McKinsey & Company recently underwent a rebrand. While the changes they made may be subtle, the reasons for them are important. Jason and Jeff share their (somewhat opposing) opinions on the choices they made.
About the Episode
McKinsey & Company recently underwent a rebrand. While the untrained eye may not have even noticed, the impetus behind the change was important. There is an entire microsite dedicated to the explaining the details of ther updated brand, which is really well done so we encourage you to check it out.
To start the episode, Jason shares the elements of the business case for the rebrand and Jason and Jeff both spend some time discussing why the changes they made were important. (2:12)
Next, Jason and Jeff break down the elements of the rebrand and what McKinsey actually did. They spend the remainder of the episode sharing their opinions on what was done. (10:15)
Resources mentioned in this episode:
McKinsey & Company’s New Identity
Rebrand vs. Brand Refresh — What’s the Difference and What to Consider.
Profiting From Thougth Leadership Conference
The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business
Discovering the Art of Hand Lettering
Battling the Monster: Applying 3 Classic Storytelling Frameworks to Firm Marketing
Jason Mlicki: Jeff, I’m going to consciously describe this episode as the one where the gloves come off. I say that-
Jeff McKay: Why do we have to start all these podcasts with you just making me laugh with these statements.
Jason Mlicki: … I say that because as we’re prepping for this podcast, it sounded like that we may fundamentally disagree on what we’re about to talk about. So I can see us being on opposite sides of the coin on this one, whereas a lot of times I think we’re more alike than we’re not, so.
Jeff McKay: Oh, don’t say that out loud. Don’t say that out loud.
Jason Mlicki: Well, I’m trying to welcome you into the community of intelligent people, but I can put you back on the outside of it if you like.
Jeff McKay: Put me back on the outside.
Jason Mlicki: We’re going to talk about the relatively recent McKinsey rebrand today.
Jeff McKay: I could hear the click, click, click, click, click, click, as people turned off the podcast.
Jason Mlicki: I heard the click, click, click and people turning on the podcast because you know McKinsey always controls the conversation, right? They shape the conversation in the marketplace like no other firm I would argue.
Jeff McKay: Used to.
Jason Mlicki: Still do.
Jeff McKay: Used to.
Jason Mlicki: Who does better?
Jeff McKay: We’ll get to that.
Jason Mlicki: Okay, so McKinsey did a rebrand, I want to say they did it, I think the launch was around February of this year, 2019, and they have a whole microsite on this. So for listeners, if you’re not aware of this or if you haven’t taken the time to look at this, Google search, McKinsey rebrand, and you’ll find the McKinsey landing page where they describe what they did, why they did it, how they did it, not really how. Some of how and just introduced the world to their new in this case, mostly visual identity system.
Most of what they’ve done, at least in my mind, is mostly visual. They don’t spend a lot of time talking about tone of voice or language or positioning or strategy of the firm. It’s mostly about how they’re packaging and presenting the firm to the marketplace. I took away that there were three or four different elements of the business case and I’ll just share them real fast in rapid fire. The first was that they feel as though the firm has changed more in the last 10 years than it had in the previous 80 plus. So their firm’s just under rapid change and if I … again, I’ve not worked at McKinsey nor have I worked with McKinsey. We have had McKinsey folks as featured speakers at our annual event. I’ve been in the room with McKinsey consultants in client work now and then, but I don’t have a whole lot of direct experience with their model.
The comment they made in that context was that it’s a much larger firm than it was 10 years ago and a much more diverse firm. And that they are a lot more digital, they have a lot more creative … they’ve bought creative agencies like a lot of consulting firms and they’re doing a lot more implementation work. And I kind of group that last comment in there where they said along the lines of we’re not just providing insights and direction, we’re partnering with clients to lead them and create change that matters. That in a nutshell is the way they’ve wrapped the business case as to why they’re making this investment. They said they didn’t feel like the visual identity system that represents the firm reflected those changes that had played out over the last decade or so. So let me pause there for a second. Anything else that you saw in the business case for what they’re doing that jumped out at you as something that was critical to highlight?
