Which trump card stings best? Brand, people or services?

The #ConsultantForConsultants

Which trump card stings best? Brand, people or services?

May 5, 2020

Susanne Mathony - Brand Consulting
Photo credits: Jack Hamilton (@jacc)

Is there a secret recipe when it comes to Marketing for Professional Services players?
Should consulting firms or the Big 4 put a strong brand, special services & products or their people in the spotlight?
In her column, consultant Susanne Mathony describes when you play which trump card best.

Consulting firms and big auditors have invested millions of euros in recent years to associate certain values with their brands. Quality, integrity, professionalism, expertise, global network. Since then, all these attributes have been associated with one or the other firm – or unfortunately with several of them.

The catch to the desire for distinctiveness:
B2B products and services are not like tangible consumer goods. Instead, they are primarily sold on trust or on recommendation. On this challenging battleground, an excellent reputation is the most important asset. Hence in the long buying-cycles the strongest trump card.

Brand building is extremely important in this context – but also challenging. For 40% of top decision makers, the brand of a consultancy has a considerable influence on the perception and subsequent purchase decision. For a further 43% it does have a certain influence.

In this struggle for a crystal clear brand positioning, all consultancies face the same challenge. They have to communicate how their “unique end-to-end strategy-through-execution” consulting approach differs from the “unique end-to-end strategy-through-execution” approach of all other players. (Sorry for the irony!)

So what is the “Gold Standard”? Is it enough to focus exclusively on the brand, or should marketers push the individual service offerings and/or the people behind them?

Is there a “one size fits all” marketing mix? Unfortunately no!

Fact is: All three elements are interwoven. One cannot be marketed without the other.
Yes indeed, McKinsey might be a a premium brand with 100% unaided brand recognition for years. But without the next generation of consultants who, after excellent training and drills at the McKinsey Alpine University in Kitzbühel, keep the brand promise on client projects day to day, the ‘brand aura’ would at some point be more legend than fact.

Whether service offerings are an important differentiation lever remains to be seen. If you google the terms supply chain, cash management or digitalization in the current COVID19 pandemic, at least one corresponding study pops up from all of them – regardless of whether they are the Big Three, hidden champions or small boutiques.
Similarly, all have Thought Leadership on the impact on the most affected industries such as automotive, tourism or retail.
And all of them use them to do client mailings or PR, so that the media drown in oversupply.

Rethinking the four P’s in Marketing for consulting firms

As all consultancies are essentially marketing the same thing – their brand, their service offerings and their people – a glance at the meta-level helps. “Product – Place – Price – Promotion” are the classic “four P’s” of Marketing.
But these no longer adequately reflect the specific challenges facing today’s professional services players.

Perhaps that’s why a different model – also based on four P’s – might be helpful for all Marketers in this industry.

Proposition

In an industry where product and service elements are closely intertwined, it is essential to market value propositions. The focus is on concrete client benefits. The message is then “we can help you achieve this” instead of the self-centred “we want to sell you this“.
Thus a proper proposition becomes a positioning and marketing of products and services.
Websites and all self-presentation material should reflect this added value.

People

As much as everyone talks about AI/AI and robotics:
Consulting remains a people’s business!
People will always play a decisive role in this human-to-human business. Of course, the type and number of people needed may change, but they will never disappear completely.
Therefore it is crucial to position individuals as well as teams as strong brand ambassadors next to services. Personal branding and modern storytelling via LinkedIn are just as suitable here as PR around country managers and industry heads.

Perspective

‘Perspective’ is often misunderstood as an independent, objective point of view. But, clients want anything but that – especially in the current exceptional situation of the COVID19 pandemic.
Corporations are looking for consultants with a pointed opinion – what they should and should not do in this crisis. They want consultants with attitude. Thought Leadership has to reflect this. Those who only depict their service offerings without a clear value proposition do not differentiate themselves.
To put it bluntly: The hundredth supply chain study does not create a brand unfortunately.

Purpose

The conceptual parenthesis of these three ‘P’ is purpose.
Probably everyone knows Simon Sinek’s famous question about ‘Why’ – why a consulting firm and its individual consultants do what they do.
Really lived Purpose is not a marketing phrase, but defines the agenda and ambitions. This also determines the previously described perspective of a consultancy. Market this meaningful added value! This also helps with employer branding.

Conclusion: Play your brand and your people as trump cards and live with the fact that services are only a commodity

A positioning strategy which is right for BCG, is not right for Accenture. And what is right for Deloitte may not be right for Publicis Sapient.
Every professional services player has a unique reputation and evokes certain associations in clients. Every consultancy needs its specific brand values, which need to be protected and, if necessary, stretched to gain new market share.

Hence there will never be a “one size fit all” Marketing for consultancies with varying degrees of brand maturity.

But one thing is important for all of them:
Creativity and a contemporary marketing mix. Because there is nothing worse in the battle for differentiation than “lipstick on a pig”, as the English would drastically call it, or “old wine in new bottles”.