The seven unmistakable signs of a shit brand consultant

Your portable toilet business has nothing to learn from Steve Jobs, and if a consultant even mentions Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs you should kick them out of the door.


I had a long and eventful evening last Friday in Soho with an old University friend, who had just been stung for one of the worst bits of brand consulting I have ever seen. Then it was my turn to feel the pain as he admitted how much he had paid out for the worthless report and consulting advice. Many beverages and an incendiary curry later, we had hashed out a foolproof seven-point system for identifying shit brand consultants before they can take your money and/or lead you astray.

First, any mention of millennials means you are dealing with a marketing moron and should lead to immediate cessation of all discussions. I’m serious about the “moron” tag. Anyone dumb enough to think that the 14 million British millennials qualify as a segment needs their head examined. They fail every possible test of segmentation and anyone who refers to them in any context other than to point out that they are a total load of clichéd bollocks should not be trusted.

Second, look out for consultants that are happy to advise without any data or with just qualitative or quantitative data and not both. Any decent consultant should be asking for or generating significant amounts of qual and quant data to understand your brand from the target consumer’s point of view and avoiding the naïve ‘expert’ approach of giving you their personal experience of your packaging, pricing, store layout and new ad campaign. One of the signals of a bad consultant is a comfort with making big decisions with no data and one of the most reassuring things you can experience from a good consulting firm is a resolute refusal to avoid knee-jerk recommendations without data first being collected.

You can also judge the quality of brand consulting advice by the number of concepts the consultant tries to sell you. There is no one accepted term for what most call brand positioning. You can call it brand values, brand attributes, value proposition and so on. But a decent brand consultant will focus you on one concept to represent what you want to stand for in the market. The crapper the brand consulting firm the more concepts they try and sell you. Circles atop circles, concepts upon concepts, and before you know it you have a brand essence that looks like the D-Day launch strategy and your staff need a PhD to work out what it all means. You can rely on some shit brand consultant in the comments section below to explain why brand attributes are distinct from brand emotions or how a value proposition is different from a positioning statement but ignore them. They are, by definition, shit.

Next, look out for certain trigger words, which, if your brand consultant proposes them, mean he or she is unworthy. Innovation is a product-orientated word and worthless as a result. For every customer who tells you they bought your brand because it was the most “innovative one” I will give you a thousand quid. Remember as well that thousands of brands, badly advised by an army of shit consultants, have already claimed innovation as their own differentiating value, so the only way to be innovative is not to use the word. Words like “lifestyle” and “aspirational” mean absolutely fuck-all too and should tell you volumes about your consultant’s abilities to guide your brand. And if anyone from your consulting firm even starts to utter the dreaded words ‘integrity’ or ‘trusted partner’ stand up and run for the nearest exit.

If they even say the magic words ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’, throw something heavy at them and ask them to leave. Ditto, if they have a picture of a cow being branded in their slide deck or a quote about reputations taking decades to build, you know what you have to do.

If your consulting firm has a trademark attached to their special branding methodology or they have an approach named after an acronym that spells something sexy like “RESULTZ” or “PERFORM” you should immediately stand up and write WANK on the nearest whiteboard and exit the meeting room stage left.

A separate but equally indicative failing is to incessantly cite Apple and Steve Jobs to any and all clients as a paragon of excellence and instruction for brand building. If you find yourself sitting through a ninety-minute sermon on the power of Apple’s branding and its relevance for your portable toilet business it may be time to press the escape button.

It’s not a magical list but, in my experience and that of my slightly depressed marketing mate, it could just save you a six-figure sum and a report that is literally not worth the paper its written on.

Read more from Mark Ritson here.



There are 54 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. How many brand managers does it take to change a light bulb? None, they get the agency to do it.
    How may PR’s does it take to change a light bulb? Can I get back to you on that?

  2. Jonathan Cahill 18 May 2016

    How refreshing

  3. Gill McA 18 May 2016

    One of the most refreshing articles I have read in a long time!! Had me laughing into my cuppa this morning…

  4. Stephanie 18 May 2016

    A follow up on what makes a good brand consultant would be an interesting read

  5. Hayley Roe 18 May 2016

    Lol Resultz don’t let Martin hear you

  6. And for the sequel: the social media consultant

  7. Nick Turner 18 May 2016

    Brilliant Mark – now flip it over and talk to us about a non-shit brand consultant!

    • violeta diamanti 9 Dec 2016

      It is only fair to talk about both sides of the coin. Maybe then in-house brand and marketing managers will not be in need of consultancies as much to figure out the basics.

  8. This WAS refreshing. Apart from anything else, it’s nice to see an article that presents itself as a listicle actually written as an article.

