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.