The topic of branding comes up frequently in the insurance and financial services industries. The concept of building one’s brand is ubiquitous at trade shows, in advisors’ email inboxes and throughout the pages of industry magazines. And although it might seem repetitive at times, there’s a reason it remains so firmly in the spotlight: A lot of advisors still aren’t listening.
Far too many advisors continue to hold their practices back with non-existent or amateurish branding, says Dan Antonelli, author of a book titled “Building a Big Small Business Brand,” and President and Creative Director at Graphic D-Signs, Inc, a Web design company and advertising agency in Washington, N.J.
“Most small businesses have really poor branding,” Antonelli says. “So to me, this always represents a great opportunity for a small business to very easily stand out among their competitors if they pay attention to what their brand communicates.”
Spend a little time talking with some top advisors and you’ll see just how much of a difference branding can make. Turns out it’s much more than just a talking point.
Step 1: Make a decision
Some advisors take years to recognize the importance of branding their practice. For others, it happens much more quickly. In 2000, when financial planner Wesley G. Lentz, JD, CFP and four other advisors made the decision to purchase the 40-year-old practice of a retiring producer in western Michigan, they knew what they needed to do.
“We decided that we had to change the dynamic,” says Lentz, who is now a partner at Wiser Financial Group in Kalamazoo. “We had to start branding the firm so it was no longer about just one individual.” But how to go about it?
“I was a marketing major way back as an undergrad, so I know enough to be dangerous,” Lentz says with a chuckle.
They decided the best strategy was to go with an outside marketing firm, which helped them move from an old-school strategy of ads in the yellow pages and columns in the local newspaper to a more modern, targeted approach.
“Don’t be afraid to spend some money and hire an outside firm or consultant to help you in that process,” Lentz says. “They were hugely valuable in making us the success we are today.”
He also stresses the importance of instituting an annual branding budget and having a specific reason for every piece of the branding strategy.
James A. Cox, III, a managing partner at Harris Financial Group in Richmond, Va., faced a similar situation when he took over a successful practice 10 years ago. During his time as a sales assistant at the company, he had helped the previous owner showcase his knowledge and abilities. But after taking over, Cox and his partners decided to “take it to the next level,” expanding their reach nationally and embracing a variety of new strategies. They also took to heart a piece of advice the previous owner had taught them: Find a niche and stick to it.
Step 2: It’s all about the audience
For those just starting out or trying to rebrand an existing business, the process can be daunting. Where’s the best place to start? Like so much else, it’s all about the prospects and clients.
“Branding should speak to the audience first and foremost,” says Antonelli. “If it can capture part of the personality of that particular company or agency, then that’s great. But you certainly want to make sure that someone who knows nothing at all about your company other than what they see in their first interaction with your brand comes away with a positive first impression. What are the most important things you’re trying to communicate? Professionalism? Credibility? Longevity? The fact that you will be in business next year when your clients need support? Those are all things that the branding should try to tackle.”
This concept has proven successful for many top advisors.
“Our clients shape who we are; they reflect who we are,” says Cox. “If you have a 500-person client base, there’s going to be a lot of similarities among the people in terms of what attracted them to you. And that’s really how you should create your brand. What three things do you think people really value about your practice?”
When it came time for Gretchen Stangier, CFP, founder of Portland, Ore.-based Stangier Wealth Mangement, to build a website for her company, she made a conscious decision to avoid the many “cookie-cutter” options out there.
“I wanted to create my own brand. I wanted it to be nice and more feminine because most branding sites that are pre-formatted are very male-oriented, and I have a heavier weighting of female clients — a lot of widows and divorcées.” Stangier says she told several male Web designers exactly what she wanted, but her ideas were shot down again and again. So, she hired a woman to coach her through the process and a female Web designer to help her build the site.
“I eventually went with an open architecture website,” she says. “It costs more, but it’s personalized for my audience and I think I get more bang for my buck. I’ve picked up more female clients since I created the site, because it is more feminine friendly. I think it’s still OK for the guys; they wouldn’t say it’s feminine, but the women do notice a difference.”
Thomas Henske, a partner at New York-based Lenox Advisors, has followed a similar philosophy during his 20-year career. “What built our brand were the needs of our clients,” he says. Early in his career, his company was approached by Lehman Brothers about advising their senior executives on supplementary disability insurance. Henske says their first reaction was, “Disability insurance? Are you kidding me?” But no one else was going after that market at the time and Henske and his partners adapted to the niche. As a result, they were soon getting endorsements from one of the nation’s largest investment banks. Their flexibility eventually led to dedicated office space in the Lehman Brothers building. “You want to talk about branding?” Henske says with a laugh. “Walk around Lehman Brothers with your own office and a Lehman Brothers ID and tell me how hard it is to do business.”