Can a PKF be a brand?

I’m going to open a can a worms.

I’ve seen many PKF undertake a branding initiative in the past decade or so, usually at the behest of marketing consultants. I’ve always believed it to be a fad, since a PKF cannot really be branded the way a soft drink, hotel, airline or automobile can be.

Brands provide marginal incremental value to their customers, by reducing search costs, insuring quality and consistency, not to mention the physiological effects a brand can have on the brain and body (yeah, I know, this sounds surreal, but it’s been documented with fMRI scans).

After working in the advertising sector for years, attending and speaking at the Association of National Advertisers conferences, and watching my brother work on brands at Procter & Gamble, I can confidentially add: PKFs have no idea how to build a brand. A company like Coke or P&G invests inordinate amounts of money in their brands, speaking and treating them as if they were human beings. No PKF even comes close to this level of investment, detail, commitment, or reverence of a brand.

I don’t see how a PKF spending money on branding adds one penny of value to its customers.

I believe PKFs have reputations, not brands. Perhaps a case can be made that the Big 4, as well as the major consulting firms—such as McKinsey, Bain, Accenture, etc.—are brands. But one of the defining features of a brand is it enables consistent premium pricing. It’s very hard to see how customers pay a smaller PKF a premium because of its “brand.”

Bruce Marcus, marketing consultant to the professions, has written about this topic extensively, and has a recent article in Rain Today that is worth pondering. He has other articles on his Web site on this topic as well.

I know a few of my VeraSage colleagues disagree with me on this issue, specifically Paul O’Byrne and Chris Marston, perhaps others. All I can say is when you look at the UK consultancy Interbrand’s Top 100 Brands for 2007, the only PKF that makes the list is Accenture, and depending on how broad the definition of PKF is, IBM (but they sell products, too).

I suppose my point is there’s better things a PKF below the Big 4 and Top-tier firms can invest in, such as better customer service, intellectual capital, pricing competency, understanding value, etc. These things will actually add value to customers. It’s hard to see how a consistent logo, letterhead, signage and advertising adds a nickel of value to the customer, though it may feed the partner’s egos. Let’s leave branding to the pros.

I’d loved to hear your thoughts on this.


  1. I’m not sure what a PKF is, but I think you’re doing a disservice to branding with your discussion. The inference is a brand is a logo, letterhead, signage or advertising. It’s not. A brand is the promise an organization makes to its customers. That’s it. It is how they’re perceived by their customers and it’s based on all of their experiences with the organization. To have a strong brand it needs to be relevant to your customers and you need to consistently deliver on your promises. So, in a way a brand and reputation are synonymous. Strong brands do command higher margins and are easier to sell.

  2. Ron Baker says:

    Thanks Alex, I appreciate the comments, and I agree with you, to a point. PKF = Professional Knowledge Firm.

    I do not mean to do a disservice to branding at all. My point was not that a brand is a logo, letterhead, etc. I was saying that’s what most PKFs think of as a brand, and that’s what their branding campaigns end up being.

    I think a brand is much deeper than reputation, and you’re right, it’s also a promise. But it’s very hard for a PKF to deliver “consistently,” especially when you’re dealing with human beings. This is the point Bruce Marcus makes that I find compelling. The axiom that customers hire people, not firms, is mostly true, except perhaps for the very largest PKFs.

    I want to be clear: I’m not slamming branding. I’m saying that smaller PKFs, in effect, cannot have a brand in the pure marketing sense–they have reputations.

    I’ve talked with many marketing and advertising agencies experts about this, which is how I’ve come to form my viewpoint.

  3. Ed Kless says:

    To jump here – I think Ron is right. What some firms call branding (logos, brochures, et al) is certainly not real branding.

    I do think that a PKF must spend some money on those things. Consistency is important, but, and this is a big BUT, the first rule of PSF and PKF branding is this – HAVE GREAT SERVICE and KNOWLEDGE. For more of this read the opening chapters of Harry Beckwith’s Selling the Invisble.

    He quotes Guy Kawasaki’s first rule of marketing – Get better reality!

  4. My $0.02 worth … In my former life I was a Chartered Accountant, Partner of a firm, and have been through the firm building / branding process.

    1. I agree, it is often about ego, however, a clean, crispy, simple, recongisable logo and stationery design is needed.

    2. Is this ‘branding’ … no I tend to agree it is not, rather it is a ‘marking’ or ‘identity’ for the firm.

    3. Does it work … in my experience yes. We had very bright (blue and green) logo colours and a unique design which stood out. During a ‘business card draw’ at one function, a person at the back of the room saw the card drawn and yelled out ‘not you again Dean’ … all because he couls see the colour and design of the card.

    4. Did this design, itself, get us more work or add value to clients … no, I agree. But what it did was differentiate us, gave our team some ego (having such a great business card) and help to ‘differentiate’ us.

    5. Was reputation more important. YES, without a good reputation the benefit of the corporate colours and design is totally lost.

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