Over the past 10 years, the constant barrage of branding advice for financial advisors has bordered on obnoxious. Even solo advisors have been dreaming up impressive names for their firms and work processes so they can trademark them. But how does the concept of brand-building apply to financial advisory services?
What and why
The importance of brand names for products that are competing regionally, nationally or globally is easy to understand. Marie Swift, president and CEO of marketing communications firm Impact Communications, Inc. in Kansas City, Kansas, defines a brand as “how the world experiences, understands and describes who you are.”
Every business has a brand, she says, whether the owners recognize it or not. And despite the annoying buzz over branding, the marketing principles behind the idea make sense because, as Swift points out, in the age of robo-advisors and increased competition, advisors face a “crisis of differentiation.”
Consequently, advisors need to think clearly about who they are and why people should care about the advisor’s business. “If they can’t be crystal clear about their brand, articulate it and have it shine through in everything they’re doing to portray themselves and their firm, they’re going to start losing market share,” she cautions. “They’re going to be less relevant and won’t be as compelling as a resource for the people they’re targeting.”
Recognizing that brand-building can help your business grow is the first step; however, actually creating that awareness takes a consistent effort. The initial stage requires self-examination, says Swift. Advisors need to clearly identify their personal values, along with the firm’s mission and competencies. That understanding will form the core of the firm’s message, so it needs to be expressed directly and precisely.
“The foundational words that run through everything are very, very important so that everyone on the team can repeat them and, in fact, clients and strategic partners can also repeat those key phrases and foundational purpose-driven elements,” she says. “That’s the foundation of the brand.”
The next stage is to make the recipients of the message care. But how can an advisor create an emotional attachment around the delivery of financial advice and products?
People are highly emotional about money, Swift points out. They care about more than investment returns. They also think about control, legacy, philanthropy, security or some combination of these concerns.
Advisors can use language that links their message with their target audience’s values so that prospects and clients begin to see the association between their values and beliefs and those of the firm.
Drawing an analogy from automobile marketing, Swift cites the difference in espoused values and markets between Jeep and Porsche. Similarly, advisors with a particular set of values and expertise should stake a claim as the brand for that market.
“Try to be the Porsche of your community or the Jeep of your community,” she suggests. “I think it hinges a lot on the founders [but] in many cases, as the firm grows, the culture of the organization could shape and shift over time.”
She cites the example of her Salt Lake City-based client, Soltis Investment Advisors, LLC. One of the firm’s business goals is “to create brighter futures for people who are family stewards and help them with their legacy planning.”
The idea of being family stewards and good community citizens is evident in the firm’s work with individual clients and retirement plans. “They are the individual values of those who make up the firm and those are the kind of clients that they’re seeking to attract,” Swift explains. “Everything the firm does articulates those values.”
Deciding to specialize
The financial crisis of 2008–2009 hit many retirees’ finances hard, especially if their retirement income was linked directly to the value of their investment portfolio.
Robert Klein, CPA, CFP, RICP, founder and president of Retirement Income Center in Newport Beach, California, realized he needed the ability to help clients cover their expenses with secure income regardless of the investment markets’ behavior. The goal, he says, was to give clients a greater sense of comfort and security.
Across the country in Rochester, New York, Steven Schwartz, CPA, JD, PFS, founder of Wealth Design Retirement Services Inc., had reached a similar conclusion. He had made “very good investment choices” pre-crisis and was confident values would recover eventually, but retired clients’ portfolios weren’t designed for the “withdrawal stress” they were experiencing during that period, he says. After the crisis, both advisors decided to refocus their businesses on retirement income planning.
Klein’s company had operated as Financial Design Center for 13 years and while that title conveyed that the firm was a financial services business, he didn’t believe the name highlighted his emerging retirement income planning specialty. Consequently, in 2011 he changed the name to Retirement Income Center.
“I said if I want to brand myself properly, it needs to start with the name,” he explains.