This month’s article of Cut The Wire, is the first of three articles brought to you by the IFP Design Group, IFP’s in-house team of experienced and incredibly passionate branding, design, and marketing strategists and consultants. The team acts as the advisor’s ‘design fiduciary’ while assisting IFP advisors with developing and owning their brand and brand assets. The Design Group helps advisors transform their practice into a strategic brand effectively utilizing design, business strategy and unique messaging that appeals to current and prospective clients. Now on to the good stuff.
As the director of the IFP Design Group, I speak with and work alongside financial advisors every day. My team and I find ourselves constantly repeating or kindly correcting advisors in conversations relating to branding, design or marketing of their practice. While some of their thoughts or theories is your run-of-the-mill confusion, a good portion has been truly eye-opening. I find myself cringing (and often biting my tongue) when I hear advisors say something that can be harmful to their brand, business development opportunities and how their practice is positioned or perceived. As if that’s not bad enough, advisors get terrible advice or advice in a vacuum via webinars and conferences they regularly attend – often being told what they want to hear about branding and marketing, not what they should hear. After returning home from those events, they continue running their practice with inaccurate information, beliefs, or mindsets. In most instances, it’s a simple case of not knowing what they don’t know. That’s not their fault, but that doesn’t mean that’s a good thing.
Through this article and the following articles in this series, I hope to provide advisors with answers to many branding, design, and marketing-related questions and struggles advisors have, but rarely ask. I’ll also address what I see as naive, uninformed, inaccurate, and often very antiquated approaches and beliefs. Most importantly, I’ll provide sound guidance, advice, actionable steps and recommendations. What I write and the tone in which I write this article may seem a little blunt, but I think it’s something advisors need to hear; call it tough love. It’s time for advisors to have a reality check and a wakeup call about branding, design and marketing in the financial services sector.
Truth 1: You Must Invest in Your Brand
From websites to industry publications, newsletters and blogs, the terms brands and branding are very relevant in this industry, as they should be. Unfortunately, the use of those words are typically used synonymously, interchangeably and often incorrectly. As one small example, I’ve experienced situations where an advisor talks about their brand in reference to their logo. It’s been said many times in many places, but it’s worth repeating: your logo is not your brand and your brand is not your logo.
Before we jump into the meat and potatoes of this article, it’s important to have a general definition of branding in the modern era. There isn’t one absolute definition of a brand, however, here’s the general definition of a brand as I know it:
A brand is a promise to provide a meaningful experience between an organization and its customers that is delivered on a consistent basis across all brand touch points. If properly and consistently managed and executed, creates value, resonance, differentiation and influence over time.
It’s important not to confuse the term brand with the phrase branding. Here’s a general definition of branding:
Branding is what you do and how you go about establishing your brand’s differentiated meaning in other people’s minds. It’s the creation and application stage.
Advisors often say to me, “Sean, I need help creating and marketing my brand.” In many cases I will tell them point blank, “You don’t have a brand and have very little or nothing to market. You first need something to market before you can utilize marketing.” I typically receive a pretty perplexed look but, after the shock wears off, I have to take a few steps back to explain.
The journey to define and establish a brand truly is hard work and begins when advisors start taking a deeper look at the ideological and strategic components that comprise their practice. During the early brand development conversations, we often uncover a lot of these possibilities, areas for improvement and strategic opportunities.
First Things First: Ask the Right Questions
Among the many, many questions I ask, there are two questions that help obtain a quick assessment of the client and situation:
Do you have a budget line item for the on-going branding, design and marketing assets and needs of your firm?
So far, of over 400 advisors I’ve asked this question to, only 5 advisors have said yes.
How much time do you spend (individually or with your team) on a monthly or annual basis to strategize, review or discuss your brand?
Of over 400 advisors I’ve asked this question to, those same 5 five advisors have been the only ones to actually do it.
If your answer to either of those questions was no, ask yourself this question: how important is your brand to you? More importantly, what should you do from here?
Start by creating an annual brand maintenance checklist. Identify what you need to do on a monthly, bi-monthly, bi-annual or annual basis to invest in and maintain your brand. You do that for your clients. You even do that for your car. Why wouldn’t you do that for your own brand?
Like a bad patient who doesn’t listen to their dentist, ignores cavities, and hopes they go away, ignoring your brand will not make it better. If you ignore it and don’t invest in it, that too will go away in time. This means that if you have any interest or desire to develop and transform your practice into a meaningful brand, you need to step up and fully invest your time, resources and energy to make it happen.
