein also serves clients globally, a fact that Donnelly hopes the refreshed image will spread beyond the firm's more possessive clients - those who wanted to keep it a secret. She has already seen the new messaging enthusiastically initiated inside the firm, most notably among those early doubters.

"The thing I love about skeptics is that once they get turned around, they're your biggest advocates," she explained. "Some of the most critical people are bringing that brand out to the marketplace, in business cards or a logo-accompanied sponsorship. The feedback is so incredibly positive, and some of the biggest skeptics are now the biggest fans of the brand."

Every issue, Accounting Today features a firm that's doing something different and interesting, whether it's pioneering a new service offering, exploring a new practice structure, or trying new ways to market themselves. If you think your firm has an interesting story, e-mail us at AcToday@SourceMedia.com with the details. 

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