Build corporate brands from inside out

What would you like to grow today? How about a branding competence?

The big news late last week was the imminent global rebranding of PricewaterhouseCoopers to pwc. The press release announcing that “the most recognisable brand among the Big Four global professional services organisations” was about to refresh its brand tells you all you need to know about the strategic reason for the move. Despite billions in revenues and decades of heritage, the best thing the brand can claim right now is that it is the most recognised of the four big audit firms. Beyond this slightly elevated level of brand awareness, there is very little perceived differentiation between pwc and KPMG, Ernst & Young or Deloitte.

Achieving some genuine perceived differentiation for pwc would bestow some of the classic strategic advantages of a strong corporate brand.

First, as a professional services firm, you could increase your attractiveness to clients and eventually the fees you charge them. Internally, a stronger brand would drive employer brand strength, which is a major advantage when all you sell is people and those people are currently moving back and forth between the big four brands with gay abandon. And finally it would resolve the current embarrassment of being a consulting firm that apparently cannot run its own business properly. It’s hard to advise others on strategic differentiation when you’ve yet to achieve it yourself.

Any time a brand with billions in revenues and thousands of employees goes through a rebrand it is big news. But pwc is especially interesting because it has past form. In May 2002 the company spun off its consulting arm with the help of Wolff Olins and rebranded it “Monday”. Along with the name came a new position: “Sharpen your pencil, iron your crisp white shirts, set the alarm clock, relish the challenge, listen, be fulfilled, make an impact, take a risk.”

Aside from the ridiculous perkiness of the positioning and the impracticality of the name, the Monday rebranding was truly remarkable for the lack of brand engagement that was conducted as part of the process. Indeed, many of Monday’s staff only discovered the new name of their company when they arrived for work on the first Monday of Monday (if you see what I mean). As one employee told the BBC on launch day:

“We’ve had hysterics in our office all morning. This is out of the blue to us as well.”

Along with the infamous Consignia saga, it was the worst executed and shortest lived rebrand of the past decade. Four months and £75m later, Monday was sold to IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers shrugged off the incident and went back to business.

But now it is at it again and one would expect the firm to have learned from past experience. The initial signs, however, are not good. For starters, it has hired the same branding firm – Wolff Olins – that made such a balls-up of Monday in 2002. It’s an interesting choice that suggests that either Wolff Olins has improved greatly in the past eight years or pwc’s marketing team has turned over completely since 2002.

To achieve traction with a new corporate brand campaign, engage with the staff from the start

To work out which is the appropriate explanation, we need to know the degree to which pwc and Wolff Olins have engaged with employees during this current rebrand process. The initial signs are not good. In Australia – which pwc has selected as the first country for the global rollout of its new brand identity – managing partner of strategic marketing Mary Waldron claimed that the firm’s partners had been given a “sneak peak” of the new campaign this month and had been “overwhelmingly positive” about the new direction the firm is taking.

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See Mark Ritson appear at The Annual, Marketing Week’s new conference on 29 September 2010

The fact this was only a “sneak” peak, that it was done only in the last week or so and apparently reserved for just the partners of the firm suggests that pwc may be about to make the same mistake as 2002.

To achieve traction with a new corporate brand campaign, engage with the staff from the start. You build corporate brands from the inside out and the only proper way to do that is not to isolate the brand development within a small team of internal marketing specialists and external brand consultants.

One further concern with the new campaign is the strapline that pwc Australia is using for its launch. Along with the new logo, billboards and websites now challenge consumers to ask themselves “What would you like to grow?” Perhaps it’s my misspent youth, but the first few things that popped into my mind had nothing to do with revenues or profits. Then again, adopting the kind of slogan that you would usually associate with Viagra or hydroponics might be exactly what it takes for pwc to finally stand out from the generic big four firms.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award-winning columnist and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands


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