By AMY PARVANEH
Vincent van Gogh is one of the world's most treasured artists, and his most expensive painting, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) sold for $82.5 million in 1990. But despite his passion for his work and immeasurable talent, Van Gogh was an obscure artist throughout his lifetime, unable to establish any meaningful following. He sold only one painting before he died, The Red Vineyard (1888), which sold for 400 francs in 1890 (less than $2400 USD today!). The letters between the artist and his brother, Theo van Gogh, tell of a chronic lack of money, and existential difficulties with which Vincent struggled during his short career.
Similar to Vincent van Gogh, many advisers in the wealth management industry are also faced with an existential dilemma of sorts: One of intelligent, talented, and dedicated financial experts whose value may be overlooked and underappreciated, simply because they are not effectively marketing their specific value proposition. Many financial advisers who are brilliant in their field have never fully understood or implemented a successful marketing campaign, some don’t feel they need one, and some simply never even realised that there are marketing strategies they can actively follow to promote themselves.
For many decades, financial advisers have marketed themselves with bland and undifferentiated messaging that does little to compel their audiences. How often have we seen or heard advisers use phrases to describe their value proposition, such as the ones below?
We are trusted advisers.
We help you reach financial independence.
We can be your quarterback for all your financial decisions.
We provide comprehensive wealth management.
In the past, when financial advisers were much more scarce, phrases such as these worked adequately for an advisers’ marketing strategy, because they really did differentiate advisers from the rest who were predominantly product salespeople. However, the ongoing commoditisation of investment products and asset allocation is forcing more and more advisers to deliver this same trusted, holistic advice solution, with the number of CFP certificants increasing from 36,000 in 2000 to over 85,000 as of September 2019.
And given the tremendous growth of the comprehensive financial planning industry over the last two decades, advisers have needed to invest more and more energy and creativity into their marketing efforts to distinguish themselves from the competition. Just searching for “Financial Adviser” titles on LinkedIn results in over 550,000 results! Combine that with “Wealth Manager”, “Wealth Adviser”, and “Financial Planner”, and we’re up to about 815,000 and counting! Read about their services on their website or LinkedIn profile, and you can’t see much of a difference in what each does.
At the same time, “fee compression” is the topic du jour among advisers who fear their fees are perceived as untenably higher than the industry average by prospective clients. With the advent of robo-advisers and their saturation of digital wealth management platforms (as well as the focus on passive and index investing), it has become even more difficult to justify a 1% asset management fee, regardless of all the other ancillary services an adviser may offer to clients (or at a minimum, requiring so much in ancillary value-added services that it undermines the firm’s profitability).
Furthermore, given an ever-decreasing attention span in our society with the ubiquity of social media and digital lifestyles, prospects aren’t usually willing to listen to or read long-winded explanations and most blogs on adviser websites. Thus, antiquated marketing material with essays about the benefits of a particular wealth manager do not often compel prospective investors to engage.
And thus, perhaps a bit like Vincent van Gogh, these advisers are not able to effectively express to the outside world the unique qualities that make them different and worth engaging. Perhaps it’s the extra mile they will go for clients (the funerals they are arranging for their clients’ loved ones, the shoulder they offer to a client going through a divorce, the assisted-living facilities they are researching for their clients who are showing advanced symptoms of dementia, the family governance meetings they’ve arranged, and so on), or maybe it’s the specific service they offer to a target niche that make them unique from the rest.
The process of translating the valuable, qualitative factors that make an adviser (or their practice) unique, into impactful messaging that genuinely promotes an individual (or their firm) and that elicits client engagement, is called “branding”.
Historically, the term “branding” was generally reserved for consumer goods and technology companies. Companies like Apple and Nike used branding to build consumer loyalty and recognition – think of the line “Just Do It”, and Nike’s concept of empowering one’s inner athlete immediately comes to mind, right in line with their mission to “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” Or Apple’s award-winning “Think Different” campaign, which reminded customers of their mission to create innovative products based on seeing the world a little differently, with a poignant toast “to the crazy ones,” and the goal to inspire their customers to “think differently” in their own lives.
So how can advisers brand themselves to highlight their unique value, and move themselves away from being a commodity that trades on price, and into a brand, which trades on perceived value and selling of the intangible?
Defining the branding message
"Pretty websites and marketing materials don't sell things. Words sell things. And if we haven't clarified our message, our clients won't listen."
(from Building a Story Brand: Clarify your Message So Customers Will Listen by Donald Miller)
Now that we’ve emphasised the importance of branding and how it should be used to deliver your messaging concisely and with impact, let’s discuss how it can be developed for an adviser (or their firm) to completely differentiate their value proposition from that of other competitors.
Focusing the brand message and targeting the (right) client segment
The most important element of any branding exercise is one word: Focus. Focus on what we want to provide, and focus on who we want to serve.
Defining focus can cause anxiety for some advisers, who try to service clients with a broad range of needs. The issue these advisers face is that, because they are willing to work with any client, they may find it difficult to focus on what specifically they want to (or can) offer. And trying to be all things to all people ultimately ends out as being very little to very few.
In a 2013 Harvard Business Review Case Study, Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry, the iconic luxury clothing brand, discussed how she helped a 156-year-old company, growing at 2% in 2006 when she took over, turn into the global powerhouse it is today (revenue grew from £743 million in 2006, to £2.33 billion when she left in 2014, an annualised growth rate of over 15%/year):
"The company had an excellent foundation, but it had lost its focus in the process of global expansion. We had 23 licensees around the world, each doing something different. We were selling products such as dog cover-ups and leashes. One of our highest-profile stores, on Bond Street in London, had a whole section of kilts. There's nothing wrong with any of those products individually, but together they added up to a lot of stuff — something for everybody, but not much of it exclusive or compelling.
"In luxury, ubiquity will kill you — it means you're not really luxury anymore. And we were becoming ubiquitous. Burberry needed to be more than a beloved old British company. It had to develop into a great global luxury brand while competing against much larger rivals."
Angela Ahrendts defined the Burberry trench coat as a focal point of the company’s identity and representative of the brand’s British culture, and capitalised on the company’s historical core by innovating around the iconic trench coat:
"Burberry is 156 years old; its coats were worn in the trenches of World War I by British soldiers, and for decades thereafter they were so much a part of British culture that the company earned a royal warrant, making it an official supplier to the royal family… We would reinforce our heritage, our Britishness, by emphasizing and growing our core luxury products, innovating them and keeping them at the heart of everything we did."
Finding focus — opposing categories and white space
A firm that is looking to rebrand (or to establish a brand for the first time to begin with) should ask the following two focus questions:
What is our personal, unique, value-add service offering?
Who exactly makes up the target market we are going after, particularly those who are underserved by other advisers in our sector?
What is the unique value-add offering (Opposing Categories)?
Many advisory firms use words such as “knowledgeable”, “client-centric”, “fiduciary”, “trusted”, and “one stop” to describe their value proposition. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with these adjectives (they are very admirable qualities to bring forth to your clients!), the issue, with respect to branding, is that these terms are overused and do very little to dif