Consultancies talk transformation, but many don’t look fit to deliver

Professional services companies love talking about radical change—why don’t they appear to practice what they preach?

Russell Holmes
Russell Holmes, 08.06.2021

We live in supposedly turbulent times. Phrases such as digital disruption have percolated upwards from the world of boot-strapped tech start-ups into Fortune 500 boardrooms. Today’s ambitious executive is looking to be an agent of change, a transformational thinker, the spark to light the fire of innovation. To service this shift, every management consultancy worth its salt is positioning itself as the technology-savvy partner to drive transformation.

However, paying lip-service to the concept of change, and actively positioning yourself as a partner who can deliver meaningful transformation are two very different things.

This becomes all too apparent when looking at how businesses in the consultancy sector present themselves. As is the case in many professions, there is a tendency simply to benchmark against others in their industry. The result? A homogeneity of brands. Bland, generic messaging, conservative use of imagery; an in-built reticence to project any notable ‘brand personality’. No surprises here, you might think—such firms offer a serious proposition, demand appropriate fees and hence need to demonstrate credibility.

This, however, is a sector that is constantly telling other businesses that it knows how to disrupt, to adapt, to change their model for the better. How can you be expected to be seen as a trusted guide to navigating disruption if you’re already falling into the safe, expected tropes of an already conservative sector? If your own website looks dated and your messaging is riddled with clichés? If you’re unable to articulate what you actually do without resorting to checklists and jargon? If, in short, you appear the polar opposite of a disruptor or a transformer?

Here lies the challenge—how to build a brand with a meaningful point of view, present it in a memorable way, and all the while communicate trust?

As someone who’s helped large organisations to define their difference, it’s remarkable how few can step beyond the expected industry proficiencies and clearly articulate what makes their offer unique. Only by forcing the internal team to set their baseline competencies aside (accepting these as merely the ‘givens’ that allow them to operate), have we then helped them to create brands that have successfully — and succinctly — positioned them in the minds of their C-Suite audience.

Part of this process demands overcoming the tension between how businesses think they should communicate — ‘We need to be different… but not too different’, ‘We need to list everything we do just so it’s really clear”— and how they actually should.

When creating any brand, it’s fundamental to consider the audience. For consultancies that means business leaders. Even if they themselves aren’t mavericks, they’ll still pride themselves in being able to spot and champion innovative thinkers. They also don’t leave their personalities in the lobby when they step into the executive elevator, suddenly becoming blind to fresh thinking, thought-provoking content or engaging brands simply because it’s a work day. If The Economist’s advertising has proved anything over the past decades, it’s that boardrooms aren’t immune to a provocative point of view —far from it, humour often reveals insights into even the most serious of topics.

Going forward, there is a real opportunity for progressive management consultancies to use branding to reposition themselves. To show that they not just acknowledge this fractured, shifting business world we find ourselves in, but that they actually understand the challenges and opportunities that it raises and can act as a guide. Rather than looking at their own sector for inspiration, they should be looking to Fintech, VCs— even progressive consumer brands. Disruption and transformation aren’t going away any time soon, however the platitudes used to talk about these concepts are getting increasingly stale.

Those consultancies who prosper will be the ones that not only master this new landscape, but also demonstrate that they are the partners to deliver change. The ones with both compelling insights and a brand that’s capable of delivering them.

If you want to sell business transformation, perhaps the best place to start is by transforming how you yourself are positioned and perceived.