Blog Series: Truths About Branding for Financial Advisors (Part 3 of 3)

by Chris Hamm

Welcome to part 3 of my 3-part series about branding truths for financial advisors. If you missed them, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2. In Part 3, we aim to provide more actionable steps and strategies, a summary of all truths, and any additional, actionable next steps you can take. Read on.

Truth 6: Your Brand Experience Is More Important Than User Experience

What is User Experience (UX)?

Let’s start with the basics. At a high and very simplistic level, UX involves putting users (a target audience) at the center of creating a product, service, tool or experience. It involves trying to understand how users will interact with and experience your product, tool or service in a natural, intuitive way. Good UX should put them at ease, help solve their problems, or fulfill a need. This process can be pretty complicated. It involves conducting research, fostering a deep level of empathy, building prototypes, discovering user expectations and insights, and much more. If done correctly, implementing UX principles can provide businesses the opportunity to simplify clients’ lives and ease their concerns when interacting with, or developing a relationship with your brand.

Why Does User Experience/UX Matter?

To illustrate this point, take a look at Apple. Whether it was the launch of the iPhone, Apple Watch, a new retail store, an app or their website, Apple strives to provide a great user experience. If you go into an Apple Store, the store layout and employee demeanor is designed to make your visit as streamlined and positive as possible. You don’t usually sit in lines for hours or elbow your way into the demo area. And, unlike other retail stores, you can pay for your items with any employee, in any part of the store. No more standing in line to pay.

Now look at their website. Shopping for a specific product is fairly straight forward and they keep options to a minimum, and the product information is easily found and clearly written. You get what you need, can make the transaction you want to make, and quickly and easily find and read what you want, nothing more and nothing less. Again, a simple, quick and painless checkout process is their emphasis.

The point is, as a financial advisor, your client journey should also be effortless and memorable in a positive way. The same principles should apply to the process of contacting your office as well. Reaching a real person should be easy. Making appointments should be seamless. Even beyond that, an office should be warm and inviting. There’s no reason to meet with clients in a stodgy cubicle land, or an office filled with oversized wooden furniture. Your personal taste isn’t always what the clients wants, needs or expects. Instead, do something that reflects your practice to clients in a unique and memorable way they’ll appreciate. Develop and implement your own differentiated process or formula – your personal brand experience. Offer them coffee, tea, cookie, sandwich or dessert. Offer to use Uber to pick them up or drop them off, or have their car washed while they meet with you (being mindful of all applicable compliance policies, of course.) Financial advising doesn’t have to be old fashioned or boring. Remember, office visitors are taking time out of their day to meet with you. Show your appreciation of your time by providing an exceptional user experience that welcomes them and fosters positive connections with your brand.

Where Did the Concept of UX Come From?

Over the last 10-15 years, the concept of user experience has been reintroduced to the design industry with explosive hype and fervor. I use the term reintroduced because the first concrete examples of designers and businesses using this concept can be dated back to the 1940s. By analyzing consumer data and audience feedback, these pioneers began tailoring experiences to increase awareness, product loyalty, and potentially, increases sales. Not only that, but they would constantly evolve their process to further improve customer satisfaction.

Today, the concept of user experience has exploded, launching an entire industry of its own, including new career paths and job titles, design specializations, and a much wider range of use cases. Unfortunately, providing a great ‘user experience’ has become synonymous with focusing on the user experience provided by and through a website or mobile app. While a website user experience is vitally important, it shouldn’t be the sole focus of your brand. Not exempt from this popular trend, the financial services industry has certainly been impacted as well. More on that in a bit. First, let’s take a look at someone who didn’t get it right — Panera Bread.

Case Study: Panera Bread

If you live in the United States, chances are you’ve probably heard of Panera Bread. If you’ve ever visited, take a minute to think about your last visit to one of their stores. Think about your experience from beginning to end — from before you even walked in the door, to when you finally left. What impression did you get from the exterior? Were the tables and chairs clean? What was the inside environment like? Was it too noisy? Is what they provided worth the cost?

