Today’s consulting industry is like the car industry in the 1980s, says Fiona Czerniawska, co-Founder of Source.

Here at Source we like to entertain ourselves with finding parallels between consulting and other industries. I’ve talked before about the similarities with phrama (R&D a challenge) and the film industry (specialisation a must), but until I spoke to Torsten Oltmanns at Roland Berger, it hadn’t occurred to me that we were like the car industry.

So here’s the idea. Today’s consulting industry is like the car industry in the 1980s. Back then, car companies were obsessed with the features their cars had (think ABS, leather seats, air-conditioning) and they thought their customers were too, so that all their marketing focused on this. But, in the fullness of time, they came to realise that those features were much of a muchness: if rival car makes didn’t already have them, they soon would. Attracting customers would therefore to depend on the image of the car – and a new breed of lifestyle marketing was born.

Now consider the consulting industry. We are obsessed with features: how good we are at working with clients; the high-calibre of skills we can draw on; our global footprint; how innovative our approach is; our project management methodology. But our clients (let’s be honest) think we’re all pretty similar because all of those features are very easy to claim to replicate. We need an alternative approach. And this was Torsten’s point: when consulting firms wake up to the fact that their marketing needs to focus on image and customer values the entire basis of competition in the industry will shift.

Accenture and IBM are clearly Ford and General Motors, locked in a battle for the mass market and offering a wide range of sturdy models and great deals. How will that model work with Tata (literally and figuratively) producing a car of simplicity and game-changing cheapness targeted at up-and-coming customers in emerging markets? We have McKinsey down as Mercedes, the purring engine backed by decades of engineering know-how, but is the Boston Consulting Group Audi catching up? Personally, I’d go for Bain as a sleek, black BMW (driven in every sense). The Big Four firms? I’d have KPMG down as Volkswagen: friendly, approachable, surprisingly spacious, quite a lot of formats to choose from. PwC and Deloitte have to be Renault and Citroen (room for all the kids, all their friends, the dog and the dog’s surfboard, but plenty of back-seat driving as a result). E&Y is perhaps a Mini Cooper (stylish and zippy, but may cut you up at the lights?).

But speaking as someone whose Volvo has just been written off by a very careless driver, I’m not in a good position to judge. So in the interests of scientific endeavour we’d like your votes: click here to take our simple survey and we’ll publish the results in a couple of weeks.


Fiona Czerniawska is a leading commentator on the consulting industry and a co-Founder of Source, who provide specialist research on the management consulting market to consultants and their clients.

© Fiona Czerniawska 2011. All rights reserved.
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