Like most mature industries, financial services is replete with copycat market-share-focused firms - all the fish fighting for their own pool of safety in the blood red waters cluttered with all types of fish. Matt Brinker, our head of partner development, and I were having a talk about that subject because once again, we were working with two firms with the same name.
We have the good fortune of meeting and assessing hundreds of successful independent advisers every year. We get to see the broad spectrum that our industry has to offer. Without exception, the folks we meet with believe that they have an exceptional firm that is not quite like any other. The truth is that they are absolutely right if they drill down to the details. However, to the more casual observer, the differences are imperceptible. Why does this matter? Because many of your potential new clients are simply comparing you to the other 143 million firms that pop up when they perform a Google search for “wealth management” (“investment advice” gets 165 million hits and “financial advice” pulls in 354 million).
At the top of every one of those search pages is a paid placement by any one of the large brokerage or custodial firms that are willing to pay for premium placing. Guess what? Click through and their websites say they do pretty much the same thing as the smaller guys (but in a bigger way).
It is very hard to stand out in such an overwhelmingly cluttered market place. The ADV database at the SEC doesn’t make matters much better. The word “wealth” appears in 4,382 names, “financial” yields 11,249, “capital” a whopping 13,267 and “investments” logs 9,352. The top of the mountain is also crowded with 114 “Pinnacles,” 102 “Peaks” and even 31 “Apexes.” And that does not include the thousands of advisers who operate as part of a brokerage or bank ADV with their own sub-brand!
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MESSAGE?
Visit as many sites as we do every year and you will find a mind-numbing variation of the same theme, whether it’s a large brokerage firm or a small RIA. If we had to summarize what thousands of financial websites say it would be:
“We create and implement wealth planning and investment advisory services in a client-centric atmosphere by providing special financial planning in a non-conflict, collaborative format that is as unique and dynamic as you are.”
It is next to impossible for a layperson to see why you might be more special than any of the other firms out there. Left to their own devices, is it any wonder people simply go to their friend’s adviser or to the names they recognize? Here are two things to remember the next time you have a strategy session:
1. Your name is not your brand, your actions are
There are plenty of uninspiring names that have nonetheless come to stand for something and represent a brand statement that is memorable. Schwab or PIMCO are hardly exciting names, but they have come to represent their own ethos. Most advisers would benefit greatly by spending more time thinking about what they stand for rather than on the name they use. Your actions and your values are what make your name mean something, not the other way around. The same is true about your marketing message. Your actions should drive the message; authenticity is the single most important aspect of any long-term marketing success. Are your values as a company clearly stated? Do you live and execute on those values consistently? Would your employees and clients agree that your firm lives those values? No amount of marketing can hide the truth over the long-term. Your actions are your brand.
2. Being original makes you exceptional
Many spend more time on marketing than on what the firm delivers to clients. Because most everyone is delivering a variation of the same end service to clients, is it any wonder that the messages all seem the same, no matter what words are used to describe them? Few normal consumers know the difference between your form of planning and the other firms if they are basically the same thing (goals-based or cash-flow-based planning with a balanced investment portfolio). Think about your client experience. How personalized, interactive and unique is it? Is it delivered consistently? Is it scalable? Could your clients easily describe the difference between your firm and some other firm? What could you do that would make you truly different? In an industry of copycats, rare is the firm that has taken the time to actually be original.
We are part of an industry with some of the most brilliant minds in the world, and yet we all gravitate to the safety of modest improvements and telling remarkably similar stories with our own unique twist. That means the smaller firms will always be in the shadow of the big fish that can overwhelm the market. Why not spend time creating a new pond, a unique client experience that changes the landscape? The blue water is always cleaner, and more fun to be in than the red water!
Joe Duran is chief executive of United Capital and the bestselling author of “The Money Code: Improve Your Entire Financial Life Right Now." Follow him @DuranMoney