3 brand-building essentials for your business


“Brand” is a word that’s used incessantly but defined rarely. It’s no surprise, considering a brand is just the sum of the ephemeral set of feelings and associations we have about a particular company, product or service. But those feelings can be so powerful that consumers give their hearts and minds to certain brands, often regardless of price or even quality. The most successful brands provide consumers a feeling of belonging and being understood.


For example, fans of Apple products often identify with the brand’s tagline, “Think Different,” as a symbol of their independence and creativity. Some coffee drinkers are so familiar with the exterior of a Starbucks location that they can spot it from a mile away; others may be old enough to hum the percolator song while brewing a cup of Maxwell House at home. And many of us are probably familiar with the joy of seeing that smile on the Amazon logo when packages arrived carrying essentials during the pandemic shutdown. These are just brand markers, but for the consumers who love them, they can be psychological and emotional touchstones.


Your practice is not Starbucks or Amazon, but you can use branding to connect with clients emotionally. “In the increasingly competitive financial services industry, renewed focus on how your brand connects to the needs of the customer can set you apart,” says Paul Cieslik, senior vice president of Advisor Practice Management at Capital Group. “Even small changes in mindset — a slight shift in perspective — can revitalize your brand’s position in the minds of your clients and build the kind of loyalty that withstands market forces and defies competition.”  


Here are three steps to build or boost your brand.

1. Define your “why”


In his book and popular TED talks like, “Start With Why,” author Simon Sinek uses a simple diagram to illustrate how leaders can inspire action. He calls it “The Golden Circle,” and it’s little more than three concentric circles with associated words: “what”, “how” and “why.” According to Sinek, when seeking to connect and inspire, you’ll need to answer all these questions. But in so doing, it’s important to start at the center — with “why.” 


Starting with “why” isn’t just a tactic, it’s an approach rooted in the biology of human decision making. Fact-based arguments – those centered on “what” – activate the brain’s neocortex which is responsible for rational and analytical thought. On the other hand, reasons built around “how” and “why” correspond to the section of the brain known as the limbic system. And although found in your head, the limbic system is actually where gut feelings are born. It’s the part of our brain that governs behavior and decision making and is responsible for feelings like trust and loyalty. And although, as consumers, we like to think of ourselves as rational decision makers, we know we’re often led by intuition and feeling.


What does this mean for your brand? When think about how to inspire clients and prospects, you can start with similar questions: What do I do? Whom do I serve? And why do I do it? What went into your decision to be an advisor? What inspires you to get out of bed each day? What are you aiming for in your practice?


Maybe you’re motivated to help others achieve the financial security your parents never attained? Perhaps you’re passionate about education and want to help clients send their children to college? You may be  a veteran or a former teacher and you have a special affinity for those with similar backgrounds.


Once you have your “why,” your “what” and “whom” may be easier to define. Taking the time to map out each of these essential aspects of your firm can help you reset how you think of your practice and value proposition.


Tools to use: Step 1 Define Worksheet (PDF)

2. Differentiate your value


“Advisors all say the same thing.” That’s the opinion expressed by 63% of investors surveyed in 2018 study by BNY Mellon Pershing. They asked 1000 investors to review 100 advisor sites and they found that most advisors are relying on the same phrases to describe what they do. This makes sense in terms of industry standards, but what does it mean to investors? If you want to build a brand that speaks to investors, you want to focus on language that appeals to them. You can distinguish your practice by using different words to describe your value.

*Source: BNY Mellon’s Pershing, 2018.

For example, a typical description of an advisor’s offerings might be: “We work with high net worth individuals and business owners to grow, protect and distribute wealth in a holistic way.”


Contrast it with the description one San Diego-based firm uses to describe what it does:


“We are a financial advice firm. We work with young professionals, newlyweds, new parents, real estate professionals and business owners who desire more leisure time. We strive to ‘turn your weekdays into weekends’. In our minds, financial freedom is just that, and can be obtained at any age.”


Both of these descriptions may be accurate, but one does a better job at appealing the emotions of investors who want more leisure time, financial freedom and weekdays that look like weekends.


To get at the authentic, emotional words that differentiate your brand, perhaps the most valuable resource is also a highly underutilized one: Your clients. When it comes to understanding what sets you apart, they offer the most authentic perspective on you and your practice. A simple exercise would involve asking new clients what drew them to you, asking existing clients why they stay, and asking former clients what they most value about the work you did together.


“Asking clients what they value about you is a key to understanding their perception of your value,” says Cieslik. “It may not be what you think.”

