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.
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