Jeff McKay: I think you did a good job of summarizing the business case from a McKinsey perspective, but I think there’s a little more in there. Are we going to talk about that now or you want to talk about it after we get through the rest of the summary?
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, no, I think that’s a … yeah, let’s do that. Let’s break down other elements of the business case that went unsaid and then we can talk about some of the things they did and what we think about it.
Jeff McKay: Well, I liked the way you caveated your comments and I think that’s a good thing to do because we don’t work at McKinsey. We weren’t behind the scenes and having worked in these firms, not McKinsey, but other big firms what you see is not necessarily what’s happening behind the scene. So I would add the same caveat that I could be 100% wrong in my comments and I’ll apologize to McKinsey and McKinsey’s people if that is the case. But from my perspective, the business case was a good one. They rebranded, and we’ll talk about the use of that word at a strategic inflection point, which is when you should rebrand. And that inflection point is that they stopped or their mix changed from just pure strategy, we don’t want to get our hands dirty with this, we’ll give you our research and then you go do what you’re going to do with it to clients saying, “Whoa, wait a minute. I need somebody to actually implement this stuff.”
And I think McKinsey got pulled into that world, that it wasn’t necessarily a strategic choice they made. I think their competitors started doing that and doing it much better than they did and saw research to that effect. I think they went into it because they had to go into it, because we are now in a new business world where you just can’t hand off a strategy because of the digitalization elements of it. And I see that at Prudent Pedal, we do strategy, but we also do a lot of … I don’t know that implementation is the right word. I would call it opera …. You know what I mean?
Jason Mlicki: What did call it? An opera … operationalizing.
Jeff McKay: The cat has my tongue. But set that in motion and that’s even our tagline setting smart growth strategies in motion. And I think McKinsey got pulled into that. The BCGs, the Accentures, the Deloittes beat them there. And McKinsey had to respond. I think your business case summary is good.
Jason Mlicki: Well, what’s interesting to me about what you just said is I wonder … I mean clearly there’s still a marketplace for expert strategy guidance separate from downstream implementation, right? For a firm that literally says all we’re going to do is set the strategic agenda and walk away. I wonder, and the reason I say clearly that’s maybe not true, but what, but I wonder if you get to a certain scale, a la where McKinsey and BCG are, where there’s no more growth for that, right? Like you’re so big already, you can’t just keep doing that and see if you want to grow and you want to be a vibrant firm, you have to go where those firms have all gone. Because obviously you could be a boutique firm and renders strategic guidance all day long and probably be successful.
Anyway, that’s maybe not here nor there. Other thing that struck me, I know in hearing them, people from McKinsey speak, over the last couple of years at our event and other places, is that I do know that they were also speaking to their alumni a little bit. As you know, McKinsey is probably better at cultivating those alumni relationships than just about any firm on the planet and I think they also recognize that the alumni wasn’t understanding the change in the business model. They weren’t understanding how McKinsey had evolved and they needed a moment, like you said, an inflection point. They needed to make a statement to get the attention of their alumni as well, to say, “Hey guys, wait a minute. This firm looks different than it looked when you left 15, 20 years ago. Let me explain it to you.” So in that sense I thought it was really a good way to get that attention and then get that mind share back from those folks that are so critical to their business model.
Jeff McKay: I think that’s a great point and I’m glad that you highlighted it. That’s kind of the back end of the employment agreement. The rebranding also had a lot to do with the front end. They’re are no longer recruiting MBAs from Ivy League schools. Now they’re going out and getting a totally different type of person to come in to this firm. Those people want to see themselves reflected in the identity of the firm.
So the employees that are leaving who hadn’t seen all this change going on was one dimension, but being able to bring in non MBAs had to be difficult for McKinsey, even though they have a great brand. Creatives are like, “You want me to work where?” I’ve seen this in my career, in professional services and people are like, “But can I really do great work in a professional services firm? I’d much rather be doing automobiles or perfumes or clothes or fashion type of stuff.” I think the recruiting played a big part in this and then the visual identity, when we start breaking it down, is almost like a fashion magazine identity, I think.
