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Practice Management > Building Your Business


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When advisor Paul Sutherland is considering stocks for possible inclusion in his Utopia Funds portfolios, he evaluates the strength of the company’s brand since, he says, you can’t overestimate the value of a strong brand when it comes to customer loyalty that translates into market share and increased profitability.

When Joe Duran of United Capital Financial Partners is evaluating an advisory firm as a potential acquisition, he makes sure to consider the strength of the firm’s brand in another way. To him, the present and ongoing, though counterintuitive, value of a company lies in inverse proportion to the principal’s importance to the firm. That’s the difference between having a personality-focused practice and one that’s process-based.

When Thomas Muldowney was deciding on the corporate name for his fee-only RIA firm based in Rockford, Illinois, he specifically decided not to use his own name, and instead chose a moniker–Savant Planning Group upon its founding in 1986 and Savant Capital Management after partnering with Brent Brodeski in 1992–that expresses what Muldowney and his firm with $1.5 billion under management primarily offers clients: learned wisdom.

When Mark Tibergien looks out over the advisory landscape, he is convinced that within the next decade competition for the best clients will heat up significantly.

For those reasons and more, it’s incumbent upon advisors to carefully craft their brands now, and ensure that everyone in the firm not only understands and appreciates that brand, but that the brand’s message is delivered consistently to clients, prospects, and the communities in which the firm operates.

That’s how you differentiate yourself, your firm, and your services in a sea of sameness, where much that an advisor traditionally offered has become commoditized and where the client benefits of independence–particularly the provision of objective, customized advice–has been co-opted by others in name, if not in deed.

Your challenge is to build your own brand before anyone else can define you, telling your own story, and slowly, consistently becoming a force to be reckoned with in your own community, or, more accurately, communities. Moreover, a brand is a living thing that must be fed and watered over the years, tested in the marketplace and vetted by your best clients via private conversations and surveys and focus groups, then modified based on that feedback and the changing environment in which your business operates.

Building a strong brand within his community allows Muldowney to be picky when it comes to adding employees to his growing firm as well, though he’s quick to add that he happily delegates that task to a more HR-capable member of his staff. That’s another clear benefit of building a strong brand–it allows you to attract not only the best clients to your firm, but the best employees as well.

How do you build a brand? How do you determine your message? How do you get that message out? We spoke to advisors, marketing experts, and consultants for the answers, and asked two veteran public relations pros to relay their insights into how to use traditional and new media PR.

Know Thyself

Most advisors are pretty good salespeople, so that once they have a good prospect sitting in front of them, they likely can turn that prospect into a client. The “sale” you are making is actually selling yourself. So to begin your marketing efforts, you have to understand yourself well, to accurately assess your own strengths and weaknesses, to know what you can do yourself marketing-wise, and determine where you need help.

One place you may need assistance is in building your brand. While self-reflection can get you started, it makes more sense to turn to the people whose opinions are a better guide in evaluating your uniqueness–your clients.

Many advisors, says Susan Hirshman, a consultant to financial services firms and current Wealth Manager columnist, “don’t really know what their brand is. So in talking to your clients, find out what makes them comfortable. Why do they do business with you? What do they like about your business process? What do they like about your service?”

To help determine your brand, she suggests assessing what “your clients have in common. Is it demographic–age or gender? Is it psychographic–do you end up working with people who are very charitably inclined?” Figure out who you already attract, and, assuming you enjoy those clients, “then your messaging should play into those people.” Some of your clients who are already involved in marketing themselves could be good sources of feedback, says Hirshman. You can use your client advisory board if you have one, she further suggests, or run a focus group (see on focus groups).

Building a Brand

For Tim Bryant, president of the marketing communications firm The Brand Development Company, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the notion of branding is “like asking somebody ‘How firmly is your house built. Are you comfortable living in it?’” He starts by “homing in on what’s meaningful to a specific target audience,” and then delivering that message “in a way that clearly differentiates you from other people.”