    • Khairul Islam 23 May 2016

      Although I would have preferred a short list at the end to recap. Just for the hell of it:

      1. Leaning on millennials
      2. Consultation without data
      3. Concept overload
      4. Vague trigger words
      5. Maslow’s hierarchy
      6. Branding of marketing approaches/methodology
      7. Hailing of Jobs

  9. Brilliant. And when brand consultants insist that social media must be part of your strategy.

  10. Jeff Swystun 18 May 2016

    Fun piece. Florid and well written. So much so that it did not need to lean on the word “shit” to have impact. On the flip side, here is a piece I wrote, The Ideal Brand Professional. It talks of the hard, soft and defining skills required. Cheers!

  11. Johnny 18 May 2016

    Thanks Mark. I confess to employing Dr. Maslow – but I use him to remind clients to talk about stuff that genuinely matters to the consumer in the copy. I’m guessing the shit brand consultants are doing something more egregious? (cuz everything else in your list had me nodding and saying “cool… I don’t do that…”)

  12. You omitted the most important trait…
    A brand consultant that won’t join you in an incendiary curry is inevitably a fail.

  13. On behalf of a lot of Millennials… thank you for raising the Millennial point. I’ve been on the warpath about how poor the Millennial segment is for a while. If your consultant suggests your target audience should be 1/4 of Britain, they clearly don’t understand segmentation.

    Also, there’s nothing more depressing than being asked your opinion of a brand ‘as a Millennial’ (as if there is some secret post 1980 hive mind).

  14. piedcrow 18 May 2016

    General agreement but when choosing partners it is not a plus to me then the prospects assume that I am hard of hearing, brain dead or not listening and amplifies the volume by employing ALL CAPS, day glow markers, cardiac arresting flashes or rude language. None of this is necessary when the concepts/arguments/directions are at their most excellent best.

  15. Thanks for the laughs Mark, a humorous way to get some serious points across. I have to praise you for mentioning the millennial cohort – it’s quite an annoyance. I’ve heard a few people mention millennials but then qualify and say they are not all the same but when I push for sub-segments they have no idea how they behave, it’s all stereotypes!

  16. Danny Somekh 19 May 2016

    Bang on! Shameless plug: this is why we created

  17. Claire 19 May 2016

    This is absolutely fantastic. The millennials point, as others have said, in particular. I am apparently a millennial and I’m married with a kid. My brother and sister in law are technically also millennials and living it up with no mortgage in London. The idea that we are both basically the same segment for targeting is ludicrous.

  18. Al King 20 May 2016

    Your finest hour Mark. “…….immediately stand up and write WANK on the nearest whiteboard and exit the meeting room stage left.” Genius.

    • Paul Dixon 28 Dec 2016

      Absolutely bang on Bro!

      Mark certainly knows how to resonate with millennials!

      Not sure his particular piece of advice (quoted) would get him far in university lecture halls though!

  19. Love it, thanks. You made my morning…including audible chortles. My learning? Do more quant. Steve at WhatsTheIdea

  20. Chloe Peacock 22 May 2016

    You forgot to mention the people who insert the word ‘ninja’ in their job title.

  21. Gio Etc 22 May 2016

    Overjoyed to find out that my university is teaching us everything we need to become “shit brand consultants”.

  22. As well as a follow up on what makes a good brand consultant it would also be great to get your views on a world without consultants full stop!

  23. Katniss 24 May 2016

    I feel like a better title for this article would be “Marketing people and their lingo: making me irrationally angry since 2004”

  24. Aziz Memon 24 May 2016

    Refreshingly honest and absolutely true. No consultant is perfect, but providing direction without quantitative and qualitative evidence is a cardinal sin in the consulting profession.

  25. John Shaw 25 May 2016

    Perhaps it’s time that a brand consultant stuck his head above the parapet.

    The article has caused plenty of debate here at Brand Union. None of us wanted to like it because of its almost toxic levels of self-satisfaction. But we were forced to agree with most of the points and you probably got the odd wince of recognition, even if we’d say it’s not normally like that any more, and some of the points are a bit more nuanced than they may have been in the Coach & Horses.

    The only thing that leaves us a bit frustrated is that we have little recourse. Every one of us could write a savage diatribe on the signs of a shit client. (Obviously based on prior experience, as all the Brand Union clients are lovely.) But we wouldn’t do that.

    We would, however, be very happy to sell you our bespoke guide on brand voice, called ‘WORDZ: how to express yourself powerfully without actually swearing.’ It’s £250,000 and doesn’t contain any data whatsoever.

    • charles wrench 28 Dec 2016

      Loved the pure venom in your diatribe Mark – as refreshing as a good pint of Cobra. Not so keen on the diet of fawn and flatulence that followed. Until, that is, I got to this spicy gem from the canny Scotman. Argy-bhaji at its best.

  26. Jon Hutson 25 May 2016

    Nicely done. I especially miss the “Many beverages and an incendiary curry..”

