Mark Ritson: Ernst & Young’s rebrand raises more than a snigger

Regular readers will know that there is no bigger fan of the big accounting firms than your humble columnist. Over the years their combined attempts at branding have provided me much fodder as examples of strategies that undermine the firms’ respective positions as advisers on corporate strategy.

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Who can forget the in-fighting and subsequent implosion of Andersen Consulting? Or the infamous decision by PwC to rebrand itself as Monday, only to rebrand back to PwC barely two weeks later? And how about the mismatch between KPMG’s stated brand values of “integrity”, “leading by example” and “open and honest communication” and its recent troubles in the US where a former senior employer in audits was discovered to have been involved in insider trading. It has also been criticised for poor practice in seven audits reviewed by an industry regulator.

If ever there were evidence that those who know, do and those who don’t, consult – it can surely be found in the brand strategies of the big accounting and consulting firms. And now we have another smashing example to add to the ever-growing list.

Rebranding the stodgy and conservative sounding Ernst & Young must have made perfect sense to newly installed chief executive Mark Weinberger when he took the helm on July 1st.

“Shortening our name will provide consistency and ease of use for EY practices and clients around the world,” claimed Weinberger in the press release announcing the rebrand. Out too went the staid, monochrome Ernst & Young logo to be replaced by a bolder two letter logo from London brand consultants BrandPie, with a yellow point thingy above it that someone from a design firm is probably writing a column about as we speak.

One might have expected one of the world’s biggest audit firms to, er… audit the EY brand name prior to embarking on such a major global rebranding. Granted, checking brand names is a complex business and I make no apology if some readers get a little lost with my how-to. First you have to open Google on your desktop. Next you have to type in “EY” (remembering the speech marks and to also press enter). And third, you then have to see what pops up.

Google Image Search for “EY”
Google Image Search for “EY”

Had Ernst & Young actually completed the above brand audit it would very quickly have discovered that what “pops up” when you search for EY is a series of terrifically appealing images of young, limber men in swimwear. Long before Ernst & Young entertained the idea of an abbreviated name, EY! had existed as a gay magazine. EY! is the brainchild of Spanish creative director Luis Venegas and features young men with washboard stomachs and tight swimwear who seem to spend their days smiling, vigorously and placing their hands demurely over their genitals. I am reliably informed EY! is about as cool as it gets when it comes to gay soft porn. Venegas, who is widely regarded as a marketing genius, restricts each edition to 1,000 copies, making each one something of a collector’s item.

EY-brazil-250
EY! Magazine

“We are aware of the images in question,” claimed Amy Call, a communications director for the accounting firm, when challenged over the move by The Huffington Post last week. “It will be apparent to individuals looking for EY, the professional services organisation, that the images are not related to us.”

No shit. I’ve met a fair number of EY consultants, one of them even came to my wedding, and I can assure you that none of them looks even a little bit like Marlon Teixeira, the “hottest teenager in the world!” according to EY magazine (I have no data either way on how EY the audit firm currently ranks him). I have also enjoyed many a heated discussion with EY consultants over the years but none of them, to my knowledge, has ever offered a point of view, either way, on the strategic advantages of “speedo bumps”.

Spot the Difference – One of these is EY’s Monthly Magazine
Spot the Difference – One of these is EY’s Monthly Magazine

Clearly two big brand problems now present themselves. For EY the audit firm, there is the repeated and rather dramatic experience of encountering Marlon and his very toned mates every time you search for the firm online.

Perhaps more troubling is the branding crisis now unfolding for Venegas and his team at EY! magazine. Having spent the past five years assiduously building a cult brand with a clear and distinct focus on young, lean men in swimwear, he now faces the brand contamination of being associated with a global collection of flabby middle-aged, straight men in suits.

Perhaps he should talk to a design consultancy about rebranding?

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