From the February 2017 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Is it Time to Revisit Your Brand?

An effective brand strategy will give your firm a competitive edge

Strategic branding leads to stronger brand equity. Strategic branding leads to stronger brand equity.

Your brand is your promise to your clients. It tells them what they can expect from your firm, and it differentiates you from your competitors. Your brand stems from who you are and how you want to be perceived.

Many companies choose to launch new branding alongside a name change. Well-known examples include Google (formerly known as Backrub), Healthy Choice (formerly known as Diet Deluxe) and Pepsi Cola (formerly known as Brad's Drink).

As the business of financial advice evolves, advisory firms are looking to create stronger brands. Practices named after founders have been renamed to reflect the identity each firm wishes to promote. Some use exhaustive computer analysis to come up with a catchy name and others find inspiration in foreign languages or Greek mythology. Firms that have rebranded with a name change include Aspiriant (formerly Kochis Fitz/Quintile), Brightworth (formerly Polstra & Dardaman) and Traust Sollus (formerly Zdenek Financial). In a reverse move, Sullivan, Bruyette, Speros & Blayney assumed its old name when it bought itself back from a bank where it was called Harris SBSB.

A name alone will not establish a brand identity, though it can go a long way. Contemplate who your optimal client is, what services you provide and how you would like the market to think of you. For example, is innovation an important characteristic to convey, or is safe and steady your desired image? Do you wish to express your identity as investment-centric or financial-planning-centric? Should your brand indicate the type of clients you wish to serve?

For example, Christopher Street Securities, a firm named after an iconic West Village street, adopted the tag line “gay money, straight advice.” Other firms have adopted a regional identity, such as Southwest Money Management or North Berkeley Investment Partners.

Branding experts often say that consistent, strategic branding leads to strong brand equity, resulting in more opportunities to do business or even the ability to charge premium prices for the services you offer.

Stand Out in ‘Homogeneous’ Industry

Private Vista is a Chicago-based advisory firm that resulted from the merger of Financial Strategy Network (FSN) and WNA Wealth Advisors (WNA). Firm leaders used the opportunity of the merger to think about what kind of business they wanted to create.

Jim Weil, former equity partner of FSN, explained that when he and Bob Westrick, an owner in WNA, started to talk about the merger they asked themselves what made them better than and different from their competitors. They agreed to build the brand around helping clients live more enriched and fulfilling lives.

Westrick explained, “We felt our industry was homogeneous; many firms do pieces of the financial planning process, and most focus on what it will take financially for a client to retire. Often they view the process as something ending and not something beginning. We thought we could make a difference by focusing on helping our clients live a more enriched and fulfilling life.”

Weil added, “We landed on the name Private Vista for our new combined firm to reflect our clients’ own personal vision for their lives.”

Both leaders recognize that the name change alone will not define the brand. The ideas behind the name, however, continue to influence the development of their story to the market, their service offering, their client experience and perhaps, eventually, their pricing strategy.

The initial focus for Private Vista has been on the discovery process. Weil explained, “We changed the questions we have always asked and inserted new questions to help our clients view this next phase of their lives differently.” He noted that a lot of clients do not retire successfully, meaning that they have enough money but they are not at peace. “This caused us to delve into their attitudes and goals around philanthropy, family, health and well-being, leisure and the things they want to do to make an impact.”

“It's difficult when people are coming off a successful career to retire and feel relevant,” Weil said. “We wanted to raise awareness of these non-financial issues to get them thinking about them and engaging with us around the pursuit of personal fulfillment outside of work. Eventually, this will inform how we report on activities beyond their investment portfolio.”

Weil and Westrick noted that the rebranding of their firm also will impact how they recruit and develop talent. In the past, they may have focused on hiring people with hard skills like analysis or operations, but now they plan to weigh soft skills such as psychology, health and education.

Rebranding will impact Private Vista's processes and reporting as well. Currently, they charge clients on the assets they manage, and their reporting reflects the traditional data about asset values, price changes and holdings. Their new thinking is to create ratios or indicators that track other goals around charity, volunteer activity, travel and other ways in which their clients seek fulfillment.

“Retirement is only one example of when clients will engage us,” Weil noted. “There will also be situations involving divorce, marriage or the sale of a business, where our clients need to redefine their personal definition of success.” Weil said that regardless of the catalyst, Private Vista's approach to discovery and coaching their clients will go beyond the realm of money alone.

As their concept evolves, Private Vista will relate their new messaging and their new client experience to centers of influence. Already they cite a positive reaction from those who have referred business in the past and who now report that the offering is noticeably different. “Even if other advisors touch on non-financial aspects of a client's life, the fact that we are making them such a conscious part of our brand, our experience, our engagement process and our deliverables will set us apart,” Weil said.

Overcoming Old Habits

The new partners acknowledge there are challenges in creating a brand identity to support their new name. Each has more than 25 years in the business and as a result they must learn how to shed old habits. Before they can teach other firm members about new ways to engage clients, they must internalize the ideas themselves. They must ask questions differently. To aid in this process, they have created a client experience committee of their associates. Twice-monthly staff meetings will introduce new books and ideas to stimulate discussion about the brand they wish to create and techniques for following through on their vision.

Weil and Westrick accept that not every employee — or client — will adapt to their new firm order. “There will be early adopters, the wait-and-see and the never-will,” Weil noted.

When they reflect on what it has taken to create their branding so far, they relate the experience to the unexpected complications of building a house. “It costs more, it takes more time and there are a lot more decisions than you usually anticipate.”

As with all organizations that attempt to project an identity in the marketplace, leadership must create ways to measure progress towards fulfillment of the branding strategy. Such measures include client adoption, inquiries from prospects and successful implementation of the new engagement strategy. Of course, it will also require a way of tracking how clients set and achieve their personal goals.

While each Private Vista client will have his or her unique definition of success, there will be some standardization in the types of goals. This will allow the firm to create metrics, for themselves and their clients, which they can track on a consistent basis.

The business of financial advice is going through a material transformation. In a haze of muddled positioning, advisors now seek new ways to separate themselves from the masses. Redefining the client experience around the expectations of a certain type of client is a great example of thinking differently about the business you want to create. This thinking can be a big driver in how the advisory firm will be known long after the founders have left the company.

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