The battle of the consulting brands: Pole position vs. the niche? Commentary on the consulting study by Prof. Fink

The #ConsultantForConsultants

The battle of the consulting brands: Pole position vs. the niche? Commentary on the consulting study by Prof. Fink

February 2, 2021

Susanne Mathony - Beratungsmarken positionieren

In my current #BeraterBerater column, I discuss the results of the “Management Consulting 2021” study by Prof. Dietmar Fink and Bianka Knoblach. On, I present six hypotheses for marketers in consulting.
In doing so, I look for (and find) answers to the questions:

  • Is there a profitable life next to McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and Bain?
  • What strategic conclusions can be drawn for the brand positioning in Professional Services?
  • Who am I?
  • Where does my future lie?

These are questions that not only concern individuals, but also strategy consultancies and the Big 4.

These famous ‘W’-questions always make me think of dinosaurs. Why? Because I cannot forget the slide from the University of St. Gallen with the gigantic reptiles on it.
Its header said: “Undifferentiated consulting brands face the same threat as dinosaurs. They die or are eaten.

I saw that slide two decades ago. It is still valid though.

So when I am dealing with the positioning of consulting brands as #BeraterBeraterin on a daily basis, I cannot get around the Management Consulting 2021“-study by Professor Dietmar Fink and Bianka Knoblach from the WGMB (Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft für Management und Beratung).

Every two years, the study examines the quality and image of the industry from a client perspective.

It answers the questions:

  • Who is considered to have which competencies?
  • Who is perceived as the leader for which industries and topics?
  • Where do future consulting trends and tools lie?

For the consulting industry, the study is a ‘must read’ as it creates transparency – and this for the 11th time in a row. It is the neutral, incorruptible perspective supported by a network of experienced supervisory board members, management board members and executives from large German companies and larger SMEs.

Industry protagonists probably have long read the Manager Magazin feature “Das sind Deutschlands beste Unternehmensberater” (“These are Germany’s best management consultants“).

Seeing the rankings for the market leader McKinsey will perhaps give some a toothache. The firm is number 1 in a total of six out of eleven disciplines. Ten times they are in the top 3.

Nevertheless – or perhaps precisely because of this – not one day has gone by since its publication on January 22, 2021 without all the other consultants posting their individual “I am happy to annouce” messages on LinkedIn.
All true to the bon mot of former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt:

“If you don’t talk, you won’t be heard!”

What interests me more than the individual rankings is the marketing perspective! And here, of course, the question:

Is there a (profitable) life next to the dominant MBBs – i.e. the big shots McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and Bain? What strategic deductions can be made from the findings of the industry gurus Fink and Knoblach?

Here are my six hypotheses for marketers in consulting

1. Follow the pain! Go where the shoe pinches companies the most.

Currently, the biggest pain point is digitization. Here, 63 percent of companies expect a net increase in their budgets. This is followed by business technology, restructuring, strategic planning and innovation.
So if you want to generate new business, the following applies to all players – regardless of whether they are strategy consultants or Big 4 consulting firms: these topics have to be addressed in Marketing. It is crucial to be visible where companies feel the greatest need and want to allocate the largest budgets in the future.

This does not mean simply launching the thousandth white paper on digitization with the generic message ‘The pandemic is acting as a fire accelerator. What is needed now are new digital business models and digital organizations‘.
The USP-related twist, the concrete scenarios and recommendations for action, truly original messages should already be there.

2. Thought leadership has crashed in the rankings. But: It will never be out!

In the selection criteria for the ‘consultant of choice’, the topic of thought leadership only lands in 6th place. In 2013 and 2015 it was still top 1. 2018 it was top 2. The MBBs also dominate the game as the most high-profile thought leader and impulse generator with Bain as No. 1.

So should marketers of all other consultants stop writing and marketing studies? I am convinced: no.

Companies will always want to know what their consultants think. They will always need future forecasts with relevance for their specific business. In this respect, I consider the ‘descent’ of thought leadership rather a reflex to the COVID19 pandemic. Here, no one had/has final answers. Here, primarily the practice and less the bare theory was/is in demand. Hence the boost in relevance for the topics of expertise and analytical know-how.

