Three years ago he was Stan Haithcock, just another financial advisor struggling to make a name for himself in a field crowded with professionals much like him.
As an advisor, Haithcock was plenty capable, plenty credentialed and plenty ambitious, with aspirations to take his Ponte Vedra, Fla., practice regional, even national. What he lacked was a clear vision of how to get there — namely, a brand identity and a branding strategy to go with it.
“I had to do something different. I wanted to be national. I wanted to be ‘that guy’ with annuities — a consumer advocate and a spokesperson for annuities. But the name of my firm, Strategic Annuity Solutions, was so generic it was almost repulsive. It just wasn’t unique enough.”
Fast forward to 2013, and Haithcock is no longer just a generic face in the advisory crowd, he’s Stan The Annuity Man, with a client base that’s grown not only locally and regionally but nationally, a regular writing gig with MarketWatch.com, an Internet radio show, a blog, and even a true-to-the-brand book he’s written and self-published called “The Annuity Stanifesto.” And he attributes it all to his decision three years ago to invest in branding himself, with the help of an outside marketing/advertising firm.
“The best money I ever spent was hiring a firm to do my branding, to help me develop the national brand that I wanted,” he says. “It has really translated into a national presence.”
Why brand yourself?
They’ve never met Stan The Annuity Man, but Maumee, Ohio-based advisors Nolan Baker, CSA, and Mark D. Clair, J.D., LUTCF, a.k.a., the Retirement Guys, like Haithcock, are firm believers in branding.
Since dubbing themselves the Retirement Guys in 2008, Clair, who heads the Clair Estate Planning Law Firm, and Baker, founder of Retirement Specialists of Northwest Ohio, have become popular radio personalities for their weekly financial planning show, go-to media sources on financial and retirement matters, and high-profile members of their Toledo-area community. And it’s all due to the “skyrocketing effect of creating a killer brand name,” says Baker. “That really has opened doors for us with media and in the community. We are top of mind for anything related to retirement.”
Branding isn’t an ego trip or a marketing gimmick but, rather, a proven way for advisors to distinguish themselves from their peers, says Haithcock. “I believe you need to push the envelope to get peoples’ attention. If you don’t have a brand, you are [like] everyone else. You have to be distinguishable in how your business looks and feels, from your name to your website to the stationary you use — everything.”
Besides hopefully creating a positive and instantly recognizable public perception, branding also provides valuable focus to an advisory practice, says Wendy J. Cook, who heads an advisor-oriented communications firm in Eugene, Ore. “It’s a more targeted way to get where you want to go.”
An act of bravery
The branding process, according to Cook, starts with discovery —identifying that sweet spot “where your values and goals connect with the values and goals of the types of clients you’re targeting. Every advisor has a collection of qualities that are distinct, that make them one-of-a-kind. Branding is about finding that unique personality by reflecting on who you are, what makes you tick and what makes your clients tick.”
Once they decided to brand themselves, Baker and Clair set out to identify their sweet spot by asking, “Where is the money we want to acquire as assets under management? Much of that money, we concluded, resides in retirement accounts. So we decided to brand ourselves in a way that gets people thinking we are the ones to handle their retirement assets,” Clair explains.
The process of narrowing focus to create a brand is a necessary step, but one that some advisors may initially find uncomfortable, says Cook. “You’re defining what you’re not and what your clients are not, which is scary to some [advisors] because you’re basically eliminating people as potential prospects. That’s why branding really is an act of bravery.”
“Financial advisors really have to figure out what they want to specialize in and what they want to have as a niche,” echoes Baker. “That means attracting the right people, your ideal clients, but also pushing away the wrong people.”
A brand constitutes an all-encompassing identify that will inform and guide a practice, so that identity must be developed using a razor-sharp vision of the future. Instead of settling for a brand built around a flavor-of-the-month topic, build one around an enduring subject, such as annuities or retirement, advises Baker.
See also: 6 tips to perfect your elevator pitch
The branding firm Haithcock hired undertook an extensive four-month discovery process that included questionnaires to clients and prospects as well as multiple focus group meetings. While the Retirement Guys took a less exhaustive, more do-it-yourself route, they ended up in about the same place, brand-wise, with similarly positive results.
There’s great value to enlisting an outside firm with a strong track record to help in brand development, according to Haithcock and Cook. For do-it-yourselfers, meanwhile, Baker recommends seeking advice and guidance from advisory peers who have successfully branded themselves.
Having settled on a brand identity, the brand-building process begins — and lasts indefinitely. “It’s a continual campaign of trying to convince people you are credible,” explains Haithcock.
“Once you have that unforgettable brand,” says Clair, “you have to get it out there.”
Several tools are indispensable for doing so:
- A logo, plus a branded website, branded marketing materials, stationary, business cards, even office décor. Many firms develop a branding/style guide that keeps everyone in the firm “engaged in the brand and following the same rules,” says Cook.
- Making connections in the media, with appropriate contacts at local newspapers, radio and TV outlets, etc. Go-to sources, regular columns, weekly radio programs and the like often emerge from these relationships.
- Providing the public and media outlets with objective content that plays up the expertise touted by your brand, whether it’s a book available for free download off your website, blog posts, podcasts or newspaper columns. These are the types of vehicles through which brands, and thought leaders, are built.
- Cultivating an above-the-fray, objective image. “At the end of the day, I want people to see me as their advocate and an educator,” says Haithcock, “not as someone who’s trying to sell them something. I turn the sales knob off.”
Protecting what’s yours
With brand-building, says Cook, “you’re never done.” The same holds true for brand protection. As advisors are building their brand, they also have to be diligent about protecting it.
“My job is not to hurt the brand,” says Haithcock. “I don’t deviate. I don’t do life insurance.”
Staying true to the brand isn’t always an easy task, acknowledges Baker. “You have to have those horse-blinders on to avoid the shiny object syndrome. If I’m tempted to go in a direction that doesn’t apply to our brand, someone in my office is going to say, ‘Whoa!’ ”
Three years after morphing into Stan The Annuity Man, Haithcock says he’s content in his niche of the annuity world. Where would he be without The Annuity Man brand? “I don’t think I’d be having this much fun.”
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