Bryant says that when people find out what he does for a living, they tend to think “a brand is a logo.” What they don’t realize, he says, is that “it’s a living, breathing relationship back and forth between a product or service and its constituents.” These days, he says, good branding finds its ultimate expression in a concept called ‘experience management.’ That’s what happens when you enter a day spa, Bryant says, and you don’t see “TVs or newspapers lying around, because those things aren’t relaxing.” That holds true for an advisor’s office, “where colors and furniture choices are chosen to reflect the brand personality.”

Michael Slemmer, a principal with business development consultants The Collaborative in Medfield, Massachusetts, calls the brand-building process “defining and understanding your ‘So what?’” Slemmer starts by sitting down the advisor and asking, “‘What makes you truly unique?’ They’ll say ‘It’s our performance!’ And we’ll say, ‘So what? ABC firm down the road has the same performance.”‘ Next the advisor client is asked if “the market perceives and understands how what you do is different from the competition? Can you clearly identify your target market and its key needs? Do you even know who your target market is? Typically they’re all over the map.”

For Slemmer, marketing is “communication in its every form,” and cites research, including that from the Institute for Private Investors, that the high-net-worth don’t want to talk about “performance or the reports; it’s the communication.”

Slemmer says that you should go to your best clients, and determine “why they are your best clients. Drill down on those unique services and the culture of those people that have brought you success, and then decide if that is a viable target market going forward, and if all your messaging speaks to that. Nine times out of 10 it doesn’t.” The objective is to define your ideal client.

Slemmer agrees with Hirshman that it’s best to have an objective third party talk to clients to “tease out the key things that brought them to the firm, and to use their language in your marketing going forward.”

“The purpose of marketing is name recognition; building a brand. It’s getting more people to know your name and what you offer, and to know what’s different about you,” says Hirshman. There’s something else about branding and marketing: “It’s strategic,” she says, “while sales is tactical. It’s long term versus short term. To achieve your long-term goals, you need a marketing strategy.”

Tools of the Trade

So let’s assume you’ve begun to articulate your strategy and identify your ideal client. What are the tools advisors can use to craft their message and follow through on that strategy?

Let’s start with referrals. Mike White, director of marketing for Raymond James Financial, says that 90% of the firm’s affiliated advisors’ new clients come from referrals, so “our focus is to facilitate the referral process.” He points out that “If 90% of new business comes from referrals, 90% of that comes from only 10% of their loyal clients–so we try to help advisors energize that loyal client base, what we call your ‘client advocates’.”

Begin by laying down consistent lines of communication. Studies show, he says, a high correlation between the “regularity and the meaningfulness of the communication between advisor and client and client loyalty.” That’s especially true, he argues, during “rocky market times; we tell our advisors to contact clients at least twice a month.”

How to make those touches? While White doesn’t eschew traditional approaches like periodic newsletters, these days he recommends more “event-driven” communications, written and otherwise. The content may reflect the event–recession fears, rising oil prices–but the essence of the message is “reassurance.”

White also recommends raising your profile by using your Web site more effectively to deliver those written touches, pushing them out to clients via e-mail or keeping them available on your site. Many clients have e-mail distribution lists of their own, White points out, “so it’s not uncommon for clients to forward those newsletters to 10 of their friends–we get lots of soft referrals that way.” It’s not just written notes that are effective. “When the Bear Stearns disaster hit, we had streaming audio and video from [RJ Chairman] Tom James which advisors embedded in their sites and forwarded to clients, explaining our rationale for why we were in good shape.” (For more on how to use new media in your marketing, see sidebar.)

The Web site can be a useful medium to get referrals, but White is quick to add that “brand should be something that an existing client or a referrer like an attorney should be able to articulate. So if an advisor is thinking about touch-point branding, it must inform all the ways an advisor is out in public . . . whether they’re talking to the media or serving on charitable boards, or whether it’s an assistant answering the phone in a certain way.”

Make good use of your contact management system, too, says White. “Touching your clients twice a month is good, but it has to be the right kind of touches. If you have a good CRM and you’re using it well, and you know half of your clients are really advice dependent and don’t care that much about [short-term movements of] the market, it doesn’t do you as much good to twice a month send them some technical research report.” For those clients, White suggests sending “them an article about improving their putting game or how to spend more time with their grandkids.” Just be sure to be systematic about it, he counsels.

