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We recently came across an interesting article in Accounting Today that examined the expansion of accounting firms, noting specifically the growing trend of “expanding any way you can” across vertical and geographical markets. The industry as a whole seems to be following this strategy, as firms adjust their business strategy – offering new services, acquiring new companies, opening new offices – to expand into new markets. “Our goal since 1994 has been to grow and build out our industry focus to a higher level…even with the difficult economy over the past several years, we didn’t slow down or speed up, we just waited for the right opportunities,” explains one industry CEO in the article.

For any company pursuing expansion, it’s important to realize that the change in business strategy is really just the first step. As you make the move from a regional player to a national firm, or from a pure-play provider to a provider of diverse services, every new offering threatens to dilute your firm’s brand — what you stand for in the minds of your most important audiences, including prospects, clients, referral sources and employees. What is the connective tissue between all of your expanded offerings? A firm with a focus on financial services will need to take a hard look at its brand when it expands into new areas, such as health care or real estate. An accounting firm that offers new consultative services must determine if a brand built on traditional attributes, such as accuracy and dependability, will work in a marketplace that values innovation and fresh insights. Will the positioning and key messages that helped build your firm  still resonate with new audiences in new industries? What attributes are the real drivers of success for your firm? And how are you going to communicate those attributes as you expand into new markets?

For many professional services firms, expansion means competing with a new set of competitors. Often, these new competitors are larger firms with substantial marketing budgets.  It is vital to determine if your legacy brand stands up to these larger, deep-pocketed firms. What’s more, as you expand it is important to avoid confusion in a marketplace that may know you as one type of firm – not the firm you have become.

Clearly, there is a lot to think about. And therein lies the challenge, and opportunity, of expansion: the chance to introduce a brand to new prospects for the first time and revisit long-term clients with a broader offering. If first impressions are everything, then it is critical that your brand achieves strategic symbiosis with your business strategy BEFORE new audiences are introduced to the company.

After all, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.