Every internal and external brand touchpoint, from the food to the look and feel of the restaurant, is a reflection of their company, their brand, and the experience they are delivering – intentional or not. To better understand what Panera Bread desires to accomplish based on their positioning, let’s look at their basic guiding statements.

Panera Bread Vision Statement:

And we believe that good food, food you can feel good about, can bring out the best in all of us. Food served in a warm, welcoming environment, by people who care. To us, that’s good eating and that’s why we’re here.

Panera Bread Mission Statement:

A loaf of bread in every arm®.

The Panera Problem and the Disconnect

So, where did it all go wrong? Based on the mission and vision statements, the focus of their company is Panera Bread (the company), not their customers. Don’t get me wrong; it makes sense that a food and beverage-based company takes pride in delivering a quality product. That’s paramount to their success. However, they are communicating that they seem to only care about the food.

Review of My Panera Bread Customer Experience

Like most chain food/café restaurants, my meal and beverage was consistent from previous visits to Panera. In terms of taste, size, ingredients, portion control, available utensils, and presentation of the food, it was what I expected. It fulfilled my hunger and thirst needs and served the purpose of my visit. Nothing more, nothing less. Additionally, the environmental design, signage and visual branding, the employee and manager uniforms, the choice of tables and chairs, the smell/odor of baked goods, and even background/atmospheric music was also consistent with the other locations. That all sounds pretty good, what’s the problem?

Where Did Panera Fall Short?

First, while the quality of the food was fine, I had to go to three different counters to pick up my items (a smoothie, a pastry, and my soup and sandwich combo). I didn’t know this and wasn’t informed of the process after I placed my order. I stood at the wrong counter waiting on my entire order for an excessive amount of time wondering what was taking so long. After inquiring about my order, that’s when I was told where to go to pick up each item. But even if I was told about this upfront, that’s not a good experience. You’re essentially your own waiter without the pay. From a user experience point-of-view, that’s not why I decided to eat there in the first place.

Second, I went from being a customer, to unexpectedly becoming a bus boy. Busing your own tables (throwing away your trash) at an eatery where there isn’t a wait staff is the norm. It’s expected. However, at Panera Bread, in addition to busing tables, you’re also expected to sort trash and dirty dishes with your bare hands, into three categories:

  1. Flatware/plates and silverware
  2. Recyclable materials, e.g. cups, etc.
  3. Other trash, e.g. napkins and non-recyclables

Oh, and these have to be sorted into three separate bins. What other eatery puts that expectation and burden on its customers?

Both of these processes put Panera (the company) at the center of the ordering, dining and service experience. They’ve been in place for so long, and since no one has complained enough, and since customers are used to, and have accepted their role because ‘that’s the Panera process’, nothing has changed. That’s a bad business decision. Those processes only provide an advantage, benefit and positive experience to Panera Bread. Intentional or not, it’s clear the customer not only comes last, but wasn’t even considered. Panera failed to focus on user experience by not providing an amazing ordering and dining experience for the patrons they serve.

Where Are They Now?

To date, I don’t think these consumer experience flaws have ever been addressed and are still in place at Panera. Visit a Panera Bread and take a look for yourself and make your own conclusions. As a result of my experience, I haven’t eaten at Panera Bread since, and will never step foot in their restaurants again.

What Can Financial Advisors Learn from Panera Bread and UX?

There are a few lessons and learning opportunities here. First, companies must take into account the user experience in relation to all of the products, tools and services they offer. Second, whether or not your business is product or service-based, ensuring a delightful and positive in-person and/or website user experience is critically important. However, that’s not the main lesson advisors can learn from Panera Bread.

It’s about considering and providing an integrated approach to your entire brand experience. You need consistency. When someone calls, be kind and welcoming. If they visit your office, offer them a tea or coffee while they wait. If they visit your business online, help answer their questions, and get them to the right place to make sure they can find what they are looking for.

