How Firms Can Make Their Thought Leadership Marketing More Authentic

Tony Tiernan

Tony Tiernan is president of Authentic Identity Inc., a management consultancy that works with professional services and other firms on strategy and marketing. Tony ran marketing at two large consulting firms over the last 20 years (CSC Index and Boston Consulting Group), and as an independent advisor has consulted with many others over the last decade.

Bob Buday caught up with him recently to find out what he’s seeing in the world of professional services, particularly the dialogue between partners and chief marketing officers in these times of acute pressure to generate business.

 

Bob Buday: The recession has made for tough times for many professional services firms – especially their marketing departments. Over the last two years, we’ve seen chief marketing officers at some firms wonder if and when the “good old days” will return – when every marketing program is no longer scrutinized, intensely questioned and in some cases arbitrarily cancelled. What have you seen?

Tony Tiernan: Embrace the scrutiny. It will help CMOs demonstrate the value of marketing. But there’s a bigger issue that your question exposes. It has to do with how marketing is perceived and therefore the value that it is permitted to deliver.

My clients are mostly consulting firms, and many of them view marketing primarily as a service function and usually as a communications activity. That perspective immediately reduces the value and effectiveness of marketing.

It sets up a circular, self-fulfilling and value-destroying cycle – “I don’t expect much, so I don’t invest much, so I don’t get much, which confirms my expectations.” That’s nonsense.

CMOs need to stake out their territory and assert ownership. Marketing is a strategic function. In a professional services firm, it spans and connects recruiting, culture, service and intellectual capital development, and all aspects of internal and external communication.

That places it squarely in CEO and managing partner territory. CMOs need to be comfortable presenting themselves as peers and partners in that arena. I see the concept of a firm’s “identity” as the lens that enables CMOs and CEOs to collaborate for strategic impact.

 

Bob: Tell us more about identity.

Tony: One way of thinking about a consulting firm’s identity is as the sum of what it believes (the meaning and purpose that drives its business; the values and beliefs that shape its relationships with clients and staff; the difference it is trying to make in the world); and what it does (the business problems that it chooses to own and solve).

If you do the work to really uncover each of those things, and use them to align your behavior and your marketing messages, then those clients and staff who share your values can see you clearly. They can find you. More to the point, your identity creates meaning for them, and meaning generates value.

Of course, you must then be prepared to walk away from clients and recruits who don’t fit your identity. Consulting firms are often uncomfortable saying “no” to requests for their services. But if you cannot say “no,” then you don’t have an identity.

Remember CSC Index, the consulting firm that invented the reengineering concept? You and I both worked there and helped market reengineering. There are many ways to tell the story of why CSC Index blossomed so spectacularly and faded so quickly. But if you look at it through the lens of identity, it’s a tale about the power of knowing who you are, and the danger of losing touch with yourself.

At first, Index was pretty clear about its sweet spot: It really understood the potential for transformation when business meets information technology. It was on a mission to change the way that business and work is done, and it saw itself as an iconoclast (overturning Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management). It attracted and welcomed people who saw themselves as mavericks, creatives, and revolutionaries within the world of business.
That identity found its strongest expression in the revolutionary reengineering concept, and it powered the firm’s remarkable growth. Index defined itself as the reengineering firm.

But when reengineering became a commodity offered by many other (often larger) consulting firms, Index struggled to answer the question “Who are we, beyond reengineering?” It had come to define itself in terms of a single idea or offering, instead of nurturing and staying true to its core identity, which offered a broader, stronger and ultimately more durable platform. The firm ceased to exist less than a decade after it began marketing reengineering.

By way of contrast, look at the story of the Boston Consulting Group. BCG has successfully navigated its clients’ changing expectations by staying true to its core, value-creating identity while expanding its value proposition in a way that built upon its core identity.

For decades, BCG’s promise was essentially this: “We will help you understand complexity and identify causation.” As a result, the firm’s culture prized brainpower, detachment, creative problem-solving skills and a certain intellectual combativeness above all else. It has always attracted people and clients who are a little more adventurous, more interested in the outliers, more prepared to pioneer than its rivals.

As the consulting market evolved, clients came to demand not just understanding and transactional relationships, but implementation and a deeper relationship. BCG partners had the wisdom to see that intellectual horsepower and creative problem-solving were and would always be critical components of its identity. But the firm set about adding implementation and relationship skills to that core. As a consequence, BCG has evolved and thrived.

 

Bob: You do a lot of work with consulting firms, helping them build their organizational brands and determine how to market their services. Do you think consulting firms generally do a good job of marketing themselves? How could they improve?

Tony: There are lots of opportunities for consulting firms to really maximize the impact of their marketing. Four areas in particular come up time and time again in my work. The first is identity and value proposition; then comes differentiation; third is content development or thought leadership; and the fourth is cross-functional integration.