Jason Mlicki: Oh, that’s interesting. We’ll get to that. There’s a brand launch video that they release with one of the partners, senior partner that articulating what they did, why they did it, how they did it. Obviously most of my summary came from his video and I thought it was really interesting to your point of how prominently they featured the diversity of the firm in the people. And you can tell it was a purposeful decision to try to say, you have this vision of the McKinsey consultant that maybe was drawn in your mind by reading the book, The Firm and some of the early days of the firm where they literally had, a McKinsey consultant who was tall and handsome and all these things, and they were trying to shake that perception but they know what their perception is, right? They’re smart people, they’re really smart people. So they know that the marketplace sees them in a certain way and they’re using, like you said, this inflection point to think about it a little differently. And so in that video, you saw that first hand and it was really, I thought, pretty well done in terms of bringing that forward.
So let’s just talk about, I guess what they actually did. In terms of a rebrand, I would actually classify this more as a refresh and we’ll come back to that in a minute. But essentially what they really did is they, I mean they redesigned the script mark of the firm. They redesigned what I would call the corporate identity and then they modified the color palettes and the topography, and then they build out what I would call as a new visual toolbox, which is this thing that they call the partnership mark, which is really a visual metaphor of the relationship that they have with their clients.
And then they defined a very specific distinct photographic style to represent how they’re going to really present themselves to the marketplace. They also have a lot of other downstream stuffs in there around data visualization and just all kinds of things that they clearly are big parts of the thought leadership engine of McKinsey more so than anything. The reason I would say it’s more like a refresh is because when you look at what they did versus where they were, this is not a radical departure and in fact the identity, the corporate identity itself, if you’re not a trained design eye, without them putting a spotlight on this, you may not even notice that anything really changed.
They went from a long McKinsey and company horizontal read into a stacked read and then of course they did invest in a typographer to literally design a custom typeface for the firm that’s unique to the firm, which is not unusual for a company of this scale to make that investment. That’s a big investment that’s been going on in the world of brand identity for a while. There’s a whole movement towards hand lettering. We’ve actually written about that. We have people on our team that are involved in that type of work. So that’s not an unusual thing to do right now, but it’s a really, in my mind, a very smart thing for them given their stature in the marketplace to say we’re going to create a custom typeface that we own that’s uniquely ours, is distinctive and describes who we believe we are as a firm.
That’s the elements of what they did. Which is ultimately why, to me, it’s a refresh just because it’s not a radical departure from what you’ve seen. It’s an evolution of what you’ve seen. If you go back to the podcast that you and I did on brand relevance, I would argue that this is the perfect example of what I was articulating in that podcast is that in order for them to keep the timeless, classic look yet remain relevant in the marketplace, they made relatively minor modifications to the way they’re presenting things. And that’s how firm should approach this. You have these moments when you make these modifications to the visual presence of the firm. So let me just pause there because that’s just the quick summary of what they actually did. Now we can talk a little bit more about what we think of it and what it means.
Jeff McKay: Listeners, you better sit down.
Jason Mlicki: Stop the walk.
Jeff McKay: Well, where do you want to jump in?
Jason Mlicki: I’ll let you jump in go where you want. I’ve done a lot of talking. You jump in wherever you want to jump in.
Jeff McKay: Let’s start at the very top and the McKinsey and Company logo. They moved from a horizontal to a vertical and they even talked about the reason for doing that and it was a very pragmatic reason for doing it and it was because a stacked logo can be made bigger in a finite space versus a horizontal one. We did the exact same thing with Arthur Anderson when I was there, except we went the opposite direction. We went from stacked to horizontal, but that was a step to eliminate the Arthur and just have Anderson. So I get why they did that. I thought it was interesting that they didn’t change any of the logo at all other than to make it two lines.
