McKinsey’s Retail Launch and the Meaning of “Leading”

Over a 30-year career in media relations and financial public relations, you are going to win some battles and lose some battles. One of my losing battles was the insistence of nearly every company I’ve worked with to describe itself in press releases as “a leading company.”

It is a small thing that goes unremarked on — until a company does something that actually demonstrates leadership.

That brings us to the recent news announcement from consulting firm McKinsey & Company  that they have launched two retail stores, one in Minnesota and one in London. The stores will operate as incubators of new services and technologies that they can eventually sell to their clients.

The media reaction was pervasive and glowing, flagging all of the innovative technologies McKinsey will demo and how retailers will benefit from the data McKinsey provides.

The main element of leadership is obvious: there are a number of large consulting firms that could have done this—but only one that did.

The second element is more subtle, but also more important. McKinsey is a globally known brand, synonymous with very large consulting firms that are hired to produce huge reports consisting of minute detail about whatever challenge they were hired to address.

But they are also the stereotypical 50,000-foot viewers, often removed from the day-to-day challenges of running a business. Yet despite this, they are absolutely certain they have all the answers.

A classic line from an article in The Economist about twenty years ago perfectly captured this view, describing McKinsey as “a consultancy well-respected by those who work there.”

For McKinsey to devote the time and resources to experiment on the ground level rebuts the most robust and enduring criticism of the firm and how it operates.

In addition to the PR win, McKinsey also enlisted current clients to sell their products  in the stores, further binding them to their advice and future.

In a small way, this current story recalls one from thirty years earlier when General Electric’s plastics unit was the colossus of the U.S. plastics industry. The company’s leadership was determined to prove to Americans that plastics could be used in residential home construction. To prove it, they built an entire house out of plastic. I represented one of GE’s competitors at my first job in public relations, which was when I learned what industry leadership really is. 

It’s nice to see that lesson again.

By Sean Dougherty, Senior Vice President



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