The shared myth of Porsche drivers and management consultants

The shared myth of Porsche drivers and management consultants

September 17, 2020

Susanne Mathony - Porsche - Mythos
Foto credits: Andreas Pohlmann (Portrait) as well Alexander Boon/ Unsplash (Porsche picture)

There it is again. The cliché that can’t be killed.

That of the superficial business administration snot-nosed kids from private business schools who take the red-eye bomber at 7 a.m. on Monday morning with their Tumi wheeled suitcases and then turn companies upside down WITH Excel and PowerPoint, but WITHOUT a heart.

Job destruction with the pointed red pencil – aka Lenovo laptop – included.

What do I refer to?

A current study! This ascribes management consultants in Germany the worst ranked occupation prestige.

For only 1% of the respondents this is a respected profession.

To be honest, after 23 years in the industry, which is my professional home, I can (almost) no longer hear the cliché. I would love to shrug it off.

But as a marketer, I can’t avoid the insight of the US-American political strategist Lee Atwater – “Perception is reality“.
As a communications professional, I am sensitized to the fact that perception and reality are not congruent; i.e. brand identity and brand image can diverge greatly.

Hence I have to look at the study. Also to know in which opinion climate my Professional Services clients communicate and position themselves.

The facts in brief

The study “OpinionTRAIN 2020” (Prof. Dr. Andreas Krämer) examined the public perception of management consultants. Its scope was Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden.

One of the core results:

The already mentioned 1% – thus the worst value for professional prestige even behind lawyers and tax consultants.

43% of the respondents said: The job of the management consultant is negative connoted. The negative image is particularly widespread in Germany.

In Sweden, only 22% of respondents said this, in Switzerland only 28%.

Where does this fierce rejection come from?

Certainly the survey period also played a role. The interviews were conducted between May 4 and 14, 2020; i.e. in the week of the reopening after the COVID19 lockdown in Germany.

In this respect, the top 5 on the popularity scale is not surprising:

Nurse, doctor, fireman/woman, police officer and salesperson. These occupational groups were – and still are – systemically relevant. However, only 24% attributes this to management consultants.

The (supposed) paradox shows how wide the gap between perception and reality can be. Whilst the profession is positively connoted only for the cited 1% , 16% could imagine nonetheless to become a management consultant.
In Sweden, as many as one in four respondents say this.

There might be two explanations for this: Either a statistically disproportionately high number of fans of the ‘bad boy’ image or those who (secretly) admire the profession.
A look at the age cohorts speaks for the latter: 29% of those under 30 would be interested in the job.

Problem 1: Companies need management consultancies, but consider their image only as secondary

In the ‘bible’ of strategy consultants – the WGMB rankings of the leading management consultants – the criterion ‘general reputation’ holds the final lantern. And this remains constant for the years 2011 to 2018.
55% of the decision-makers assigned only medium to very low relevance to reputation when selecting suitable consultants.

On the other hand, the top 3 are implementation ability, thought leadership and industry knowledge.

Companies are looking for a sparring partner at their side to solve problems. Or, when it comes to massive crises, experienced teams to save the company. In other words, acting as an emergency doctor – not in theory, but on site and with ‘skin in the game’. And here they have deep trust in their consultants of choice.

This result is completely different from the “OpinionTRAIN” study where only 13% of the respondents have trust.
Companies buy consulting services in confidence and in good faith. This is why trustworthiness is even more crucial for strategy consultancies, auditors or executive search firms than for product brands.

Problem 2: The cliché! Too many people talk about the color like the blind

29% of the respondents confess in “OpinionTRAIN 2020“:

They do NOT even know the profession of a management consultant. The Google search “management consultancy cliché” results in more than 4 million hits. Hence the awarded career attributes are not really surprising.

The top 3 are:

  • Career-oriented (70%)
  • Success oriented (68%)
  • Motivated by money (68%).

At the end of the Richter scale are:

  • Trustworthiness
  • Socially active (only 9% attribution).

In reality, the financial aspect of the desire to join McKinsey, BCG, Bain & Co. is rather minor. According to the “Consulting Excellence” study, the high starting salary is only ranked 11th among the factors for choosing an employer.

