Rethinking the four Ps of marketing for consulting services

Product. Place. Price. Promotion. The original “Four Ps” of marketing, dating back to the 1940s, were all about consumer goods: Designing products, getting them to the right place on the supermarket shelves, working out how much people would pay for them, and advertising. By the 1960s, marketeers had added another three, acknowledging that developed economies were shifting from goods to services-based—people, process, and physical evidence.

Consulting is, of course, a service, but these traditional four or seven Ps don’t seem to adequately reflect the very specific challenges of marketing consulting today. It’s not that these things are irrelevant—for all the attention being paid to assets, consulting largely remains a people business—but that many of the original Ps don’t adequately reflect the peculiar complexity of consulting. Prices no longer follow standard rules: In cybersecurity, inexpensive juniors can command higher fee rates than expensive partners. Consulting services may be delivered in a variety of places, only some of which will be visible to a client. There’s concern that PowerPoint-based process is squeezing out the value consultants should bring.

I’d therefore like to propose a different model, though out of deference to all the marketing experts out there, I’ve stuck with Ps (I know, we should all move on, but you try finding four usable words starting with a Q):

Proposition: In a world in which product and service elements are getting intertwined, we’ll do better to think about propositions. A proposition, moreover, isn’t simply the sum of these two parts: It’s also aimed at delivering a specific outcome. The messaging isn’t so much “we have this”, or “we can sell you that”, but rather “we can help you achieve this”. As such, a proposition puts you on a more equitable footing with a client: In place of a them-buying-and-us-selling environment, the work becomes a joint endeavour, delivering value to the client and remunerating the firm that does so in a commensurate way. As such, a proposition isn’t simply a product or service, but the positioning and marketing around those—and that’s important because too much marketing in consulting firms is divorced from the service that’s delivered. A proposition also needs to be profitable, so embedded in its design is the sense of how to deliver the combination of low-cost and high-value work clients are looking for.

People: However technocratic your vision of the future is, it’s hard to imagine a consulting industry in which people don’t continue to play a critical role. Certainly, the type and number of people needed may change, but they won’t disappear completely (or, if they do, I’d argue that we’re no longer talking about consulting, but about some other industry). It will therefore be crucial to work out how people sit alongside products, and vice versa, and to construct propositions that have the right balance of the two. But people aren’t passive (one P that’s definitely not part of this marketing mix). As well as being a component of a proposition, they design, develop and help market them: They must have and demonstrate passion (and that P definitely is in the mix) for what they do.

Perspective: To me, this is something that’s been missing from consulting for too long. “Perspective” is often taken to mean having an independent or objective view—being detached. But the clients we speak to want anything but that. Instead, they want consultants who have an opinion—about what they, the client, should and shouldn’t do, what will and won’t work. Similarly, clients want to work with firms that have views, a strong overarching sense of how to get things done that informs all the work it does (its propositions) without at any point becoming a rigid process. Perspective should be informed by facts and research, but it makes its presence felt in terms of belief.

Purpose: Sitting at the heart of propositions, people, and perspective is purpose. It’s the “why” a firm does what it does as well as the “why” its individual partners, consultants and employees do what they do. Purpose sets the agenda and ambition for a firm’s propositions; it also directs and informs the perspective a firm has. But purpose isn’t a nice strap line invented by people in marketing, but something much more fundamental. Without it, the firm would be rudderless, adding value only by accident.

Put these four Ps together, and you have—I think—a sense of what will make a consulting firm successful in the future.