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Managing Brand Integration in a Merger-Happy Market

By Joe Walsh and Burkey Belser
June 20, 2012
Managing Brand Integration in a Merger-Happy Market

Read Joe Walsh and Burkey Belser's article below or at Accounting Today to learn more about integrating brands in mergers.

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What comes after saying, "I do," in an accounting firm merger?  Lots of work integrating brands and handling other merger details—all adding up to a true labor of love.

J.H. Cohn and Reznick recently shared their plans to merge to create the nation’s 11th largest accounting firm. This news underscores a clear trend, following similar announcements by Clifton Gunderson and LarsenAllen, as well as Eisner and Amper, among others.  More accounting mergers and more announcements are probable.

If your firm, large or small, is one of the many contemplating a combination, what should you do to manage the process smoothly while ensuring your new brand reflects both you and your new partner equitably and memorably?

Timing is Everything
Usually, by the time two firms agree to combine, there’s very little time left to act. Time is precious since the public announcement often quickly follows the partnership vote. Ironically, enduring goodwill can hinge on the very first act that the merged parties undertake: the combined firm’s new identity and name. And it’s often the last item on the list for consideration.

At the twelfth hour, many firms are still negotiating the new name of the merged firm, when they should be introducing and promoting it.  Names are emotional, but reason and speed of decision-making must trump sentiment.

Assemble the Perfect Merger Team
The merger team defines the message to clients and sparks the enthusiasm that makes it memorable. In addition to the managing partners of both firms, the perfect merger team usually includes several of their trusted lieutenants, marketing leaders from both firms (unless another understanding exists), and communications experts in public relations, brand design and advertising.

Even in the most amicable mergers, where compensation and client conflict issues are settled early, agreeing on the new firm’s brand proposition and its look, feel and tone can create frustrating roadblocks. Put a couple of front-end loaders on your team.

Lead from the Front
Firm leaders must bring all the professionals and staff into line in a positive way. It's the very definition of leadership.

There will be hurdles with individuals.  If the merger story is articulated and packaged as an easily understood mantra, the leaders’ work is that much easier.

Our research on why firms fail and why firms succeed boiled down to two issues: leadership and communication. The leaders must be on message every time, all the time for the first six months.  When they believe they’ve said it 50 times, they have to be willing to say it 100 times.

Be inventive in ways of telling your story. Be creative. Be inspirational. You can’t do this later. You have to do it now.

Start Early
You should have your overarching and supporting message in hand by the time the merger is an agreement in principle. From that moment, the clock is ticking.

Forget a complicated brand strategy exercise; you need to click into execution mode. You have a maximum of 100 days to generate a public face for the new firm while the merger is still news.

The sooner you’re ready, the greater the impact.

Sell from the Inside Out
No news flash here, but your professionals—partners, managers and staff—will be the most important ambassadors and spokespeople for your merger. They need to understand and believe in the benefits of the combination in order to explain them to others.

Remember that managers and staff have different issues than partners. So speak directly to their concerns about layoffs, office and practice realignments, and other issues. Your goal is to turn skeptics into allies, and allies into cheerleaders.

Helping the firm’s professionals understand and articulate the benefits of the merger isn’t always easy—but it’s critical to reassuring clients who are concerned about clashes of culture, conflicts of interest and cost increases.

Clients, Clients, Clients
Assure your clients first and foremost that their service will be uninterrupted. If conflicts exist, tackle them head-on.

Second, your message needs to be about how the merger will benefit clients (not you), that great things will come their way as a result of this merger, such as deeper bandwidth, expanded reach in key markets and seamless access to more diverse talent.

Remember that clients will not always regard bigger as better.

Who (Besides Your People and the Client) Cares?
Your merger will be news, not only for clients. The merger announcement and campaign offers an opportune moment to reveal a credible, well thought-out strategy to recruits, referral sources and peers (including the accounting industry).

They all care in different ways. And their cooperation and enthusiasm are central to your success.

The Media
You’re in the headlines, so make the most of it! Your PR team will help you imagine every negative scenario and develop a positive answer for it.

Expect competitors to have a negative spin. Have a counterpunch ready. Plan ahead to turn your problems into opportunities.

Get Ready, Get Set, Go!
Once the deal is real, a merger is all about implementation—from day one to day 1,000. You’ve planned the work, now work the plan.  When the merger takes effect, marketing and internal communications have to be in distribution mode. 

You should not be making the messages and branding tools post-merger. With early planning, quick decision-making, and double-time productivity, you should be in a position to go to market as a new firm and brand on your launch day.

For those of you who have been through brand merger integration previously, you know the drill. For first-timers, it will be a brand new and very busy world. We suspect the teams from Reznick and JH Cohn will have well-honed office tans come September. They’ve said I do to a lot of exciting work ahead.