Do your clients understand how your firm is different? If not, they don’t have a real reason to work with you.
Toyota and Mercedes-Benz are two of the strongest brands in the world — not just among automotive brands but all brands. When customers hear those brand name, they have a clear and immediate understanding of what each company stands for and how they operate. Both are fine cars, but they’re designed to meet the needs of different types of buyers and their brand positioning reflects that. Toyota equals value and reliability. Mercedes-Benz equals superlative engineering and performance.
Financial advisory firms work the same way. They can have radically different specialties and types of clients so their brands need to clearly reflect those differences. Unfortunately, the brands of most firms, and especially smaller firms, are so similar to each other that they may as well be interchangeable.
Don’t believe us? Look through the websites and other sales materials of your competitors and see if you can differentiate their brands. Chances are, you’ll get lost in a flood of words like “experienced” and “dedicated” and “personalized.” Most firms say they use a “team approach” and “innovative tools” and seek a “long-term relationship” based on “the client’s needs.”
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with any of these concepts, but they’re so overused in the financial-services industry that they’ve become meaningless. When a category — any category — is filled with brands that have very similar-sounding offers, people resort to making decisions based on price. That turns your service into a commodity.
To separate yourself from the pack, you need a brand that reflects the DNA and value proposition of your firm. Here are three ways to get started.
The first core principle is to think in terms of demand instead of supply. Rather than focusing on the services you offer, you need to understand what motivates your clients (and potential future clients). Most people aren’t coming to you for a long list of services. They’re likely coming to you with a few critical issues and questions that they need help with.
Developing this understanding requires that you listen when clients talk — really listen, actively. Listen with an appreciation that the best insights come when people talk about their hopes, fears, and desires — the core elements of their financial wellbeing. Those are problems you can help them solve. Make a list of the emotional words you hear during these conversations. Ask questions. Listen for what people are saying as well as what they’re not. These conversations are where the strongest connections get forged and the brand takes shape.
All too often, firms are hesitant to stand for something out of fear that they’ll turn off a potential client who doesn’t fit their firm's profile. The catch is that by trying to be everything to everybody, you end up being no one to anyone. You’re just like every other firm, slugging it out on price. If you’re going to differentiate yourself, you need to make some choices about what you offer — with a story that establishes how you’re demonstrably better and more experienced than the competition for a given type of service or client.
In terms of services, become a subject matter expert — the subject matter expert — on a given topic. You could specialize in succession planning, or benefits and 401(k)s, or the tax implications of philanthropy. In terms of clients, focus on a specific niche in the market. (This is particularly helpful given that a lot of financial advisor business comes through word-of-mouth referrals.) You could specialize in widowed clients over 50, or clients with a strong religious faith, or people in the LGBTQ community, or members of the armed services.
A key principle of communication is that the recipient dictates the terms. When nuclear physicists talk to people they meet at a backyard cookout, they don’t use complex terminology. When doctors talk to patients, they use different language than when they talk to each other. Instead, they keep it simple and use layman’s terms, rather than jargon.
You need to keep the same principle in mind when developing and communicating your brand. If people can’t decipher the language, they won’t understand the brand.
Only after working through these three steps are you ready to begin telling the world about your brand through dedicated marketing and communications. That’s a lot of advance time and effort you need to put in, but it’s the only way to ensure that the messages you send into the world hit the right notes. After all, you can’t say something meaningful until you have something meaningful to say.
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