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How Bad Marketing Can Help Your Consulting Firm

Some marketing campaigns are iconic. Nike’s “Just Do It”, Apple’s “Think Different” and my Nike/Apple/David mashup, “Just Think About Chocolate” all come to mind.

You don’t need iconic marketing to build awareness of your consulting firm. But doesn’t your consulting firm’s marketing need to be at least, well, passably okay?

As you know, there are Five Marketing Musts for consulting firms: writing, speaking, networking, trade associations (a.k.a. partnerships), and digital presence. (If you didn’t know that, then skim through this book.)

All five approaches require you to communicate with potential prospects. Your consulting firm must convey a neatly tailored, well-crafted articulation of your value proposition, right?

Wrong. Well, partly wrong.

Every marketing channel, from one-on-one conversations to speeches to websites, merges what you say (the message) with how you say it (the delivery).

To optimize your consulting firm’s visibility efforts, follow two best practices that separate message from delivery:

Prioritize Message over Delivery

Don’t worry too much about how well you articulate your consulting firm’s message until you’re sure your message is good.

Does delivery matter? YES. It makes a huge difference. However, you rarely do harm with mediocre (or even poor) delivery of a solid value proposition.

Proof point: Victor Kiam’s classic Remington advertisement. The guy who “liked the shaver so much he bought the company” was clearly not an actor and his lines were partly mumbled. Yet, his message was solid and sold a bazillion electric razors.

Conversely, keep in mind that all the marketing in the world won’t help your consulting firm if your offering is irrelevant.

Prioritize Marketing over Message

Don’t delay marketing while you’re fine tuning your consulting firm’s offering and identifying your compelling, relevant value proposition.

Toss your half-baked, rough-around-the-edges ideas into the marketplace, then welcome the feedback and direction prospects offer your consulting firm.

When your consulting firm’s message is so strong that it succeeds despite less-than-stellar delivery, you know you’re on the right track.

Proof point: Airbnb’s original marketing focused on renting out spare rooms, and the photographs of many rental spaces appeared to have been shot by a toddler wielding a 1973 Kodak Instamatic. Market feedback steered the company toward emphasizing full-home/apartment rentals. That idea, more than the improvements in marketing (which remained poor), catapulted Airbnb’s success.

Net takeaway:

Get into the market and test value propositions until you find one that truly resonates with your consulting firm’s prospects. Then fine tune the delivery of that message.

Mediocre (and even bad) delivery is unlikely to hurt your consulting firm, and if a sub-par campaign generates useful feedback on your consulting firm’s message, then you’re coming out ahead.

Have you ever had success despite a mediocre marketing attempt?

  1. Peter Bancroft
    April 26, 2023 at 6:06 am Reply

    I suppose that you would say that consulting firms should just get their stick men out there.

    • David A. Fields
      April 26, 2023 at 7:03 am Reply

      Or, Peter, they should just stick their men (and women) out there! BTW, the original draft of the article referenced the stick figure illustrations I use as an example of unpolished marketing. The editor is fond of one of the stick figures and thought its feelings would be hurt, so that example was deleted.

      Thanks for injecting your wisdom and humor into the conversation, Peter.

  2. Graham Kennedy
    April 26, 2023 at 6:09 am Reply

    When it comes to marketing, my mantra is that imperfect action is infinitely better than perfect inaction. As independents (or small boutiques) our biggest issue from a marketing perspective is usually that our prospective clients don’t know about us. So doing anything that makes them aware that we exist is likely to be beneficial.

    • David A. Fields
      April 26, 2023 at 7:05 am Reply

      Well said, Graham. Perfect inaction might be a good goal if you’re undergoing surgery, but other than that it doesn’t seem to have many uses. Good on you for being in action!

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Graham!

    • William J. Ryan
      April 26, 2023 at 9:23 am Reply

      Encouraging words Graham. This is one of my biggest concerns, having people be aware of me and the partnerships I’ve created that could benefit and provide solutions to their organization. Your words, aligned with my consistent yet imperfect efforts to increase awareness, are of comfort to me.

    • Lauren Tyson
      April 26, 2023 at 2:25 pm Reply

      Good one, Graham. I also like, “Progress, not perfection.”

