I see it all the time in the accounting profession: firms focusing their client messages on a listing of the services that they deliver or the products that they implement.Unfortunately, these listings don't mean as much to clients and prospects as they do to the CPA firm. As a result, they don't compel clients or prospects to act. Instead, to be genuinely successful in your marketing, you must first develop a unique "brand identity" that really speaks to - and compels - your clients, prospects and your team members, too.

Creating your firm's brand

The first step in creating your firm's brand identity, or brand, is to define the mission, vision and values to which your firm is committed. Work with the key leaders in your firm, your staff and even consider an outside facilitator, to answer the following questions:

* What is your reason for being?

* What difference do you make in the lives of your clients?

* What values do you possess that you are willing to make known and be accountable to?

In defining these elements, consider that the difference you make for others is not what you do but what the results or outcomes are in the lives of others. Thus, if your mission statement reflects a listing of services, the geography you serve or the year that you formed your firm, it probably isn't expressing the difference-making that I'm suggesting.

In addition to defining the difference you'll make for others, your brand identity should also project the things that set you apart from others, or your competitive differentiators.

Competitive differentiators are value-based advantages that cause prospective clients and employees to choose you over others. Because competitive differentiators are value-based, they can vary depending upon the viewpoint of the person evaluating your firm's services. In other words, one person may see a compelling differentiator in your firm, while another person with different values sees that same differentiator as offering little value.

Competitive differentiators, or competitive advantages, can vary by person, by the product or service that they are evaluating, and by the competitors to whom you are being compared. That's why it is important to have a thorough understanding of the broad array of things that make you different as a firm, within each of your firm's service initiatives and as compared to your most frequent competitors.

Once you've defined your mission, vision and values, what makes you different and the difference you make for others, you're ready to solicit feedback from members of your team. Because they are ultimately responsible for fulfilling on your brand, you'll want to be sure to incorporate their perspective and gain their buy-in and, ultimately, their belief in the brand you create.

Telling your story

The next step in defining your brand is writing your "story" in narrative form so that you can begin to develop a construct that might be used in other elements of brand marketing, including developing your firm's graphical "look and feel," your Web site, brochure and more.

In writing your story, consider your team, your culture, the services you provide, your methodology, your unique combination of experiences, and your approach all as possible areas where you are different and ways that you can make a difference in the lives of your clients. When writing your story, you may want to hire a professional copywriter or marketing firm that specializes in brand positioning and understands your firm's profession.

Your story should cover key areas about your firm, including:

* Who you are - a brief description and history of your firm;

* Your mission, vision and values - what you stand for and your reason for being;

* Your team - who they are and why they are different;

* Your clients - defining your ideal client, not only in traditional demographics but in terms of their culture, their values and their goals, and even client quotes about your firm that support your brand positioning; and,

* Your products and services - what you offer that your defined target clients need.

Once you have written your story, you can then drill down into your key initiatives or the products and services that you want to promote independently and write a story for each of those areas using a similar format. Then, you may need to revisit the graphics that currently represent your brand. Does your logo and color scheme reflect your mission, vision, values and unique differentiators? Are the graphics you're using in collateral materials and on your Web site reflective of these things?

Communicating your brand

After you've defined your brand and committed to a story and graphics that best relate that brand to others, be sure to use portions of your story, or the entire thing, and your brand graphics everywhere you communicate with others - both internally and externally.

For instance, your company name and logo should always appear in the same colors and format. As the marketplace consistently sees the physical representation of your brand, whether it's on your building sign, in an advertisement, on your Web site or in a proposal, they will associate these graphics with what your brand stands for and who you say you are.

In addition, you will want to ensure that your story, or shortened versions of it, appear in all firm communications vehicles, including your firm's marketing brochure, its Web site, collateral materials, proposal templates, sales letters, e-mail templates, PowerPoint presentations, newsletters, employee recruitment materials, handbooks, training materials, telephone scripts and automated attendants.

Keeping your commitment

Your brand identity is much more than a one-time marketing project that you "finish" when you've defined and messaged it. Every staff member, every department and every partner needs to believe in your brand and understand how they can personally fulfill it.

Please remember, too, that your brand is something that must be kept alive by you and your team members. Communicate it regularly in team meetings. Keep your word. Do what you say you are committed to doing. Be who you say you are committed to being. Your staff will reflect these behaviors in every client, prospect and staff interaction, and your brand will flourish.

Jennifer Wilson is the co-founder and owner of ConvergenceCoaching LLC (www.convergencecoaching.com), a leadership and marketing consulting firm.

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