From the May 2012 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Marketing Advisors Like iPhones

Branding is a powerful tool for getting and keeping clients. Advisors should embrace it.

Financial advisors are famously clueless about marketing — and that’s too bad. Because it is your brand — your firm’s unique signature — that keeps clients coming back.

As financial services marketing expert Peter Montoya puts it: “Today, marketing doesn’t feel like marketing. It feels like good practice management. How are you going to run a successful business without good practice management?”

Against that backdrop, forward-thinking advisors are currently taking a deep dive into brand building, an exercise that involves not only a critical self-inventory but also outreach to top clients. What is it, exactly, that clients like about you and what you do for them? The answers may surprise.

In Venice, Calif., for example, John Koudsi, CEO and chief strategist of Core Financial Partners, rarely wears a suit, meets with his 80 entrepreneur clients in a kicky modern loft, and pretty much personifies his firm’s corporate slogan: “You don’t fit in a box and neither do we.”

 A client who is a graphic designer created Koudsi’s logo and helped him brand the company with a new website. Another client, an architect, designed the loft offices.

“Who better than a client to turn to? They are my target market,” says Koudsi, whose branding effort coincided with his departure from Ameriprise for Charles Schwab Institutional. “Our clients help project our image by the nature of who they are and what they do. I’ve always said I’m a pretty creative guy in a non-creative business. The most exciting thing about being able to brand ourselves properly is that we get a lot of benefit by really being able to express who we are. Referrals today are exactly in line with our target market.”

 Likewise, David B. Armstrong, co-founder and managing director of Monument Wealth Management in Alexandria, Va., looked at brand archetypes to determine the personality of his clients and his firm. The clients: individuals who have started or sold a successful business, along with some corporate executives. After much study, Monument Wealth Management decided to build its brand around the “explorer” archetype.

“We’re the people searching constantly for a better way to do something. We’re all about independence and fulfillment. My clients’ personalities are built exactly the same way. Freedom and possibility, that’s what they’re all about,” said Armstrong, whose firm is affiliated with LPL Financial. “If my brand personality doesn’t match the personality of my clients or potential clients, they’re not going to stick around for very long.”

Monument Wealth Management, meanwhile, has wrapped its brand around the logo: “We believe in being different.” This spring, it launched a new website using documentary-style videos in place of static corporate bios with head shots. The website also features a cutting-edge concept called video scribing, which overlays voice with a visual explanation of, say, investment strategies — something you’re not going to encounter on many advisors’ websites.

Here’s a brief look at what others in the industry are emphasizing when it comes to brand creation:

Do the homework. Find out first what your existing brand is in the minds of your top clients. As Scott West, head of consulting for Invesco Van Kampen Consulting, notes: “An advisor might want to become a customer services specialist or a market guru. The problem is that’s not why your top 10 clients love you. My advice is: If you’re successful, let’s do more of what you are already inherently good at.”

When he works on branding cases, West and his team typically interview an advisor’s top 20 clients. Often, he says, the advisor discovers he already has a brand. “They tend to think they attract more of a diverse base than they do, when in fact they don’t. They tend to attract people like themselves,” he said. “They already have a sweet spot.”

That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement. One of West’s clients, a team in Canada, is regarded by clients as innovative thinkers on creative retirement strategies. But messaging from the firm was at times contrary to that. One fix West put in place: Younger folks in the practice were taught to speak the language of pre-retirees. “We don’t get into a litany of ‘Here are great ideas to wow your client.’ It’s about what has been the formula of your success to begin with? Get conscious about that, then pour coals on it.”

Relationship-based marketing.  At T.E. Wealth in Toronto, a national company with over 50 advisors, every single person in the firm is being taught that their behavior has a direct influence on the client relationship.

“This is big for us — to really connect every person that works here with the client. A person might say he just does the financial reports. But if those reports aren’t timely, professional-looking and communicating value, that’s a branding issue,” says Andrew Flynn, the executive who is leading the firm’s branding, messaging and positioning effort.

Over the last months, Flynn has gone through every line of business and created a strategic marketing plan that includes vision, mission and the plan itself. There’s also an accountability and performance component. The firm, from the CEO on down, is encouraging advisors to create clarity and standardized messaging nationwide by pushing out the three-word message — plan, invest and preserve — that drives T.E. Wealth’s business. And it is hosting high-level events to get advisors in front of more clients and prospects. “Before, we were just doing stuff to do stuff,” says Flynn.

“We need to be proactive not just reactive,” he adds. “For me, it’s relational and it’s emotional. That’s why clients make a decision. At the end of the day, everyone has the same products and services. More important: Do they like you? Do they like what your firm stands for?”

Creating loyalty. It’s important for advisors to realize that their brand isn’t all about them. “It’s not you the advisor — it’s you, the city you’ve created around you, and the employees who have been attracted to your city,” as consultant Angie Herbers, founder of Angie Herbers Inc., frames it. “It’s a message I have a hard time getting across to my advisors. They believe their city is them. If that’s the case, it’s all you have. You can’t grow beyond you.”

Using her own business as an example, Herbers says she created a firm to work with a small number of advisors based on the core value of delivering “plus one” service.  “I want to do that one extra thing for clients that makes them feel really good,” she said. “We’ve learned that plus one is not sending out a water bottle or a holiday CD; we don’t even send birthday cards. Maybe it’s answering the phone at 5:30 or the client knowing we’re going to get back to them no matter what. If we’re not delivering plus one, our city is not very good.”

The ideal “city” results in loyal employees and clients — people who want to “live” there. “It’s the feeling that creates loyalty,” she says. “I guarantee you it’s not sending a freaking Christmas card.”

At the moment, there is a wait list of advisors wishing to work with Herbers. 

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(See sidebar, "Guy Kawasaki on 'Enchantment.'")

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