Professional services companies such as CPA firms are unique animals when it comes to marketing.

Their offerings are, for the most part, intangible—time, experience and expertise. Unlike manufacturing businesses and other product-based companies, service firms live or die by the trust their clients put in them. And that trust is built by the employees who interact day in and day out with those clients.

For this reason, your employer brand is especially important because that, in large part, is what attracts and keeps employees. The more attractive and respected the brand, the easier it is to draw in the best and the brightest talent. That, in turn, will give you a competitive advantage and the ability to attract more business, create greater value to support higher rates, and help ensure long-term growth and profitability.

What is an employer brand? Simply put, it’s your reputation as a place to work. It can have general elements (for example, “a great place to work”) and very specific attributes (“they have a very high-pressure culture” or “they have the most family-friendly benefits in the state”).

Employer brands also vary by the level of visibility they have within certain groups of potential employees and referral sources. For example, one firm’s employer brand may be well known at one university and virtually unknown at another.

To create a positive employer brand you need to have a sound employer branding strategy. Here are five things you’ll want to consider as you develop your own strategy:

1. Your employer brand must support your overall business strategy.

Like any business asset, your employees create value for your firm in direct proportion to the value they provide your clients. Some business models require hiring talent of the highest caliber to provide high-level consulting while others need lower-cost employees to process tax returns. Clearly, these two scenarios demand very different employer branding strategies.

Failure to take the business model into account can have devastating effects. When the strategies are out of alignment, messaging can get muddled and it becomes difficult to build a meaningful employer brand.

2. Your strategy must be transparent and visible.

If your employer brand strategy is not transparent and easily understood, it is unlikely to be effective. All of your important audiences, both internal and external, should be able to articulate its key features.

If your brand message is too complex or opaque, your team will have trouble conveying it. In the absence of a clear strategy, each manager and employee will feel free to implement whatever “brand” they prefer, often from a narrow perspective. Much like the old joke about the blind men trying to describe an elephant, this approach (or lack of one) is doomed to failure. And, unfortunately, this situation is all too common in professional services firms.

You face another set of challenges in the outside world. If a prospective employee or a referral source doesn’t know you exist or cannot understand your employer brand, he or she will end up working or sending someone somewhere else.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s another downside to the lack of transparency. It raises a variety of concerns among many candidates: “Why don’t they want to talk about their culture and strategy? Do they have something to hide?” Candidates with well-known options often end up elsewhere.

3. It must be consistent with how you treat clients.

It’s hard to live a lie. Unfortunately, that’s how employees can feel if your employer brand strategy is at odds with your overall firm brand. Suppose you have an approach to clients that emphasizes high levels of technical expertise. You expect employees to reflect this value in their client interactions, right?

But does your employer brand support this? Does it, in fact, value and support the continuing development of expertise? Or does it value utilization instead? Unless you can align these two experiences, there will be conflict and disappointing results.

4. Build your brand on reality.

An employer brand can be somewhat aspirational. But as with your overall firm brand, it should not be founded on guesses and wishful thinking. In the absence of sound research, however, that’s exactly what’s likely to happen.

Our studies into professional services firms show that those that conduct target audience research grow faster and are more profitable. When you understand how your firm is perceived in the marketplace—and your audiences’ priorities—you have a market advantage than can produce higher performance. Ignorance introduces risk. Research reduces that risk.

In your research, be sure to sample current employees, referral sources and prospective employees. Understanding what is important to them, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of your current reputation, can be pivotal in developing a winning employer brand strategy.

5. Monitoring and optimizing performance produces the results.

You will be making a substantial investment in your employer branding initiative. To enjoy the full benefit of this investment, however, you will need to track its performance.

This will allow you to determine what is working so that you can make necessary adjustments to your strategy and implementation plan. In the absence of ongoing measurement, you will be faced with the prospect of making program adjustments based on anecdotes and hunches.

Building a successful brand starts internally. When a company has a positive culture and work ethic, understands and embraces it, and then develops a strategy to promote it, it attracts top-notch employees and the clients who appreciate them and the value they provide. Together, those are catalysts for growth and success.

Lee Frederiksen

Lee Frederiksen

Lee Frederiksen, PhD, is managing partner of Hinge, a branding and marketing firm for professional services. Hinge conducts research into high-growth firms and offers services for firms that want to become more visible and grow.