How Grant Thornton is positioning itself as a challenger brand to rival the Big Four

Accounting firm Grant Thornton recently embarked on a mission to become a challenger brand that's strong enough to give the Big Four a run for their money.

Speaking at the ANA’s Business Marketing Association’s Masters of B2B Marketing conference, Grant Thornton’s chief marketing officer John Harmeling explained how the company has transformed itself in recent years to focus more on what makes it stand out from big-name competitors rather than how it compares to them.

During his presentation, Harmeling said the Big Four - which include PwC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG - claim 88% market share in the category, with Grant Thornton claiming a significantly smaller piece of the pie. While Grant Thornton has historically competed against other mid-tier firms, Harmeling said the company recently took its “first step” in becoming a challenger brand by deciding that it would set its sights on the Big Four instead.

However, Harmeling told the audience that becoming a challenger brand isn’t just about taking on the competition; instead, he said challenger brands often do something bigger or fight something bigger than just the category or the competitors within it. He used the example of marketing automation service MailChimp, which he said provides a totally different experience from competitors by injecting humor and whimsy into a category that has traditionally been more buttoned up.

“They see these competitors in their space that are very antiseptic. They're cold. They’re impersonal,” he said. “They’ve been fighting against impersonality.”

At Grant Thornton, Harmeling said the company set out to determine what differentiates its offerings from the larger Big Four firms by first looking internally. After speaking with the company’s 600 partners, the firm found 86% cited culture as Grant Thornton’s primary differentiator in the market.

The company then asked its customers what they’re looking for in an accounting firm and found that many of them are increasingly focused on a cultural fit. Aside from culture being important, many reported they are looking for firms that are relentlessly focused on the future.

Since many of the Big Four firms are currently focused on how they can help clients prepare for the future - Harmeling cited KPMG’s ‘Anticipate tomorrow, Deliver today’ tagline and PwC’s ‘The Future of Work’ as a few examples - Harmeling said Grant Thornton decided to hone in on its culture as a differentiating point.

“Everyone out there was talking about the exact same thing. There’s a sea of sameness, “ he said. “It brought us back to culture, and zeroing in on culture as a differentiator.”

As a result, the firm sent employees to two-day culture-shaping workshops that Harmeling said were meant to essentially deprogram staffers from anything that had a negative effect on culture. As a result, employee engagement “skyrocketed” almost 10%, voluntary turnover decreased, and Grant Thornton began to win awards for its company culture, according to Harmeling (earlier this year, Crain’s named Grant Thornton one of the Best Places to Work in Chicago).

The company also found through research that 54% of its clients identify with the term “Big Four fatigue,” citing frustration with the “latency” and autopilot mindset of the bigger firms. Because of this, Grant Thornton also chose to focus its efforts on branding itself as a sort of “antagonist of the status quo.”

While the company is still primarily focused on mobilizing its internal teams around the brand’s new positioning and revamped culture, Harmeling said that next steps will involve demonstrating the value of it all to prospects, something he said the company is still figuring out.

The firm recently hired Gyro as its agency of record to help it effectively communicate its worldview and more strongly position the brand as one that isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. Last month, the brand unveiled a video called ‘Status Go’ that is currently being used internally to rally employees around its future ambitions.

“For our category, we feel like we’re taking some chances and we’re trying to be distinctive,” said Harmeling.

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Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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