Reprinted with permission by CPA Practice Management Forum
For nearly a half-century, the Iron Curtain was the most mysterious geopolitical symbol in the world. Behind it, American school children were taught, people lived colorless Communist lives, waiting in long lines for shoddy goods, hungry for freedoms Westerners took for granted.
Because entry and exit were tightly controlled, it was particularly exciting (and daunting!) to visit a Soviet bloc country in the 1970s. My mother is from Romania and during two college summers I lived with relatives in a tiny village near the city of Timisoara near the Hungarian border.
I loved wandering the streets, taking in the foreignness of the streetscape and the expressions of the people. I was especially fascinated by the drabness of the shops with their sparsely stocked shelves – rare blue jeans and bobby pins among coveted Western goods.
Retail was generic. Shops called Meat Store, Pharmacy and Milk Store offered brown-paper-wrapped products that lacked the appealing names and brightly printed packages of the Colgate, Oreo and Velveeta brands I knew.
In an effort to dissuade commercial competition, the stores and the goods in them were indistinguishable. There was nothing in the system to create preference and loyalty.
The Commodity Firm
Decades later I find myself pondering the images that so impressed me in the 1970s. Consulting with CPA firms, I observe they are literally indistinguishable from one another, I’m reminded of the sameness of those Romanian shops. This time around we have colors instead of drab brown, but the problem is similar.
Visit the websites of 100 firms (I have) and you’ll be amazed at the lack of variation. The problem exists on many levels – from the physical appearance of the websites to the content of their messages that proclaim: We are responsive to your needs. We are technically competent. We care about our clients. We are terrific.
Commoditization is a big problem in our profession, and few firms can boast a bona fide market position that distinguishes them in any significant way. But there are a few breaking out of this commodity trap. These few communicate directly to targeted buyer groups in the buyers’ language about the buyers’ issues. Firms in the vanguard of this slow change talk less about how wonderful they are, and hone in on the buyer. There’s very little chest thumping and lots of focus on problems and solutions.
The Color of Preference
The emerging field of NeuroMarketing is being used to study client preferences. Researchers scan subjects’ brains while showing them various images in an effort to see what gets people excited, as indicated by specific color patterns, and what leaves them cold.
According to an article on NeuroMarketing by Patrick Renvoise, the founder and president of a company called SalesBrain, what lights up the brain are messages about the individual himself or herself. When advertisers displayed pictures of their own product or service, they did not fire up the brain like more self-centered images. These bright orange vs. dull grey brain activity snapshots are fascinating!
A New Frontier
The new frontier that holds great promise for buyer-centric communications is social media. It puts powerful tools in the hands of CPAs, not just communications professionals. It reminds me of a time not so long ago when the personal computer became a powerful new tool in the hands of users. When this happened, all manner of creativity and new computer usage opened up.
Social media tools bring communications professionals and CPAs together to create the breakthrough needed for branding that speaks at the individual buyer level. It takes the form of powerful thought leadership and a two-way electronic conversation with buyers.
We can’t imagine all the usages of these relatively new tools, just as we could never have predicted the applications of today’s PCs. However, forward thinking firms will have the opportunity to truly differentiate and get out of the me-too trap in their communications. They understand the power of communicating with the buyer in his or her language, grabbing the branding high ground, and enabling them to establish market dominance.
What’s the takeaway? Let go of the predictable, self-promoting messages and talk to your prospects about them, not you. Focus instead on specific issues and solutions. Do it on your website, in your social media, in your marketing materials and in your proposals. Never before have we had the tools to communicate so personally and directly with clients and prospects.
Dare to distinguish yours from the brown-paper-wrapped commodity firms out there. Instead, create an organization that’s bright, distinctive and dedicated to something beyond its own self reflection.