  27. Paul Hancock 27 May 2016

    Hard to spot the bigger fools. The bad consultants (who exist in all walks of life, not just marketing), the marketing mugs who need to spend a ton of money on poor advice to do their own jobs. Or worse still, using swear words to induce some macho mock gravitas to state the bleeding obvious in the first place. Oops I did a swear.

  28. Pratibha Dewett 31 May 2016

    There are so many genuinely intelligent people that are still morons when it comes to segmentation! I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had the millennials debate with people.

  29. marcusosborne 16 Jun 2016

    My definition of what is a brand. You won’t like it but it stands the test of time

  30. Terence Ling 10 Dec 2016

    classic marketing. you have succeeded to sell me that the convention is so bad, any disruptor must be ridiculously better to disrupt. I’m feeling tempted. You may have sold me to become a brand consultant.

  31. So, on the one hand consultants are expected to provide evidence and not just ‘expert’ opinion, on the other hand if they “say the magic words ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’, throw something heavy at them and ask them to leave”. Am I the only one who sees the irony?

  32. I don’t think this is a fail safe list by any stretch of the imagination. Even top consultants sometimes use clichés, or some of their junior staff do. Let’s face it : no one, in any profession, can claim to be free of some measure of BS. What matters is :
    a) does the firm have a tried and tested track record of success, together with credible and verifiable testimonials from clients?
    b) does the consultant have a tried and tested track record, perhaps as a marketer?
    c) how well does the company know your specific line of business?
    If all of those are positive, a little BS is harmless. If you do hear BS however, then call it out.

  33. I would add that one of the signs of BS is when people write pieces that lack nuance, that resort to mudslinging and swearwords. It’s very “cool” to write like this on social media, where what is true today is false tomorrow in a puff of fresh (or stale) air, but it is ultimately a pointless, narcissistic exercise. Adverstising and branding are about smoke and mirrors anyway – no need to be clairvoyant to know that.

  34. Steve Poppe 26 Jan 2017

    Great piece Mark. I can add one “Storytelling.” That gets my brand-at up. Steve at WhatsTheIdea

  35. andy porter 21 Apr 2017

    Are you still bit hung over? You know, grumpy, head like wool, slightly queasy – maybe the Madras was a bad idea?… seriously enjoyed this. My experience of most “Brand Consultants” has always been retrospectively hilarious and undoubtedly very expensive for clients. They take snake oil salesmanship to new levels and don’t seem to, well, DO anything much. I particularly enjoyed “scrap-booking” as a creative development process and will never forget the (very well known) global brand consultants who sonorously presented a brand manual to my B2B client with all the weight and heft of the original Ten Commandments, which incorporated full glossy pages of the brand-approved colours … “Black” and “White”. It had cost more than our B2B client’s advertising budget for the year. The client was fine with that because he recognised the name of the consultant and could have a laugh about his Brand Manual with people like me.

  36. Paul Simons 1 Aug 2017

    I have only just seen this and completely agree with the remarks. It is all true.
    I weep on regular basis when I get the call to parachute in to a company because a senior client is panicking after an extensive review of their brand and business. The pattern is always similar. A well known firm of consultants gets the job, they take a year and charge in one case quite recently £2m. I get a month and a very modest fee in comparison to advise the client on what to do. In this actual case the report was average, a lack of understanding of the sector was apparent (airlines), the conclusions woeful and incapable of being implemented.
    Too many people ingest a glossary of terms and then regurgitate them. As in a Morecambe & Wise sketch with Eric on the piano Ernie says “He’s playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order”. Same with brand theory. I had a cracker a few days ago when I asked how a particular whacky idea was going to be implemented and the answer was “via cognitive discovery and collaborative engines using social media” See what I mean?

  37. Melody Pattison Mehta 25 Sep 2017

    I eagerly await the volumes of qual and quant Mark Ritson must surely be preparing as supporting evidence for his rant.

  38. Tyler Kenyon 26 Oct 2017

    Please add the word Disrupt to the list of BS to be wary of. And anyone who tells you they can disrupt an entire industry with branding.

    Just… no.

  39. Simon Thong 5 Jan 2018

    Brilliant. I would also add anyone who thinks that “digital” is significantly more than an additional channel through which to apply classical marketing principles.

  40. Pete Dillon 9 Apr 2018

    This is terrific. I have a real problem with weasel words and some of the crap being thrown about by eminently qualified humans who blag their way in to better and better jobs by yapping on with language like this. I much prefer honesty and simplicity over everything else. Great article.

  41. JoAnna Ebert 18 Apr 2018

    Finally someone who is speaking the truth.

  42. Anthony Carroll 4 Jun 2018

    “Anyone dumb enough to think that the 14 million British millennials qualify as a segment needs their head examined. They fail every possible test of segmentation and anyone who refers to them in any context other than to point out that they are a total load of clichéd bollocks should not be trusted.”

    Is there data to back this up? Can you please share? 🙂

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