What is a brand? When we hear the name of companies like Verizon, Levi’s or Ford, we know the products and services they represent. They have widely recognized brands.

Often, a brand is thought of as the visual imagery associated with a company (logo, signage or advertisement). A brand is also viewed as the messaging or tag line, for instance, “Can you hear me now?” or “What does brown do for you?”

Defining the brand

But as an agent or advisor, what is your brand? Is it your firm or broker-dealer’s brand and recognition that becomes yours? From my experience, branding in the financial services industry can be simplified and explained very simply. Your brand is what people say about you.

Your brand is not your logo, your color scheme, your tag line, your ‘elevator speech’ or even you. Your brand is how someone else describes you, your firm, your staff, your offerings. And, your brand exists whether you like it or not. So, how do you think people are describing you?

You may have heard the Bonnie Raitt song, “Let’s Give ‘Em Something To Talk About.” In that song, Bonnie sings that people will ‘talk about us anyway’ so we need to ‘give ‘em something really good to talk about.’ The problem in business is, if we don’t give them something to talk about, we lose control as to what they may say–positive or negative.

The good news is that you can control your brand. You can control what people say about you. Your brand–your image, how you are received and perceived–is one of the most important things that you have control over in your business.

Your brand created through the media

When a newspaper, trade journal, magazine, radio or TV station quotes you or uses your press release or article, you’ve established one of the most valuable aspects of branding: your credibility!

Let the world know about awards you’ve won, charity and community involvement, your new designations or events. Write a press release and submit it to the media. The key to every release is the lead paragraph that relays most of the information.

The lead paragraph answers the 5 W’s: Who, What, When Where and Why. If you answer these questions, you will have the makings of a great press release. And, if you don’t feel comfortable writing a press release yourself, hire a college English student or freelance writer to help you.

Once you’re in the media, market your clips and coverage back to your clients and prospects. Send reprints and a cover letter. Include your press releases (whether they were printed or not) in your prospect packet. Include online links to your media coverage. Let them see your credibility and pass you along to others.

Your community involvement directly affects your brand

Being an active member of the community establishes name recognition and positive awareness. Often, young agents will join community groups in the hope of getting more business and the results are disappointing. When your intentions are to be an active, positive and contributing member of the community because you want to, the outcomes are almost always better. It’s almost like magic, but when you give back and develop a positive image as a good member of the community, business comes your way.

It’s no coincidence that the top agents and advisors in their firms are also very active in their communities. While others are too busy, many agents and advisors at the top of the ranks find ways to give back. And it pays.

Your online presence defines you

Have you ever ‘googled’ yourself? Do you know what’s out there on the Web about you? Is there anything there? Today, most people will search for you online and check out your website before coming into your office the first time–even if they were referred to you. It is part of the due diligence that people can, and most likely will, conduct today.

When prospects or clients arrive at your website, do they see what they were hoping to see? Does the site answer their questions, exceed their expectations? Most importantly, does it create a lasting first impression about who you are? Your website is your voice and should be a reflection of who you are. It is your brand.

A typical visitor to your website will stay only 7 seconds unless something attracts their attention. You need to stop them in their tracks. Tools that are being used to quickly reflect the uniqueness of firms include pictures of you and your staff, video, audio and music. Use real pictures, real video of you and your staff, real staff voices. Having an attractive model on your site does not tell visitors anything about who you are.

Use Google Analytics () to statistically evaluate your site. Find out how long people stayed on your site, where they went when they were visiting your site, and if they were repeat or new visitors. Use the information to continue to improve your home page and entire site. Also, set up Google Alerts on your name and company name. Whenever something new appears anywhere online, you will be notified. To set up your Google alert, go to www.google.com/alerts.

One tip for controlling what people find online about you is to submit your press releases to . When someone does a search for you, your press release and the content you wrote will appear!

Your clients will best describe your brand

The most important way to control your brand is through your clients. They are the leading source for what your firm is all about.

What experiences are you giving your clients? An experience is something unexpected. The expected is what clients know or anticipate you will do. The unexpected is what creates the “wow experience.” It is typically something that engages people in a personal way.

One agent I know has focused all of his marketing efforts on his clients. He calls them proactively, writes them notes, has educational events just for them and calls them on their birthday. He has loyal clients who truly feel important. Consequently, he runs a very successful business built entirely on the word of mouth of his clients.

How are you communicating with your clients? Your communication alone will differentiate you, make your clients feel important, give them something to talk about, and get you the referrals you deserve.

The reality is there are hundreds of thousands of agents and advisors out there on every corner in every town. What is unique about you and your firm? Is that differentiation being described in the media and throughout your community? Does your presence online reflect your firm and what is unique about you? Are your clients actively singing your praises? Ultimately it will be your clients and what they say about you that will define your brand. So … what are they saying?

Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, is president of Red Zone Marketing, LLC, Libertyville, Ill. You may e-mail her at