Consultants’ change fetish is clichéd and confused

These are grim times. I was relieved, then, to receive a press release last week from Accenture, heralding its “biggest brand move in a decade”. For if I know anything about consultancies, it is that their po-faced advertising campaigns, name changes, identity tweaks, and purpose restatements are invariably a source of mirth.

This is the sector that brought us Monday — PwC’s ill-fated attempt to rename its consulting arm in 2002, before it was mercifully swallowed by IBM — and Strategy&, the brand PwC foisted on Booz & Company after buying it in 2014.

One reason this is such fertile territory for armchair critics is that the overlap between consultant-speak and marketing-speak is where the English language goes to die. “The new creative leverages the Accenture symbol — “>” — which has been part of the company’s logo for more than 20 years and will affect every touch point,” declares the latest communiqué from the cemetery.

Accenture has form here. It wrote its own crazy case study in 2000, when an employee invented the new name for Andersen Consulting after it split from the auditor Arthur Andersen.

This was also the point when Accenture added the “greater than” symbol over the T in its new name, a brand move so barmy that two months later my former colleague Lucy Kellaway repurposed it for her satire about the jargon-spouting executive Martin Lukes. His company changed its name from A&B to a-b glöbâl, after Lukes argued passionately that a hyphen, umlaut and circumflex would “provide a feelgood factor for our stakeholders globally”.

The timing of Accenture’s name change was fortuitous. Two years later, the auditor Andersen — which had dropped the “Arthur” to reflect its “unique ability to provide sophisticated, integrated solutions” — collapsed, as a consequence of the sophisticated, integrated solutions it helped provide for Enron. But by then, Accenture was free and clear of any brand taint, and the name, partly thanks to a $175m advertising binge, had stuck.

Its latest initiative is less ambitious, and less costly. Accenture will triple its 2020-21 media spending to $90m for a campaign based on the slogan “Let there be change”. It is aimed at “optimistically capturing [the] power and beauty” of change, with a focus on cloud computing, cyber security and sustainability.

Accenture’s timing, again, looks good. Although the campaign has been under discussion for a year, it coincides with the wrenching transformation wrought by the pandemic, which has consultants everywhere rubbing their hands at the opportunity to advise businesses and governments.

Julie Sweet, Accenture chief executive for just over a year, has spoken intelligently about the challenges of managing through the crisis. She deserves some credit for bringing this project to fruition at all, given the obstacles.

I take exception, though, to the way in which Droga5, the Accenture-owned agency that helped develop the campaign, has wrapped the new branding round the group’s new purpose: “To deliver on the promise of technology and human ingenuity.”

Giving substance to purpose is hard at the best of times. The Financial Reporting Council, a UK regulator, pointed out in January, in a report about adoption of its governance code, that “too many companies substituted what appeared to be a slogan or marketing line”.

At a time when many companies want to buy a purpose off the shelf to satisfy do-gooders, before moving back to what they see as the true business of business — making money — Accenture has set a poor precedent.

To suggest, too, that persuading clients to “embrace change” somehow “departs from convention”, as chief marketing officer Amy Fuller did in an interview with Campaign, is stretching a point.

Consultants have been urging companies to embrace change — and to pay them to show managers how — for decades. The term first appeared in the Financial Times in 1985, when the new managing director of a Welsh car parts factory applauded his staff’s flexibility, since when it has become a management cliché. (Several years and rounds of transformation later, the plant was closed down.)

The current unpleasantness will oblige companies and employees to adapt. Ms Fuller does at least add the positive rider that Accenture intends to help clients change in order “to better businesses, communities, and lives”.

But the firm also needs to take account of many people, and businesses, who want to salvage good things from the present and cling to them, rather than hug an uncertain, Covid-ridden future. They are unlikely to appreciate the “beauty” of change, whether it is leveraged by the Accenture symbol, or not.

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Twitter: @andrewtghill

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