Brand strategy: One size does not fit all

Brand is becoming ever more important to buyers of consulting services. In fact, when we asked clients what was most important when selecting a digital transformation partner, reputation with the board was more important than anything else.*

So it’s interesting to see firms taking two divergent approaches to their brands: In one camp are firms consolidating under one almighty parent brand; in the other are firms that are launching sub-brands to complement their parent brands.

In the consolidation camp, we see firms like Publicis Sapient rolling up myriad legacy brands into one overarching parent brand (which it launched earlier this week). In Publicis Sapient’s case, I think this is smart—it brings together its breadth of capabilities and articulates what it can deliver to clients overall (“seizing the space between next and now”) rather than talking about piecemeal services. It also signals a step change in the firm’s ambition, positioning it to take on large-scale complex digital transformation by creating a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

But others have been wildly successful doing exactly the opposite. Deloitte Digital helped Deloitte to hoover up market share and establish itself as a leader in an area of exploding demand. Accenture, too, has opted to sub-brand with Accenture Strategy, Accenture Digital, Accenture Operations, and so on.

Neither strategy is particularly subtle, but both have their merits: They’re easy to understand, they signal that the firms are serious about their investment in those capabilities, and they help to tell clients that the firms are much more than accountancy/technology firms. On the flip side, they fail to articulate what all of this actually means for clients—they’re all about what the firms are doing, rather than what they can do for clients.

Is there something in the middle? McKinsey seems to sit somewhere in between. Its parent brand is one of the most powerful in the world, but while it has continued to dazzle, McKinsey has been building lots of sub-brands in the shadows: Finalta, McKinsey Implement, Digital McKinsey… I’m yet to hear any clients talk about a McKinsey sub-brand, but maybe that’s the point: They signal expertise without a client ever forgetting that they’re working with the main brand.

But what’s right for McKinsey isn’t right for Accenture, and what’s right for Deloitte isn’t right for Publicis Sapient. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to brand strategy: Each firm has its unique reputation, conjuring up certain expectations, even stereotypes, in clients’ minds. Each firm has its own set of prejudices to overcome, and a set of core brand values that need protecting and stretching as consulting itself evolves.

There are no simple rules to follow when it comes to consulting firms’ brands. But in our experience, listening to the views of the market, not just existing clients, is the only way to truly know what your firm’s brand allows you to do.

*In 2017 we surveyed 150 senior buyers of consulting in the US. Thirty-two percent of those working in organisations with revenues of over US$5bn said that reputation with the board is the most important factor in determining which firm to work with.