Consulting Brands and the Elusive Quest for Trust

More than half a century ago, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously characterized pornography by stating: “… I know it when I see it.” Most management consulting firms seem to adopt the same mindset when it comes to branding. Achieving that exulted status as “trusted advisor” is ephemeral and only visible to those who have witnessed the service.

I’ve conducted many marketplace perception studies for consulting firms over the last 25 years. Most seek to understand how (or if) a firm is differentiated by clients and prospects … and even by other firms.

The issue centers on the meaning of “brand,” which in consulting, can be a fuzzy concept. Unlike lawyers and accountants, management consultants don’t offer taglines or titles to explain what they do. There are no Betty Jones, Esq, or Bill Smith, CPA. Instead, consultants connect with their firms’ brands, which seek to offer an explicit “trust me” in a way that the firm — and the consultants who work there – become synonymous with the concept.

Given the investment firms make to connect those dots, I take notice when firms announce “rebranding” efforts. Many of these are better characterized as buffing the badge. Take BCG and McKinsey. Both recently unveiled new branding that was presented as modern adaptations to the digital world. Accompanied by extensive background material, including snazzy videos and exhaustive explanatory notes, the end result — BCG losing the “The” in its name, and McKinsey adopting different typography and color schemes – elicited shrugs from the casual observer.

The same is true for three of the Big 4 – PwC, EY, KPMG have each officially adopted their respective acronyms as their brand (truth be told, even those within the industry refer to Deloitte as the big D). Losing an ampersand or consolidating an unwieldy name that resulted from decades-old mergers is fairly benign for most folks.

Firms that truly rebrand do so out of necessity. Andersen Consulting was forced to change its name as the result of a nasty divorce, and masterfully executed the conversion to Accenture. Strategy&, consumed by PwC, was born from the bowels of Booz & Company, which itself was hived off from Booz Allen Hamilton.

My point? Consulting brands rarely die. As a result, most firms’ efforts to rebrand boil down to adaptations and evolutions. The goal is remain current while clinging to a vestigial heritage that is typically more important to those on the inside than the world at large.

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Tom Rodenhauser