Does your consultancy’s brand talk to your clients?

It’s not a new thing for the design industry to become obsessed with semantics. Ten years ago it was not uncommon for formal debates to be staged on the nature of corporate identity and where the term logo or marque fitted in.

More recently we’ve seen design groups falling over themselves to add the phrase ‘strategic consultants’ to their name, though not always with any real justification for the claim. And now ‘branding consultant’ – or better still, ‘brand experience consultant’ – is the preferred descriptor. Everyone, from identity experts to packaging and interiors, is trying to jump on the bandwagon.

Last week (Private View, DW 6 February), Colum Lowe expressed delight that design groups are using the word brand to describe their activities – a welcome shift towards using clients’ language, he, a former client, maintains. Others disagree about consultancies viewing themselves as brands.

This week London’s ICA set about addressing the issue at a Cultural Entrepreneurs Club event, entitled How to Build a Brand. The likes of digital group Poke were scrutinised by Simon Jameson, chief advisor on brand strategy to Channel 4, and Philip Orwell of branding group Venture 3 as to the strength of their ‘brands’.

This is kind of exercise is good fun, and there are benefits for a consultancy to distance itself from the personal attributes of its founders. Even everyone’s favourite group Pentagram is seen to be bigger than the sum of its illustrious partners; meanwhile, the cult of personality works when you’re talking about a sole trader or design ’boutique’ such as independent designer Maddy Bennett or Bath-based branding start-up Osborne Pike, set up last year by former Design Bridge duo Steve Osborne and David Pike.

But in many respects the obsession with branding is an irrelevance. It’s not so much how a consultancy describes itself as what it does and how it does it that creates its culture. Too often consultancies forget what it is that sets them apart as they strive to keep up with their peers rather than play to their strengths. Yet no one can doubt the success of groups such as Johnson Banks and Williams Murray Hamm which dare to be different in their work and push personality.

Of course, showing personality doesn’t always win you work. There will be some clients with whom you clash. But better a selection process based on honesty and humanity than one where a relationship will never really develop.

The best work generally comes from collaboration with a sympathetic client, but to achieve this you need to be yourself. Build your brand, by all means, but don’t rely on mere words to mask reality.

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