The old joke about consultants is that they charge to tell you the time, then ask to borrow your watch. Whoever came up with that had clearly been the victim of poor contract negotiation.

I’ve experienced engineering consultancies of all sizes in the automotive world, from the inside and as a customer. Despite the joke, they generally provide keenly competitive pricing in what can be a cut-throat business. Auto industry clients are exceptionally well-informed, often negotiating resources, labour rates and deliverables ruthlessly. The only way to earn a living in this environment is to be highly efficient, completely focused and genuinely expert in the subject. There is no room for the fripperies of ‘branding’ in this hard-nosed technical arena. Or maybe there is…

A good brand is no substitute for doing the job well, but it can give you an edge – especially when trying to win business with a new client. In the UK, consultancies have taken some very different approaches to managing their brand.

If you have a hundred years’ history and a track record of presenting technical papers at conferences round the world, the ground work has been done and all you have to do is live up to your reputation. If your engines dominated the world’s race tracks for decades, the chances are that most clients have heard of you and you just need to convince them that your skills can be successfully transferred from race to road.

Getting a foothold without a history to build on can be made easier by powerful branding. I’ve seen a company with its origins in commercial motorsport punch way above its weight in engineering consultancy, competing for contracts with more established names through adopting a professional approach to creating and managing its brand.

Brand management doesn’t come cheaply: matching office furniture and clothing for 100s of employees, matching decor throughout – even matching coffee mugs in the example above. It also leads to conflict when the ‘tidy desk top’ rule prevents engineers from spreading drawings and reports across the office, or when company rules for stylish Powerpoint presentations limit them to three bullet points per slide – tricky when covering technical topics.

Branding is about so much more than coffee mugs or presentation style. For it to work, the employees, however sceptical they may be on the surface, must live up to the company’s values. I will never forget driving into London on the day of the 7/7 bombings along deserted roads, as everybody else was driving out of the place. Two of us had a meeting scheduled with a client and our company’s motto was ‘never stop’ so we didn’t.

Of course even the strongest brand identity sometimes comes up against an impenetrable barrier.  In Germany’s thriving automotive sector, many of the key decision makers in the OEMs were at university with the people now providing consultancy. Competing against personal relationships built up over many years is a stiff test of any sales and marketing strategy and underlines the enduring value of personal networking to complement the strengths of the brand.