Branding: There's a reason it won't go away
By Paul Wilson
Why branding your practice is still one of the best ways to set yourself apart.
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 simply 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.
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. 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 who have effectively branded their practices.
"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." Lehman eventually hired Henske's company to perform asset management, financial planning and money management for their employees, and the brand was solidified.
“We were able to understand what our clients wanted, added to our list of services, and then built our brand around it. This enhanced our relationship with them and then attracted more people like them."
There are countless ways to brand a practice, depending on the target audience; but the key is often adaptability and a willingness to think outside the box.
In Kalamazoo, where Wesley Lentz practices, the clientele is largely blue-collar workers from the local Kellogg’s factory and pharmaceutical firm.
"We don't chase the affluent client. We've made a conscious effort to target Jon and Jane Doe, who are working hard and just need a little help with taxes and strategies to save more effectively," he says. "We're for dual-income families that are both working hard, not necessarily at $100,000-a-year jobs, but need help to max out their 401(k)s and live within their means. That's our bread and butter clientele, no doubt about it. That's who we focus on with our social media and client advertising."
Every Fourth of July, his company hosts a pig roast/car show in their parking lot. They ask clients to bring their family, their friends and their collector cars. Last year, the company brought 700 plates to the event and had to run to the local supermarket to get more.
"We try to really show our current client base that we respect them and appreciate their business and that we appreciate referrals. We try to make them feel like they're special and welcome," Lentz says.
Jamie Cox's firm has also found a local niche: telephone company employees, a graying workforce with very specific retirement needs.
"We showcase ourselves as being knowledgeable about their pension lumps sum benefits," Cox says. "There's an interest rate that is unique to all pension plans called the GATT rate. It's a term that almost all retirees with defined benefit pension plans search, so we bought the domain GATTrate.com. When somebody types "GATT rate" into a search engine, they, by default, lean into us. And this strategy has led to us being able to build out other segments in our client base. We now work with power company employees, tobacco company employees, state governments and just about any person who works for a company that has a DB pension plan. "
Although the general principles of branding remain static, the world around them is shifting drastically.
"Clearly, there's been a huge shift away from print and towards digital strategies," says Antonelli. "Whereas it used to be, I just need to get a yellow page ad and some direct mail, some postcards and I’m good to go, now there's so many other pieces to the puzzle that need to be integrated. Social media is certainly something that is really important. Another critical aspect is online strategies such as blogging, search engine optimization, digital strategies and developing what we call thought leadership. Thought leadership is really critical for a financial advisor, because if I can establish myself as being a thought leader on a particular subject and I have blogs that are published and articles that I've shared with different trade magazines, my message certainly has more credibility than someone who hasn't had that same exposure." Cox, too, knows all about building exposure. Along with regular appearances on Fox News and MSNBC, he maintains a regular blog and a prolific social media presence. He sees huge opportunities ahead for financial advisors and is an outspoken advocate of the power of social media.
"With social media, there's a democratization of tools and information, but there's not a democratization of knowledge or effort. You can ferret out who is the real creator or innovator. It empowers the customer," he says. "Social media will drive advisors to differentiate. You will have very few generalists. Everybody will have to have niche markets or specialties. What's that one thing that's special about you? That should be the number one thing that you focus on."
“Success in spite of a poor brand is not a valid reason to perpetuate it."
But what about those advisors who still aren't listening? After all, many businesses in the financial services sector and elsewhere have managed to survive for years without branding. Is it really necessary?
"We've had a couple of clients within the sector that just didn't look as professional as the services they were providing," says Antonelli. "They had achieved success in spite of having a poor brand, which is admirable. But we like to say, 'Success in spite of a poor brand is not a valid reason to perpetuate it.' We also like to flip it and say, ‘Imagine how much more success you would have achieved if you had a more polished brand.’”
Branding continues to help separate the best advisors from their competitors. But there's one more piece that mustn't be overlooked: Backing up your brand. As Thomas Henske put it, "Anyone can say that they're anything, but when push comes to shove, when the client shows up, you'd better be able to perform."