Jason Mlicki: Well that’s not true though. Depending on what you mean. I mean because they custom designed a new typeface and there are very subtle but unique changes to the topography sets so that they did now. But if you’re saying like if did they do a radical departure to something totally different than you’re absolutely true. But they did change it.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. Okay. Well to me it’s not a big enough change where I’m like, wow, it gets my attention at all. Even the stack really doesn’t. I’m not a fan of the stack. I wonder if they considered dropping the And Company and just going with a single name. Like Anderson or …
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. That’s an interesting comment because I think everybody in the marketplace just thinks of them as McKinsey and so is it even necessary to keep the And Company and I’m sure they’ve got a very specific business why that’s meaningful and important to them.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. And it’s probably cultural. And gets to the partnership or the ownership of it. So a very similar thing at Hewitt Associates when that firm was rebranded to just Hewitt in the logo. It bothered a lot of legacy people because the associates were the firm. And to drop the Associates from the logo itself was very, very controversial. So I get that. But firms …
Jason Mlicki: That’s interesting to me. I mean, McKinsey has long since passed on, right? I don’t know, I’ll be honest, if I was even a partner in that firm, I would care less. I’m always amazed by that.
Jeff McKay: Well, you don’t know. You don’t know.
Jason Mlicki: I know, I know what you’re saying. I don’t know what they would say, but I just strikes me how interesting how people get so worked up about that. I mean we’ve been in it where we have law firms with four names on the door. And I would say just drop those last two names because they’re doing you no good. No one’s going to remember and no one’s going to repaint them. And the person that has that name gets upset and I say, would you rather be a nameless partner in a firm 10 times the size? Or a named partner in a firm that you have, right? To me it’s silly.
Jeff McKay: Well, in the debate that you and I are having right now are the debates that go on ad nauseum inside firms every day. And partners will battle to the death on that. And sometimes it’s just better to compromise and move on-
Jason Mlicki: Move forward.
Jeff McKay: … And maybe that’s what happened in McKinsey. The logo works for the reasons they did it. I’m not a fan of it, but it’s neither here or there in terms of the change for me. So we’re moving on from the logo?
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, absolutely. Move on.
Jeff McKay: The other thing that struck me, it’s kind of the quintessential agency hype at brand, rebrandings and this conversation, I think it was like the tension of the constancy and the modernity of the firm. I understand what they’re trying to say, but it seems so overwrought with trying to make it something that it’s not. I think what they’re trying to say is our values, our legacy, our history is not changing. We’re adding a new chapter to this book. I get that. I don’t think it takes all these words in order to convey that. And again, that really will manifest from the culture and the culture at McKinsey is going to change.
You cannot combine creatives with an MBA type of person and not have that tension in evolution of culture. And you can just see that in, if you go to the about page of McKinsey and the menu items they have there, of course you have an overview, but then you have diversity, you have sustainability, social responsibility. These are all contemporary nomenclature to attract millennials. I mean if you go back 50 years, there was no diversity at McKinsey. It was all, WASP I would think from Ivy League schools and sustainability no. It would have said, profitability back then. And social responsibility.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. I mean, I guess you pointed, that’s a nod to our times though. Any large corporation has those topics and those issues at the forefront of what’s happening in their business and they’re trying to wrestle with them and figure them out. So I think that’s a great thing that they’re leaning into where they’ve been and trying to be forward thinking and where they want to go because they know that reputation, I mean, it’s in the book, it’s in the stories, it’s in the minds of people. They know that. I think they’re trying to make a departure on that, really.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. And that’s a balancing act for people because there are going to be people that, just like America, it’s going to be divided in half and it’s a fine line you have to walk. But I think that’s an important thing from that constancy in that modernity. And I like those words, but how much do you need to keep saying them? I don’t know. I think they just spend a little too much on that. But …
Jason Mlicki: Well, what I liked about it, I guess to contrast what you just said, is that I loved that they were so purposeful about every little detail as they unwrapped it for whoever took the time to watch the video or read what was said. And to me that’s just a really great metaphor to set my expectations for what it must be like to work with them. That they’re going to be extremely purposeful down to every last detail of how they’re going to … when they engage, how they’re going to work with you as a client. So for me, I really liked that. I thought that … there’s two videos on the site, there’s a video that they did that really just brings to life the actual identity system itself. I mean, it’s just a beautiful video. I mean, it’s so unbelievably well done.