Social commitment is also lived in reality. There are time accounts for social projects, part-time models for consultants, such as “Take Time” at McKinsey, and the possibility of leaving the consulting firm for a year during sabbaticals or educational breaks.

Where purpose – the higher sense – is decisive for employee retention and employer branding, consulting companies must guarantee this to Generation Y.

Perhaps it’s an idea to communicate this more proactively than ‘hiding’ it on the second navigation level on a separate CSR page. Everyone who works in consulting knows that social responsibility is more than just a PR fig leaf.

Problem 3: The distorted image in the media

In the study 41% of respondents have heard about the profession, BUT exclusively from newspapers and reports. Even highly reputable business media sometimes spread a distorted image.

This is how Dietmar Student puts it in “McKinsey against the rest of the world” in Manager Magazin:

Even near the cemetery the top consultants clash. McKinsey only entered the bankruptcy-related business late, but in the meantime they feel it is not beneath them.”
The consulting firms are moving away from simply ‘body leasing’ (at daily rates) and are developing into providers of a wide range of services.

In “The enemy in my office” the FAZ describes the bad image of management consultants as arrogant snobs and job destroyers. As an explanation they name:

People don’t like change. One should therefore never expect gratitude“.

Management consultants do not do well in movies either.

In “Up in the Air“, the great allure of a George Clooney saved the figure of the consultant. He actually only had one big goal in life: To crack the ten-million-frequency flyer-miles score.

And the film “Toni Erdmann” is a persiflage of a consultant and her colleagues, who have great salaries but are extremely unhappy and can’t stop being in love with their status.

So there are still many clichés that do not stand up to reality. In this respect, the profession suffers not only from a crisis of prestige, but also from a loss of perception.

So what to do?

The mantra should be: Explain, explain, explain; i.e. ensure consistently and proactively transparency on all levels of communication. Disinformation can only be solved by going public. It is necessary to work offensively on how the industry wants to be perceived.

Visibility and trust is key – especially in the disrupting COVID19 pandemic. Presence for consulting brands as well as for their senior leaders is doubly important now. Whom we do not know, we do not listen to. And whom we not hear, we do not trust. And it is trust that develops familiarity.

A vivid example from practice

One of my clients @ Mathony Brand Strategists is the CEO of a top restructuring consultancy. He was repeatedly accused of being a ‘chainsaw’. Hence we decided to pick up on this in a LinkedIn post. Not abstractly from the corporate account, but his personal one.

The overwhelmingly positive response to his LinkedIn post has proven the pro-actively communicating social CEO right:

The emergency doctor is the right analogy, not the chainsaw!

This brutal accusation proves how little reorganization and restructuring in particular is ‘correctly’ understood. The cliché of men with the axe who heartlessly cut down places still exists.

The opposite is the case:

Everything is being done to save companies from insolvency. The human element of the challenging consulting projects demands such a high EQ as hardly any other business profession.

What you should also add to your marketing strategy? Being close and authentic!

As long as people know too little about the consulting profession, it remains a cliché. Industry-specific studies do not help here. Only communication tools and strategies that the consultants convey in their concrete work.

So think about adding podcasts, blogs and vlogs or smart employer branding to your marketing mix. Also think about authentic LinkedIn accounts. It’s not only (retouched) quote cards that are currently very hip. . But also the selfie with mask at the airport after an exhausting 14-hour work day.

In a previous column, I have asked if consulting has the potential to become a love brand. I am truly convinced about this.

And I can only recommend three additional strategies:

  1. The continuously visible social CEO with an attitude (“Haltung”) – even on social or political issues
  2. Share the love through modern storytelling
  3. Leverage employees as corporate influencers on LinkedIn;
    i.e. show the real team culture to create accessibility and reach for the employer brand.

Other than that, the following applies:

Just take a deep breath and consider the study for what it is. Namely an analogy to Porsche. Even the Porsche drivers suffer from the most malicious clichés. Secretly, however, (almost) everyone would like to own a 911.

Or stick to Franz von Sales, prince-bishop of Geneva in the 16th century, who stated:

Reputation is rarely proportioned to virtue”.

view article (in German only)