At The Collaborative, Slemmer says that over the past three years, particularly through its experience with Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services’ Practice Advantage program, he has seen that RIAs in particular “didn’t know how to get the word out.” So it has launched Advisors Trusted Advisors, at, an online practice management consulting option that provides specific advice from Slemmer, Collaborative do-founder Beverly Flaxington, and colleagues in seven different areas that is followed up by phone consultations.

Slemmer concurs with White that it’s important to have a wide array of communication approaches that match the styles of your clients, but says The Collaborative “tilts against the windmill” of tailoring your message on a generational basis. Instead, his firm teaches advisors how to make a behavior style assessment on the fly, using a tool called DISC, to best communicate with that client (a white paper on DISC is available in the Web Extras section for the August issue at

Then there’s public relations, the power of which Bryant says is often overlooked. “Some think that PR is sending out one press release and waiting for things to happen. PR is a multi-faceted animal that likes to be played out with frequency, and needs to be played out strategically.” (See sidebar on for more realistic expectations for what you can get from PR.)

What’s the Small Firm to Do?

Knowing that much larger firms have deeper marketing pockets, does the small independent have a chance? There’s much that can be done. Bryant does his brand review process over the telephone. “It’s an accelerated process,” he says, “$800 gets them in the driver’s seat.” But even without using an outside firm, “the ability to home in on what’s meaningful, effectively differentiate, and consistently deliver that message over time–that’s the secret” to good branding, he says.

If you’re fortunate enough to be affiliated with Raymond James, White points to the firm’s in-house ad agency that can build “customized collateral, Web sites, and compliance-approved content” to advisors for use on their own sites.

Ben Warwick, the CIO of Sovereign Wealth Management in Denver and a contributing editor to Investment Advisor, argues that in his experience, “You can’t oversell” the advantage of providing a “personal touch in this business.”

Bryant says that regardless of the size of the firm, advisors can take simple steps “to think about their brand relative to their target, their competitive set, their value proposition, and the tangible reason for people to believe in their ability to deliver, to be different.”

Hirshman argues that it’s effective to make “small messages: ‘We’re a family-owned firm;’ or ‘We only work with the best clients.’” In the end, what can differentiate the smaller firm, she says, “is the experience that people have. Is it a high-tech experience? Your materials should reflect that. If you’re a solo guy? Then it’s a comfortable, hand-holding type of environment.” Geography can play a role–the independent is often a known quantity in her local area–but more important is the broader understanding of being a resource to a specific community.

Hirshman contends that “anything can be a community,” and tells of an advisor whose clients are concentrated among women who work in the publishing business in New York. “So out of all the people in New York, she made her community from millions to thousands, even hundreds.”

The Future

What is the role that marketing and branding will play in the future? First, realize the growing importance of marketing itself in the advisory business and allied fields. “Years ago,” recalls Hirshman, “you never saw a marketing person in an accounting firm or a law firm; now they’re very highly paid positions.” Second, take advantage of the resources that are already available through your partners–your broker/dealer, custodian, or fund wholesaler. “People do not use their resources; they often don’t even know about them.”

While Hirshman says that the key differentiator for advisors over the next 10 years will be relationships, to her “it’s really about efficiency. You have to have a process for everything–for your investing, for how you ask for referrals, even for your meetings, because the efficiency will give you the time and resources to focus on taking those relationships to a higher level.” With more time to spend exploring the relationship, “you know more about those clients, you get more involved in their lives, you get more referrals, you discover more value-added needs where you can help.”

That’s where the right technology can help. It’s easy to have a strong relationship with only a few clients, says White, but “if you have 500 clients, unless you’re doing something systematic, which is where a CRM system comes in, where using Web-based communications” is helpful, you won’t be able to touch those clients.

White has a final warning about the failure to brand. “It’s so important to be the primary advisor,” he says. “We see a lot of the most successful advisors investing a lot in their branding. For advisors to be successful in the next 10-15 years, they’ll need a well-articulated brand, but also a well-articulated, well-packaged approach to retirement income. From a marketing standpoint, there will be an increased focus on how the advisor delivers that.”

Editorial Director Jamie Green can be reached at [email protected].


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