And to your point, it’s definitely a lot more than most firms would do just to say, “Hey, here’s what the new logo looks like.” But it is exceptionally well done. And it definitely gives off that air of just professionalism and attempts into the very last detail that’s to me is just exudes what their brand represents pretty much all the time. You know, when they publish, they publish with such purpose and then when they take an idea to market, they really take it to market, right? I mean they visualize it better than most people and they publish it better than most people. They’re just really, really good at that piece of the firm and I just assume as a result that they’re really good at the work they do, but I’ve never hired them, so I don’t know. I love that piece of it. I thought it was just really, really well, really well done.
Jeff McKay: I think you raise a good point there. My only push back on that is who really cares about that and who’s going to take the time to watch that video to glean that conclusion. People in the agency world? Yes. Employees? Yes. I think so, but do their clients really care about their font or the Pantone color of their McKinsey blue? I just don’t think they do. I don’t think they do. So it’s an attention to detail, but is that detail relevant to their actual clients? And is it worth the investment to put in outside their firewall for others?
To me it seems somewhat self indulgent, and we’ve talked about this in the storylines that we just did on our prior podcast about who’s the hero? Who’s the hero in this story? It’s your client, it’s your prospect. None of this is about the client or the prospect. It’s all about McKinsey and I think buyers have a limited amount of bandwidth and desire to consume this type of information that is not directed towards them. That’s all I’m saying.
Jason Mlicki: Well, no, those are really, really valid points and I really don’t have anything to refute them. I mean, I wouldn’t disagree with anything you said. I mean I would imagine that given the scale of McKinsey and the type of clients that they have, that they do operate in a lot of fashion, consumer friendly type companies where this type of stuff is a subject of conversation on a daily basis. So I would argue they’re probably are clients where all this stuff is interesting to them and is relevant to them because it’s stuff that they deal with all the time, every day. These very minute details that can make or break the success of an entire business, to be quite frank. But I agree with you that’s probably not the preponderance of their clients and it probably does also. to your point, it probably speaks some to existing clients that it makes you feel good about your relationship with them, I guess on some level because they’re so professional and functioning at such a high level, even on this little detail and there’s probably something to that. But I agree with you that there is probably a limited capacity for people to really consume some of what they published and produced.
And I would argue … which is why I said in the beginning, it’s a refresh not a rebrand. When I look at, like we wrote an article about this a while ago and to me when Ernst and Young went to EY, that was a rebrand because they completely changed the way they were describing the firm and even the central value proposition.
They went from a features focus message about quality or excellence or something to a very belief oriented message about how they’re impacting in the world. So they were completely upending the way they were talking about the firm. And I don’t see that really happening with McKinsey personally. I don’t feel like this whole event changed the way they’re talking about their firm. It just got people to pay attention to what they’ve been saying for a while. But I could be wrong about that. But that’s certainly what I see when I cut through the noise of it all.
Jeff McKay: I think the thing that I love best about this whole rebrand for McKinsey is they have clearly stepped into a purely digital world. And when you look at the site, it is so dynamic. It’s almost like watching television or video versus a static website. So it draws you in almost like watching a movie or something. But the most important thing in the visual identity redesign to me is the elevation of data analytics and the data visualization.
This is what McKinsey has always done well in a flat form in their strategy work, but I really like what I’ve seen in terms of the new brand and how they’re going to present this data to their clients. And that alone to me is the fulcrum for moving forward. The rest of it to me in terms of visual identity, the color palette, the self named Bower font, which I can only assume is named after Marvin Bower, one of their managing partners.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. It is. They come out and say that it is.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. I’m like, okay. Some agency made lots of money on creating that and they can own it, but the font is one thing. I think the black and white photography, the use of diversity and in the models is relatively mundane stuff. I don’t find it new or interesting compared to what you see in a lot of places. The emphasis on white space is really just kind of a replica of what Apple’s been doing for over a decade and then the decision to make the partner mark that kind of moving imagery. I don’t know. I thought that was kind of a silly overstated element of this.
I think many firms have been overlaying some kind of visual element in order to make stock photography their own. It’s more cost effective, it’s more practical and in the actual design of it isn’t even new and creative. You’ve seen similar types of designs on hundreds of other pieces. To me it just, there could’ve been something new in cutting edge with that. I mean, Accenture has been using their greater than sign like that for probably over a decade alone. So I feel like that fell really short in terms of something new and exciting. It just seems like here’s our version of what our competitors are doing for over a decade.
