Jason Ball is founder of B2B marketing specialist Considered Content and managed content service Prolific

There’s a growing expectation among clients today that firms, if not fully purpose-driven, are at least socially aware. And in a sector such as accountancy, with an enduring war for talent, a commitment to corporate social responsibility can also help you attract the best candidates, who increasingly want to work for companies with good ethical track records.

This quiet revolution has been gaining pace for years. Multiple studies show that millennials – now the largest demographic in the workplace – and younger Generation Z would overwhelmingly prefer to work for businesses with souls. Given that accountancy is not a non-profit sector, practices must look for other ways to demonstrate their morals and scruples, and to make a difference.

A commitment to being a responsible business can benefit the environment and a great deal more. It can raise the salaries of the lowest paid, improve work-life balance for parents, prompt tough questions to be asked of suppliers, and benefit the wider community through volunteering, charity fundraising or pro bono work.

Today, businesses cannot be devoid of substance in their CSR claims, or the house of cards will simply fall down.

There’s a huge opportunity for a truly ethical accountancy practice to set itself apart from the rest – it hasn’t been done yet

Lip service

When you’re doing genuine good, there’s a temptation to want to shout about it. But as corporate social responsibility (CSR) becomes an ever more critical part of business, people are also getting wise to companies paying lip service to being good corporate citizens, or applying double standards.

Questions are being asked about why some firms will generously double any charity donations made by their employees, but ritually practise tax minimisation. Or why firms offsetting their carbon emissions don’t do anything about their employee pension investments continuing to quietly fund oil and gas.

One of the most famous examples of lip service in action is BP’s 2000 rebranding to Beyond Petroleum in a colossal marketing campaign celebrating its investments in alternative energy. Critics quickly pointed out the company had spent more on the rebrand than on renewable energy the previous year, that its definition of alternative energy included natural gas-fired power stations, and that 93% of its planned investments were still in oil and coal. It was dubbed an exercise in ‘greenwashing‘.

The irreversible fallout of the pandemic is that people are now more attuned to the things that really matter. Working from home, they feel closer to their communities, which also means they’re less susceptible to corporate spin. People have woken up to what is important and are increasingly recognising the truth behind the rhetoric.

An opportunity

A good place to start is by asking yourself this question: what is your reason for doing what you do beyond making money? Be honest, because if making money is your goal, then this sort of exercise in purpose-driven branding probably isn’t for you.

But if you’ve worked hard to make your workplace happier and fairer so everyone enjoys showing up each day, or you’re putting profits into programmes that genuinely improve lives, or you work exclusively with ethical businesses or underprivileged sectors of society, and this sense of purpose permeates the entire firm, then you’re ready to start talking about it.

There’s a huge opportunity for a truly ethical accountancy practice to set itself apart from the rest – it hasn’t been done yet. This kind of marketing is where a company focuses on why they do what they do, rather than what or how. The idea is that if you carve out a distinctive purpose, you can create a clear point of differentiation from your competitors. A firm should be able to attract like-minded talent from that angle.

If you look closely, you’ll see the Big Four have been trying to do this for years, just not all that successfully. They show us that it’s easy to underwhelm with brand purposes that are either not relevant enough or not specific enough for clients or employees to really get behind (eg ‘building public trust’ or ‘building a better working world’).

But if you can be granular and specific about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and if your CSR efforts are suitably well executed, then you can inspire like-minded people to come and work for you.

Corporate responsibility will always be a work in progress, but there’s a point at which you’ll be ready to start using your marketing machine to talk about your good work. And it’s best not to be premature about it.

Further information

Watch this video about how to attract Gen Z to your practice