You can easily include a few of these types of questions in your onboarding process for new clients, to get a sense of what made you the choice for their business. For long-term clients, adding a few simple questions to the end of your quarterly reviews or soliciting feedback through commonly used online surveying tools can uncover common threads you may not have considered.


For example, you may think what sets you apart is your expertise in managing mid-cap funds, while a survey of clients may reveal that you are a good listener, an expert at navigating difficult family dynamics, or a provider of calm when market worries are overwhelming. You may hear that you provided the most value helping a client through a tough divorce or loss of a family member, or you helped a client realize the goal of sending all eight grandchildren to college. These are the stories that can truly set your brand apart.   


Getting a truly holistic view may require taking the uncomfortable step of reaching out to former clients as well. Within the world of human resources, this is known as an exit interview, and organizations find it to be a highly effective tool for getting the kind of unvarnished feedback that can identify areas of improvement.


If your firm is reviewed on Yelp, Google or local business sites, collect that information and react to it as well. You may even gather some testimonials — dealer guidelines and client permission permitting — you can use to provide the social proof people increasingly expect in our review-saturated climate.


Tools to use: Step 2 Differentiate Worksheet (PDF)

3. Demonstrate your distinctiveness


Apple is known for the friendly and intuitive interfaces of its devices. But the company doesn’t stop there. It reinforces the brand’s essence at every touchpoint — from its digital presence on the web and mobile, to physical spaces.


Consider the company’s stores. There is no zigzagging through queues, no moving from place to place, and no clumsy forms. In short, there are few difficulties to navigate before making a purchase. Instead, you’re typically met by a friendly associate who takes your name and finds you a place to sit. Thereafter, the service comes to you. What could be friendlier and more intuitive than that?


Your physical space: Advisors should also see all client touchpoints as opportunities to build and reinforce their brands. As with Apple, the experience and physical environment of your office is a good place to start. Are you meeting in a stodgy conference room, or around a more intimate setting, like a round sunlit table? Is your “why” on display in the form of family pictures or memorabilia that shows how you’ve helped your clients?


Commemorations of your charitable activities can signal your commitment to your community. Or you can display art from local artists, perhaps even with museum-style plaques to provide details on the work.


If you have a TV in your waiting area, what’s playing on it? A talking head barking out stock tips, or something more aspirational, like a channel focused on travel? That choice doesn’t just reinforce your brand, it can actually shift the client’s mindset away from money, markets and returns to longer-term goals, like travel and retirement.


You can also use your office space to subtly remind clients of your qualifications. Displaying the degrees and certifications you’ve attained reminds clients that you have the skills and experience to help them reach their goals. Elsewhere, your technology projects a level of sophistication. You don’t need to be on the “bleeding edge,” but effective use of technology in your meetings and office environment suggests you take a similar approach to things like portfolio construction and risk management.


Your digital space: Increasingly, virtual meetings are another key touchpoint for projecting your brand. Firms that have been conducting virtual meetings for years may opt for a custom backdrop or slick digital filters to make a certain impression. But in today’s environment, home-office authenticity is allowed. What’s more important is conveying seriousness and professionalism in your focus, appearance and technical capabilities. A ring light, an uncluttered background and a camera angled slightly above eye level paint you in a flattering light and can all help make you feel more confident in your digital meetings. Find out more about the art and science of successful virtual meetings.


More importantly, how your brand is represented digitally can have an impact on business growth. Digital networking on social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook is increasingly a way to find and meet potential connections and prospective clients. But even investors referred to you through more traditional sources are bound to look you up online before meeting you. Does your website represent those words, phrases or associations that your brand is trying to achieve?


Think of ways to include your “why” in your firm’s About Us page, your professional bio and your LinkedIn profile. The emotional connections you wish to make are as important as the words and imagery you choose to reflect your brand. Simple concepts, written in a language that the average person can understand, are often the most powerful. 


Tools to use: Step 3 Demonstrate Worksheet (PDF)

A three-pillar approach to brand-building


Focusing on three pillars can help you take a systematic approach to building (or rebuilding) your brand. This approach focuses on:

  1. Defining your “why”, “what” and “whom”
  2. Using client feedback to zero in on what differentiates you
  3. Creating a plan to bring your brand to life


Get the steps to start this work with our 21-Day Brand-Building Action Plan, designed to help you overhaul your brand in three weeks.

Paul Cieslik is an advisory practice management consultant and national speaker at Capital Group, home of American Funds. He has 31 years of investment industry experience and has been with Capital Group for 22 years. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business and economics from St. Anselm College. Paul is based in Boston.

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