Jason Mlicki: That’s really interesting. I mean, I can tell you why the partnership mark is framed the way it is and this is from doing similar types of things with clients through the years. Much of what the digital medium has brought us is a very rigid experience, right? I mean the web experience from one site to the next is pretty much identical in terms of usability. Usability has trumped everything else in the web world, which means that you need a way to visually separate and distinguish your firm from another. And so they’ve come up with a pretty interesting visual way to do it. The creative community, at least a little bit I’ve read from the creative community on it all seems they think a little bit like you in a sense of like, yeah, it’s not nothing anything necessarily new, but the execution of it is better than I’ve seen.
Now, the notion of making a big deal out of it and calling it something that’s just a cultural dynamic that every firm has. As the agency in that environment, when you’re in that setting, you have to name it like that and make a big deal out of it to get it sold into the firms that people can get excited about it. Otherwise, people question why they need it because they don’t understand why they need it. They go, “Well, why can’t we just use a photograph the way we always have?” Well, because like you said, it’s just the same.
I would argue that, I don’t know whether Accenture or other firms have done some of the things they’ve done here for longer. I would argue that from what I’ve seen, McKinsey has brought a level of sophistication and a level of aesthetic that most of those firms missed the mark. I would find … honestly, I’ll be blunt. I mean the Accenture digital experience generally speaking is loud and off putting and lacks that like just intuitive aesthetic that McKinsey seems to be able to capture, which is just a level of sophistication that they bring to the details that I just don’t see an Accenture’s execution of things.
Accenture just comes off as clunky most of the time and their digital environments and it’s actually gotten worse for them to be honest in the last five years from where they were 10 years ago in that regard. But I mean for the most part I agree with a lot of what you said.
Jeff McKay: They have stepped forward, like you said, and your comparison to Accenture is fair. As I said earlier, I feel like the McKinsey visual identity is more akin to the fashion world than it is to the business world. Well, at least from what you can see from the visual identity as it’s laid out. I mean it hasn’t been fully adapted across the organization yet. So we don’t see … we haven’t seen how all this great work that’s been done actually is going to be operationalized. And that’s where the hard work is, is operationalizing it so that it’s sustainable and practical for the work that has to get, get done. And a lot of time the stuff that comes out of agencies just isn’t, particularly if there’s a downturn and you cut some people.
So I think, yeah, there were some good things in it and like I said, the data visualization, others are going to have to take their game up to keep up with that. And that to me is the real power, not all the other stuff. So if I’m CMO and I have to invest a certain amount of money in this brand, I’d pour it into the data visualization and making these ideas understandable.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, that’s the interesting thing about that. I’ll give some Kudos to the whole Bower custom typography set that they built. And the reason I’m going to give it Kudos is McKinsey is better than anybody in the entire world of professional services firms in undersanding the incredibly difficult to execute on relationship between type size, column with kerning, letting and readability in the digital space. It is so incredibly hard to deliver up thought leadership on multiple device sizes, multiple screen resolutions and make it readable the way that they do.
And you just see it in every other firm because almost no other firm can do it as well as they can. And I would argue that what I love about what they’ve done with the custom typeface, because I know that they spent a lot of time and thought thinking about readability on that type face, because they know the volume of thought leadership they produce and how critical it is for them to be able to take that thought leadership into a readable environment no matter where it’s delivered. And that to me is what’s inside that typeface that the average business person like yourself probably wouldn’t know. On that note, let’s wrap. So that really jumped out.
Anyway, let’s wrap it up. Maybe the final thought is big picture McKinsey rebrand. Good thing, right thing, bad thing?
Jeff McKay: I like it. If it really has a good return on the investment, I’d like it even more. I question to what degree they’ll realize a return on all that money they spent, but I hope they do.
Jason Mlicki: Well, that was no fun. This wasn’t a fight at all. All right, great thing, moving on. I’ll talk to you next time.
Jeff McKay: I look forward to seeing what Accenture or Deloitte do in response.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. Alright man, talk to you next week.
Jeff McKay: Great conversation.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, it was fun.
Jeff McKay: Alright. See you buddy.