Identity and value proposition, if thoughtfully and diligently developed, provide the compass that guides everything else. So they really repay investment. A lot of firms assume that their professionals and clients have a clear, shared understanding of who they are, what they do and why they’re valuably different. But I find that’s often not the case – even among the leadership team.

If you’re not really clear about those things, then decisions about everything from mergers and acquisitions, what new practices to launch, which ideas to invest in, and what kinds of people to hire become arbitrary and difficult. And a lot of the resulting “white water” surfaces in the marketing function.

 

Bob: Why do you talk about “identity” rather than “brand”?

Tony: The word “brand” carries a lot of baggage, not least its association with appearance, logos, taglines color palettes and so on – things a lot of professionals consider superficial and trivial. My experience both inside consulting firms and as an advisor to them led me to think about it differently.

There are a number of challenges that are unique to professional services firms. For one, the “brand” is conveyed through people and the relationships they have with clients. For another, the “product” is intangible and highly malleable. With a product, you can paint meaning onto it by means of advertising – for example Apple means iconoclasm, creativity, and refusal to join the mainstream; Jeep means adventure and the explorer spirit; and Harley Davidson means freedom and the outlaw spirit. We choose those products not just because they perform a function – many of their competitors do that equally well – but because we identify with the meaning that advertising has taught us to attach to those products. You cannot do that when the product is people and advice.

Then there’s the nature of the people who are drawn to professional services. They’re typically highly educated, independent-minded, autonomy-loving individuals who don’t much like to be managed. They’re not going to march in lockstep or parrot a script. Those characteristics enable them to create value for their clients.

So if you want to build a “brand” for the institution, you have to honor that independence of mind while at the same time deliver an experience to the client that’s sufficiently uniform to constitute a “brand”. I’ve learned that to do that you have to uncover the value-creating identity at the heart of the organization that causes those professionals to join and stay with the firm.

That identity, which is always there but almost always unexamined and therefore not articulated, shows up in the relationships those professionals develop with their clients, and in the value they deliver. Once you’ve articulated it, you can access it and be intentional about it. You use it as a tool.

So I prefer “identity” rather than “brand.” It’s a richer concept and it better captures the complex reality of a professional services firm.

 

Bob: Some marketers might say that your notion of identity and the idea of a value proposition are closely related. Is that right?

Tony: The value proposition statements I typically see are usually one-dimensional, and so way too narrow to capture the idea of identity. I use a four-level value proposition model that helps my clients get closer to the notion of identity, and how to make it operational.

Most consulting firms have a one-dimensional view of the value they deliver. They tend to think of it only in terms of functional value – the business problems they solve for their clients. That’s crucial, and it provides the rational motivation for buying your services. But there are at least three other dimensions of value that should be part of your proposition.

The first is emotional value. Professional services firms are not only in the problem-solving business; they are also in the relationship business. They deliver emotional value to their clients through the relationships that they form. So assuming that your firm and its most formidable competitors have pretty equal technical capabilities to solve a client’s business problem, you might distinguish yourself in terms of your creativity (thus providing the emotional value of exhilaration, risk-taking and the pioneer spirit), or your dependability (thus providing the emotional value of security, belonging and constancy).

I typically interview a number of strategically important users of my consulting client’s services. Every consulting client I have interviewed experiences this dimension of emotional value and uses it to choose between firms, although they are rarely comfortable discussing it directly.
I’ve had business leaders describe their experience of working with different consulting firms as “Like a date with Carmen” or “We never knew how smart we were until we worked with you” or “Now we’ve got a story that moves our people” or “Safe hands, they’d done it a hundred times and had the playbook” or “Challenging -- they eventually helped me see I was in the wrong job.”

Then there is the self-expressive value that clients get by choosing you versus another professional services firm. What are they signaling about themselves to their colleagues and peers by their choice, for example, of BCG versus McKinsey? The better you understand that, the more you can use it as a filter to help you attract and select the right clients and staff.

Third, there is the societal value that your firm delivers – the beneficial impact you want to have on the world. That is a powerful way to express the fundamental values and beliefs that underpin your business, and attract clients and staff that share those values.

That four-level value proposition (functional, emotional, self-expressive and societal) ties closely to your unique identity. And each of those dimensions of value can be used to create genuine differentiation.

 

Bob: We’ve heard many consulting firms complain that it is hard to differentiate themselves. We believe thought leadership is a key differentiator. What else is there?

Tony: I agree that most consulting firms think about differentiation in terms of their content – ideas, insights and services. While it’s crucial that firms keep trying to break new ground with their content, it takes considerable effort and rigor.