To summarize, focus your time, energy, and resources into developing and providing an amazing brand experience that improves the tangible and intangible aspects of client interactions. Reinforce your prospective client’s decision to choose you as their financial advisor with each communication or office visit across all brand touchpoints.

How does this relate to my brand?

Your brand is a living and breathing thing. Like a real person, it is made up of many different moving parts that have to work in tandem. A brand expresses feelings and emotions, it communicates and has to be maintained over time. Also, like a real person, when those things are neglected, a brand can wither away. Whether you’re a small practice or a huge firm, the ability to relay a clear, consistent and differentiated brand experience can have a big impact on your bottom line.

Truth 6: Your Brand Experience is Delivered Through Your Brand Signals

By now you should have a very basic understanding that a successful brand is not a single asset. Now let’s lay down some ground rules. For a brand to be effective, it should be strategically based and communicates to, and impacts internal and external stakeholders. It should be client-focused and is made up of many moving parts that define an impactful and authentic brand experience.

A Brand Experience in Practice

To help envision this, think of a company or service that you recently used or visited in person. Now take a minute look back on your customer journey and the impact of your overall experience. What part of your experience was particularly good? What parts were bad? What were you expecting before you got there?

Did the décor or staff’s uniforms set the brand apart? Was it drab, boring, serious or fun? Were staff members polite and courteous? Did they deliver on your expectations? Did they follow up after you left? Was this visit to their store or office different than before? Was it different than what you experienced online? Would you use them again or recommend them to a friend?

Financial Advisors and Advisor Firms Are No Different

Put yourself in the shoes of current or prospective clients and ask yourself the questions in the previous paragraph in relation to what someone might experience with your practice. Consider how they would feel about your brand experience, or how they would describe it to someone else. Perhaps some would think there was a disconnect between speaking with your assistant and speaking directly with you. Or maybe there’s a disconnect between your office experience and your website experience.

Adjust and Align

Envision how you would like your firm to be thought of and remembered in the minds of your prospective and current clients. Remember, a successful brand is not a static one. There’s no such thing as ‘set it and forget it’ branding and marketing. You need to consistently analyze your brand for areas that can be improved to ensure your brand is delivering an optimal experience all the time.

By identifying the weak points in your brand experience and making adjustments, advisors can set themselves apart from the competition. Don’t be afraid to make changes to your practice and provide a fresh approach to client care. The results just might surprise you.

Your Brand Signals Are Always Communicating. They Never Turn Off.

The customer journey is the path that current or future clients traverse when they directly or indirectly interact with your practice. There’s no way to control when, where or how someone will have their first interact with your firm.

For example, the journey can begin from a word-of-mouth referral by a friend, a visit to your website, by reading a blog post you wrote, reading your social media updates, an internet search, an online review, or a phone call. The timing, discovery or referral method, medium, or device used that will launch the first step of their customer journey will be different for nearly every individual. No matter where they come from, and with some effort, you do have the ability to shape the conversation and experience based on smaller, custom, and consistently used brand touchpoints. Think of these as brand signals.

Landor, a global branding firm, describes brand signals as both tangible and intangible expressions and assets that generate thoughts, feelings, impressions, and opinions of your brand. Examples of brand signals are things advisors are very familiar with, and that your clients will interact with, see or experience, such as:

  • Firm Name
  • Messaging and Positioning
  • Interior or Exterior Signage
  • Presentations
  • Reports or Documents
  • Business Cards
  • Taglines
  • Website
  • Brand Colors
  • Office Space Design and Experience
  • Hold Music on Your Phone System
  • Email Signature
  • Employee Behaviors and Actions
  • Logo/identity
  • Social Media Presence
  • Marketing Materials

Think of each public-facing element prospective clients directly or indirectly interact with as a brand signal. Do your brand signals accurately represent your practice? What are they signaling (communicating)? Is that how you want your business positioned and embedded in the minds of your current or prospective clients? If not, it’s time to make a change.

What Can You Do?