There’s No Such Thing As Automatic Marketing or Branding
Despite what you’ve likely heard, professional, strategy-driven and executed design, branding or marketing initiatives don’t happen overnight. It’s equally important to understand that the ability to see or measure results or improvements is not automatic or instantaneous.
First, before results or metrics can even be analyzed, you need to define clear KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) or SPs (Strategic Priorities) or other measurements for success. In other words, you need a plan. Updating your website, redesigning the logo, writing a blog post, spending money on brochures printed on glossy paper, or creating a ‘cool’ video is not a strategy. Those are merely parts of what should be a larger whole – an overarching marketing and brand strategy for your business.
Second, successful marketing and branding requires on-going commitment, investment, resources and engagement from advisors. Remember, you’re not just an advisor. You’re also a business owner and entrepreneur. Therefore, any services, tools, social media, newsletters, content or efforts you have set to be ‘automatically’ produced or distributed serve no strategic purpose. They become individual, unorganized parts that aren’t aligned with your brand’s messaging and underlying strategy. Why? Because they are too vague, not specific or relevant to your audience and provide little to no value to your current or prospective client. Therefore, they provide no value to you or your practice. For this to work, you don’t have to be a marketing or branding expert, but you do have to be actively engaged on a regular basis.
What Can You Do?
If it exists, take a little time to review your strategy. If you don’t have one, take a step back and create one. If you don’t know how to create one, find a professional and, if necessary, spend money to get the help you desperately need.
How Do You Hire the Right Person or Firm?
Just as your clients look for an advisor with the credentials, experience, and skills to manage their assets, you need to find a highly qualified branding or marketing firm or professional for your business. Like many professions, a creative agency or professional will likely have a portfolio of completed work. Use this portfolio to gauge their potential and see if they’re the right fit for your firm.
Another potential quality gauge is the length of their career. Like many before you, it may be tempting to hire a relative or friend to design something for you. In addition, you will likely find numerous inexpensive online resources at your disposal. These are the quickest, cheapest and easiest solution if you don’t see the potential value of investing in a successful brand. However, if your brand matters to you, don’t take the risk of hiring an inexperienced, unprofessional, or automated service to create your firm’s equity and assets.
To put things in context, if a professional designer or marketer was looking to hire a financial advisor, they can probably ask someone they know that has a reputation for being good with money. They can also go online and sign up to use a robo-advisor for a very low fee thinking they were getting a fiduciary level of care and guidance. If they truly cared about their financial future, why would they take the risk of hiring an inexperienced, unprofessional, or automated service to create a financial plan? As financial advisors know, that’s a risky wealth management and retirement planning strategy that advisor would never suggest for their clients. So why would you take that same risky approach for your brand?
What Should You Expect From a Professional?
Let’s start with a few minimum expectations. You need someone that works with you as a partner, not someone who works for you. That person or firm should first examine your business’s problems or needs and ask the important, high-level questions that are focused on helping your practice grow. Don’t just look for a firm or professional that uses templated solutions or who claims that they’re simply good with software. Also, don’t fall for those people who only want to manage a social media account or offers to completely take over your marketing. A promise like that would be the equivalent to believing Bernie Madoff when he told his prospective clients he had a secret, proprietary formula for success.
They must understand how to establish and define your strategy, success factors, metrics, and business and marketing goals along the way. Chances are, you don’t know how to do that or you would have that information established already. Find a professional or team that openly and consistently communicates while also making course corrections as your projects progress. You need someone who bases their decisions and recommendations on a strategy, research and industry standards – not on personal likes, dislikes, or a whim. They should provide value beyond the obvious and work with your best interests in mind. In the end, it’s less about what you want, it’s more about what your clients and prospective clients need.
These are just a few criteria and expectations to keep an eye out for. This should sound familiar to you. This is because the expectations and processes are very similar to your fiduciary responsibilities. Think about it. Before you can create the best and most appropriate financial plan for your clients, you must have a deep understanding of your client’s goals, milestones, lifestyle, assets, debts, vision and more. You tell clients not to expect to see their wealth increase overnight or even in a few months. It takes time, careful management, curation, commitment, focus, dedication and even a financial commitment to work towards success. The same approach equally applies to the long-term management and investment in your brand.
Just as you expect to be fairly compensated for the value you provide to clients, so do branding, design and marketing professionals. Having a passive, complacent and non-engaged mindset is harmful to the success of your practice. Remember, there’s no such thing as free, cheap or automatic branding, design, marketing and results.
This article is part one of a three part in the series. Stay tuned for the next article in the coming weeks. Want to learn more or get on a mailing list to be the first to receive future articles? Have questions or comments? Email Sean Brennan, Director, IFP Design Group.
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