In my experience, the biggest factor behind lack of differentiation is lack of ambition. A lot of consulting firms just want to look and sound like they belong in the “professional services club,” but they’re actually nervous about standing out. The good news is that there are many avenues open to the professional services firm that really does want to differentiate – and some of them are rarely exploited.

If you take that four-level value proposition I described earlier and think about emotional value, that’s another path to differentiation. I find all the time in my work with consulting firms that their clients get real emotional value from the relationships that they form with the consultant and with the firm. If you use the right techniques, you can codify it. Then you can be intentional about it, you can begin to shape your client encounters to deliver more of that emotional value – turn the experience of interacting with you into a differentiated, branded experience.

I asked the executive clients of one consulting firm I worked with to tell me stories about the firm at its best and most valuable to them. There were clear, recurring themes of path finding and excitement (pattern recognition and openness to new interpretations), risk mitigation but not conformism (data analysis and curiosity about outliers), and personal challenge and growth (support in realizing their personal potential), By drilling down on each of these themes, we devised ways to demonstrate them in everything from client conferences to the various case-team encounters that made up a typical client engagement.

 

Bob:  How can firms be better at thought leadership marketing?

Tony: Great insights and solid content are powerful ways to demonstrate your expertise. But there are three missed opportunities that I commonly see in my work with consulting firms.

First, develop an issue-ownership strategy to focus your thought leadership and service development. This goes back to the notion of identity – define and articulate who you are and how you create unique value, then use that to decide which issues you can credibly own in your marketplace. It seems obvious, but I’m constantly surprised at how often intellectual capital development is randomly driven by the passions and energy of a particular consultant or consultants, rather than harnessed to the strategic needs of the business.

One consulting firm I worked with was deeply unhappy with the value it was getting from its marketing department, and had consequently become pretty skeptical about the relevance and ROI of marketing per se. When I reviewed the most recent three years of marketing output, about 70% of it focused on an obscure technology that had no relevance to any service that the firm offered. One partner had a passion for that technology and the energy to write about it. In the absence of an issue ownership strategy (driven by a clear identity), the marketing folks took the only material they were given and ran with it. But if you were a prospective client trying to form an impression of what that firm was about, you’d have arrived at an entirely erroneous picture.

Part of this goes back to my earlier point about the difficulty that consulting firms often have in saying “no.” The value of having a clear, shared identity is that it enables you, when confronted with partners vying for investment in competing ideas, to say “Great, let a thousand flowers bloom – however, we the firm will only water these three or four.”

Second, be really rigorous about challenging and demonstrating the novelty, relevance and provable benefits of your ideas. A great diagram, some powerful phrases and a short PowerPoint deck will not cut it. I talk to a lot of consulting clients, most of whom see only onion-skin-thin differences between the ideas offered by one firm versus another. A sympathetic but “non-native” external thought partner can be invaluable in pushing your thinking, and challenging you to prove it.

Third, help your entire client-facing consulting team become comfortable with the ideas and how to connect them with the firm’s service offerings (especially how and when to hand off to a subject-matter expert) before you launch the broad marketing campaign. Many consultants feel it’s their job to be the expert and often are motivated financially to act that way. So they gain revenue credits for keeping the relationship to themselves, and are penalized financially for bringing in others. But really their job is to be a gateway to the treasure-trove of expertise that the firm represents – and they should be rewarded for that.

 

Bob: You identified cross-functional integration as the fourth area where consulting firms could really improve the effectiveness of their marketing efforts. What do you mean?

Tony: It’s ironic that management consulting, the profession that brought us reengineering and with it the idea that cross-functional processes deliver huge value and competitive advantage, is often so bad at connecting its own processes.

Idea development (thought leadership), marketing, business development and capability development (methodology and training and development) often operate as separate silos. But the best, most effective consulting firms I work with assemble cross-functional teams to develop and market new ideas – field practitioners, thought leaders, geographic leaders, marketers and business developers, methodology and training personnel – all of whom work together as a team from the point at which the initial idea is approved as part of the firm’s issue-ownership strategy.

 

Bob: So where should a professional firm begin to get all of this in order?

Tony: I’d start with identity. Take the time to figure out who you are as an organization, how that creates unique value and what impact you want to have on the world. A rich and shared understanding of that identity will shape behavior and culture inside the business, help you choose which ideas and practices to develop, enable you to construct a differentiated consulting experience for your clients, and drive your marketing strategy.

Being true to your unique, value-creating identity enables your firm to attract quality clients and staff – those who share your values. That’s the basis for a long, happy and mutually profitable relationship.

Tony Tiernan can be reached at tony.tiernan@authenticidentity.com, or by phone at (978) 282-8211. He published an article on the topic of identity in consulting firms in Consulting magazine, which can be found here.
 

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