Start thinking of your brand as a whole, not individual parts that make up the whole. Meaning, don’t spend your whopping $25 budget on a new logo, don’t use PowerPoint templates or Microsoft Word to design a brochure, and don’t pay for a cookie-cutter website creation tool or service because you think it’ll validate your existence. Instead of focusing on what you think will ‘validate your existence’ in the eyes of your clients with disconnected or unrelated parts of a brand, focus your resources on creating a strong, cohesive and meaningful brand experience. I urge you to shift your thinking and consider everything related to your firm or practice as a valuable brand signal. These signals reflect on the quality, meaning, differentiation and potential level of service your clients will experience – before you ever have the opportunity to meet face-to-face. Therefore, it’s critical there is a clear and consistent message and experience across all of your brand signals. If you need help, there’s no shortage of branding professionals.

Benefits to Your Brand

As you refine your brand signals, you’ll immediately begin to see the bigger picture, develop a greater understanding of the potential value of your brand, and better understand your client journey, their needs and the role of your overall brand experience. You may also begin to consider the immediate and long-lasting impact of the decisions related to these signals. Your brand signals make an impact on every thought, feeling, opinion, association or experience related to your firm. Do not underestimate their importance and influence on your brand.

Truth 7: You Owe It to Your Clients

This three-part series was designed to help financial advisors gain control of their brand and build something worthwhile. In turn, I hoped to help strengthen your relationship with current and prospective clients. You don’t need to be an expert to make some very basic, but necessary adjustments to deliver a better branding experience.

Take one step and one concept at a time, and don’t be afraid to seek out advice or assistance from a professional if you need it. I encourage you to keep the ‘7 Truths’ in mind as you continue to develop your brand. Here’s a recap of every lesson I’ve taught so far:

  • Truth 1: You Must Invest in Your Brand
  • Truth 2: There’s No Such Thing as Automatic Marketing or Branding
  • Truth 3: You Must Have a Marketing Plan (in addition to) a Business Plan Before Launching Your
    Independent Advisory Practice.
  • Truth 4: As an independent financial advisor, you’re no longer just an advisor. You’re a business
    owner and entrepreneur. Start thinking of yourself as one!
  • Truth 5: You Must Build Your Brand Experience (BX)
  • Truth 6: Your Brand Experience is Delivered Through Your Brand Signals
  • Truth 7: You Owe It to Your Clients


Remember, the rules have about managing brands have changed. You’re no longer the sole owner of your brand. You can and should try to positively shape, position and promote your brand, but you no longer own it. It is owned by the individuals who come into contact with it, who use it and shape its perception, value, meaning and symbolism on a daily basis–across all platforms and mediums. Your brand is no longer what you say it is, it’s what they (your current and prospective clients) say and think it is. Yes, branding is a fairly complex and in-depth process, so it does take time, dedication, resources and sometimes professional guidance. But don’t worry, effective branding isn’t impossible.

But prior to pursuing professional consultation, there are some very simple and free actions any advisor or firm can do on their own. If you use these ‘Truths’ as a blueprint, you can make a positive impact on your practice and client experience. No one will take care of your brand better
than you. Now that you have truthful insights and strategies, it’s time to get started on turning your practice into the brand you want it to be, and one that your clients deserve.

What Have You Experienced?

If you want to share some of your client/firm brand stories, we’d love to hear from you. Just use the contact information below. We also welcome your comments or feedback on the ‘Truth’s About Branding’ series.

About the Author

Sean Brennan is the Director of the IFP Design Group. Sean helps craft meaningful brand experiences for financial advisors in the IFP network. If you’d like to be the first to be notified of future blog posts, or if you have questions or comments about this article, simply send an email to Sean. You can also connect with Sean on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Securities offered through LPL Financial member FINRA and SIPC
Investment advisory services offered through Independent Financial Partners, a Registered Investment Adviser
Independent Financial Partners is not owned or controlled by LPL Financial

Posted by: Chris Hamm | March 29th, 2018 at 1:01pm.