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Branding as a Leadership Tool

By Alan Brew

For an industry that lives in a fraternal glass house, brand practitioners have surprisingly little reticence about casting huge metaphorical stones at each other.

Aided and abetted by reporters looking for a controversial quote to spice an article about corporate rebranding ‘disasters’, consultants are only too willing to fan the flames.

And websites such as Brand New provide ringside seats from which to view the ungentlemanly sport of professional self-flagellation.

To be sure, corporate rebranding is not for the faint of heart. It’s an undertaking that unfolds in full public view. Inevitably, it attracts a lot of attention. It may take years before its full benefit and value is realized and yet there is the ill-considered rush to judgment which lingers as received wisdom.

Andersen Consulting’s name change to Accenture on its forced separation form Arthur Andersen is, for example, still unaccountably pilloried as a ‘rebranding disaster’ even though it successfully achieved the immensely difficult task of rebranding itself in 54 global markets without missing a beat to become one of the world’s most valuable brands.

The latest candidate in the firing line is Ernst & Young, or “EY” as it now wishes to be known.

One of the big four audit firms along with KPMG, Deloitte and PwC, Ernst & Young was created out of the merger of Ernst & Whinney and Arthur Young in 1989.

As a brand, Ernst & Young had a lot of catching up to do. Deloitte smartly recognized the value of its distinctive name and has built a dynamic, world-class brand around it. PricewaterhouseCoopers finally bowed to the inevitable and officially rebranded as PwC in 2010.

Ernst & Young’s rebranding is part of new CEO Mark Weinberger’s global vision 2020 strategy, which is to be the most distinctive professional services firm with the best brand.

A central part of the rebranding is the shortening of the name to EY. Picking up a small pebble of personal prejudice my advice would be to avoid contraction to initials if there is nothing inherently problematic with full name, and there is nothing wrong with Ernst & Young in my book.

It doesn’t help EY (the firm) that EY! also happens to be the name of a gay magazine. Is there likely to be confusion? Of course not. But that does not prevent headlines such as: Rude shock as Ernst & Young rebrands.

One branding expert is quoted as saying: “This is a definite balls-up.”

Scarcely. While it’s easy to quibble with details (which I do here) it should be said there is much to admire in the EY rebranding. It’s brave, bold move based on a vision of leadership in an industry undergoing profound change. There is no room for timid incrementalism.

As CEO Mark Weinberger said: “We are living in a fast-paced world that is constantly changing and we as a global firm cannot be left behind.”

As a leader, Mark Weinberger is visibly taking ownership of the new EY. He is remolding a global company around a clear vision and taking ownership of the firm’s future with courage and conviction.

This is what the EY rebranding program is all about. In a word: leadership.