The logo of consulting firm McKinsey at an office building in Zurich, Switzerland. Picture: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
The logo of consulting firm McKinsey at an office building in Zurich, Switzerland. Picture: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

For McKinsey, “sorry” was a hard word to say. The word took approximately 34 months to utter. Kevin Sneader, the new global managing partner of McKinsey, apologised to South Africans in a speech delivered at GIBS business school on July 9 for its role in Gupta-linked business.

Sneader acknowledged that the firm had “made several mistakes in SA and was now paying for them”. He  went on to highlight the ways in which, as a trusted firm, McKinsey had not just let itself  down but had also failed to live up to its standard of putting client’s interests ahead of the firm’s”.

Leaving aside the political aspect of this unfolding and unravelling story, from a brand-building perspective McKinsey has lost reputation, and in the short to medium term the hope of commercial growth in SA. It’s not going to be easy to restore the trust local clients had in it. The reversal of this negative reputation will take more than spin and will require a deliberate effort from the company to walk a new walk to match the new talk.

Discussions about the value and relevance of brand purpose is typically accompanied by sneers of derision from CAs, CFOs, CIOs, management consultants and bankers, most of whom adhere to the belief that only the “hard stuff” (in other words money) matters.

The McKinsey experience is a cautionary tale for these sceptics. Brand building is an inside-out job – and if that process is not anchored in an essence that defines how the work your business does matters to the world, you are in trouble. If your business continues to focus on selling to consumers instead of serving humans your sunset is fast approaching.

Purpose, when sincerely articulated and grounded in authenticity, becomes the glue that binds. It  also acts as a litmus test, making it easy for every individual in the business, from the most junior to the most senior, to choose the most appropriate path. While there will always be individuals who overstep the mark, with a well-articulated purpose in place nobody can claim not to have known what the business stands for.

Old-world thinking no longer applies. It’s no longer about how big you are, but rather how big your heart is. It’s not about transactions but about relationships. People buy from people, not companies. The rising tide of conscious consumption means corporates have nowhere to hide. We, today’s citizens, want to know more than what you make: we want to see how you make the world a better place.

The big take-out

People buy from people, not companies. Consumers hold people accountable for branding mistakes, and trust, once broken, takes an effort to rebuild.

So, now that McKinsey’s apology has been dispensed with, I suggest that the real work begins for it. And no, it does not fall to the human resources department to craft a new code of conduct and print out new values to be pasted in the hallways. It starts with an honest conversation with all inside McKinsey to discard their old ways and to shed the dead skin.

It demands a deep reflection, courageous conversations and ugly truths to get to a place where the firm can allow for a new purpose to emerge – one that will galvanise its team, be compelling to clients and be a healing balm for SA.

After all, in the world of brands, it has become abundantly clear that customers and citizens –  now, more than ever –  hold corporates to moral as well as ethical standards, and once those are breached, that holy grail called brand love quickly turns to its opposite.

Brand McKinsey won’t be given another opportunity to apologise, so it’s incumbent on the firm to ensure that it relooks the way it operates from every available angle to ensure that its brand purpose matches and is in perfect alignment with its service offerings. More than simply focusing on its future brand positioning, the firm needs to think carefully about what it wants the world to believe about it and then to deliver on positive and authentic experiences.

For anybody still under the illusion that brand is the sole responsibility of marketing, bear in mind that it is the erosion of McKinsey’s brand equity that has brought the business to its knees.

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Sizakele Marutlulle is the founder and CEO Marutlulle & Co.