(More in my column: “Der Kampf um Thought Leadership: Sieben Hacks für wirksame Berater-Studien“)

3. David very well has a chance against Goliath: Why the pointedly positioned specialists are successful!

After looking at the WGMB study, one could (actually) throw in the towel and leave the market to the MBBs as top full-range suppliers. However, the specialists impressively prove that brand awareness of 100 percent is not everything.

Simon Kucher & Partners – the second largest management consultancy of German origin after Roland Berger – was included in the study sample for the first time. And despite a brand awareness of ‘only’ 64 percent, they landed as No. 1 for their core competence ‘Marketing & Sales‘ right from the start. Powerful proof of the successful congruence of brand essence and brand perception.

The same applies to AlixPartners. It is smaller than McKinsey, but the strong No. 2 in the area of restructuring and transformation, with only a minimal gap. Of course, the firm is also benefiting from the boom in demand. In the current study, this area ranks third among budget priorities. Almost every third respondent expects an increase here.
On the marketing side, it is only logical to continuously play out the brand essence ‘when it really matters‘.

4. Is the sandwich position for the smaller full-line consultants the mission to fail?

From a marketing perspective, the sandwich position in which the MBBs press from above and the specialists and hidden champions press from below is the most challenging. I don’t know how many times in the last two decades I have written slides with corresponding strategy and tactics – sometimes with the smart puffer fish as a visual.

What doesn’t help is the me-too principle, i.e. trying to be ‘McKinsey en miniature‘ by covering all topics on all industries and all tools.

What helps though is: Strengthen strengths. You have to consistently set the tone with an attitude in order to be heard in the market and to be perceived in a differentiated way.

One of the success cases for consistent marketing is Kearney. Their brand awareness is now at 80 percent. Oliver Wyman, on the other hand, has ‘only’ 65 percent. Anyone interested might want to listen to the podcast with Michael Scharfschwerdt, the Kearney-CMO. He not only describes the background of re-branding, but also gives tips such as the end of ‘consultant speak’ and generic stock photos, as well as marketing as an integral part of corporate management with the decisive ‘seat at the table’.

5. The successful balancing act between mother & daughter: The consulting divisions of the Big 4

The Big 4 are increasingly becoming serious competitors for traditional strategy consultants. At least one of them is already ranked six times in the top 5 in terms of specialist expertise. KPMG, for example, has made it into the top segment in three categories at once – for the areas of mergers & acquisitions, business technology, and restructuring & transformation.

What does this mean for marketers?

Encouragement! Branding and communication for accounting firms is not trivial. A balancing act is required, on the one hand, not to cannibalize the umbrella brand – i.e., accounting – but, on the other hand, to emphasize the independence of the consulting arm.

This is where the music plays. Margins are higher and the reputation of the reliable ‘roll-up-your-sleeves’ helps. Taking into account the special effect – i.e. the fact that the WGMB study took place just at the peak of the Wirecard affair – it can be assumed: The loss of image affected all Big4s. All players were probably assessed worse than they actually were. Once this problem has been resolved, their image vector will continue to rise.

As well as last but not least, the killer question.

6. Does marketing still play a role at all in consulting?

If you look at the selection criteria of clients, sensitive marketers may have nagging doubts about their raison d’être. The topic ‘general reputation’ holds the bottom lantern in the ranking – and has done so since 2011.
The top 3, on the other hand, are analytical skills, implementation skills and specialist knowledge.

What is the consequence? No marketing at all? I think no – and not out of operational blindness.

Of course, clients are first and foremost interested in whether a consultant is adept at solving a problem. However, at the latest when there are two firms that can theoretically do the same thing, familiarity, perception and concrete competence attribution come into play.

And that brings us back to the dinosaurs from the beginning of this column. Those who do not continuously maintain their brand differentiation and are not visible will fall out of the ‘relevant set’ at the next pitch in the medium term and lose market share – or, to put it more colloquially: Perhaps disappear from the face of the earth.

Let us have a chat about how to sharpen your profile. Marketing for Professional Services has been my USP for more than two decades including an inhouse Marketer career at Accenture, Booz & Comany as well as AlixPartners!

view article (in German)