  3. Gwen A.
    April 26, 2023 at 6:49 am Reply

    Yes, this helps explain explain to us why our firm has been successful with mediocre marketing! We were wondering about that. We do very little marketing (much less than many other firms we know), yet have more business than we can handle right now. We have a very narrow offering for a difficult to address issue. Thanks for the perspective David! Very helpful.

    • David A. Fields
      April 26, 2023 at 7:06 am Reply

      Exactly, Gwen. You’re approaching the market correctly–with deep expertise about a problem that’s relevant to your target market. That’s what resonates with prospect consulting clients, and even a modicum of marketing behind that message will work nicely. Well done!

      I appreciate your contributing the case study, Gwen. Very helpful.

      • Nick
        April 26, 2023 at 11:57 am Reply

        I’m about six months in, and the successes I’ve had thus far have been extremely diverse. In function it’s been stuff like strategic planning, contract management and negotiation, due diligence, and sales ops and marketing. In industry it’s been tech, agriculture, non-profit, and retail. In size it’s been startup (both pre-revenue and funded), SME, and large company.

        All of this is very scattered, which makes it hard to pin down what my standard offering should be. These projects functionally and company size-wise all touch on different areas I’ve had success with in the past, while the industries have been more sporadic (some I’ve done a lot of work in, others not as much).

        So my professional background has been very much that of a generalist. And the unifying theme I’m seeing around where I’m getting market interest or winning engagements are areas where the client wants a big picture type person who sees and understands a lot of the moving parts at once and can help them pull the threads together, mixing both the strategy and implementation.

        All that is given for context. My question is, how does someone who has succeeded employee-wise as a generalist, and who is getting a positive market reception as an independent with clients and projects that don’t have a lot in common, position themselves LIKE a specialist with a narrow niche and offering?

        My initial thought is to lean heavily into positioning like a fractional COO, but as of right now I’m kind of just making it all up as I go.

        • David A. Fields
          April 26, 2023 at 2:00 pm

          Congratulations on your new practice and winning clients, Nick. Also, good question. Just for for clarity: it’s not impossible to succeed as a generalist–we work with clients who have solid, seven-figure practices built on fairly general skills and excellent relationships. It’s just much harder to succeed that way and virtually impossible to scale. Also, the projects you win when you’re starting your practice, which typically come from well-established relationships, typically won’t sustain your practice past, say, five years. So, can you be a generalist? Sure. Should you be? Probably not.

          In answer to your question, you pick an area with high demand where you can deliver value. It’s really as easy as that. Off hand, we’re not fans of the fractional model, be it fractional COO, CMO, or other factional position. There are a bunch of reasons for that which are beyond the scope of this reply. But, if you want to build a practice that’s scalable, fractional COO is a less powerful approach than some others.

          Thanks for the smart question, Nick.

  4. Jay Arthur
    April 26, 2023 at 9:31 am Reply

    I’m always looking for the “phrase that pays.” One great place to test different phrases is at a trade show. Just shout out phrases and see which ones turn heads. The best ones are the ones where the prospect walks down the aisle and then turns around, comes back and asks: “What did you say?”

    • David A. Fields
      April 26, 2023 at 9:38 am Reply

      As you suggest, Jay, trade shows are an excellent place to test marketing ideas because you can access plenty of prospects quickly and easily. The ideal is a combination of delivery, including a phrase or articulation that catches prospects attention, and a message that intrigues them even more once they’ve paused to listen.

      Thanks for sharing your technique, Jay!

  5. Lauren Tyson
    April 26, 2023 at 2:23 pm Reply

    Hi David, great post as usual. Regarding writing as a “marketing must,” what about writing in a “work for hire” situation? I will give you a scenario.

    A client (a municipality) hires a consultant to write a 25-page educational booklet that the client will distribute to a select type of local businesses. Is it appropriate for the consultant to include not just their name in the “acknowledgments” section of the booklet, but a 100-word bio (with the aim of promoting the consultant’s firm)? To me, it seems inappropriate–especially for a government publication (governments typically do not endorse private-sector companies), but I am interested in hearing your and others’ opinion on this. Thank you.

    • David A. Fields
      April 26, 2023 at 8:44 pm Reply

      Great question, Lauren. It’s wholly inappropriate for a consulting firm to include a marketing message in a work product for a client unless the promotional message was negotiated up front as part of the terms of the engagement. Your logo, which may include a short tagline, is probably permissible on the “produced by” page if the client agrees to it.

      Always Think Right-Side Up–what is in the best interests of the client?

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