The next big thing in marketing professional services firms?


It’s June 2022. Aileen catches sight of her reflection by the elevator. She frowns slightly, then reaches down to brush the dusty mark off her new Prada bag. She hadn’t been exactly surprised when the courier dropped it off last night, though the cheery ‘See you tomorrow!’ card lowered the tone somewhat. It was, after all, the right size to carry the new iPad another firm had sent her ahead of today’s beauty parade. Never mind the PowerPoint, she thinks, you can tell a firm by the quality of its product placement.


Or can you?


The consulting industry has always been bedevilled by its lack of substance. It’s not uncommon for senior executives (along with close relatives and small children) to stare across the table at a newly-minted consultant and say, ‘explain to me what you’ll actually do’. They know of course: even the small children know that consulting is all about meetings, data and analysis. But it’s how you make that concrete that’s been a challenge. Intangible services are hard to differentiate because so much rests on how—and how consistently—you experience them.


Methodologies and training have helped in the past, but as consulting becomes more global, inter-disciplinary and rapidly-changing, those strategies are proving less useful today. Thought leadership is part of the solution (and this is one of several reasons why it’s such an important weapon in today’s marketing armoury), because if you can’t meet the subject matter expert in person, reading what they have to say is a good alternative. Major cities around the world are now studded with ‘experience centres’, so much so that these are rapidly becoming table-stakes instead of trump cards. And now we have the rise of—well—merchandising.


A decade ago most firms’ ambitions in this area were fairly modest: as a client, you were lucky if you got a pen or a pack of post-it notes. Millions of dollars were instead invested in tickets to the opera or top-notch sporting events. But the trouble with these was that the warm fuzzy feeling they created was only temporary, lasting barely as far as the next proposal if you were lucky. They were also essentially private: if you were lucky enough to have gone to the opera, you may not have told your friends. Yet part of the value of marketing activity is that it gives potential buyers comfort that other people are buying the product/service they’re interested in. People hire consulting firms when they see other people—ideally colleagues—hiring: it’s one of the reasons why incumbent suppliers have such an advantage. Which is how firms end up going down the merchandising route…


The challenge, of course, is to match product to service: desk calendars wouldn’t do the reputation of a digital agency much good, any more than a calculator would help an accounting firm. James Bond doesn’t strap a cheap Casio to his wrist. So will we, as Aileen has found, start to see competition mounting around merchandising? The Prada bag may be a bit of a stretch, but there are plenty of firms giving away iPads these days.