As the RIA industry continues to flourish, more and more firms are focusing on brand development. Having a strong digital presence is essential to how firms are positioned in the marketplace. Major changes in their businesses, the launch of new websites and other big events are opportunities to showcase and evaluate their brand.
Much like financial advice, one size does not fit all when it comes to branding decisions. However, that does not mean, that working from a tried and true blueprint is necessarily a mistake.
First, let's talk about what a brand is – or rather, what it isn't. A brand is not a logo. A brand is not a color palette. A brand is not what you tell everyone you want it to be. So, what is it? A brand is every experience a client or prospect has with the firm. Yes, that includes the logo, color palette and website. But it also includes the ways in which clients and prospects interact with all of those elements. A great brand is a great user experience. At the end of the day, it is your clients that determine the brand, not you.
The concept of branding, therefore, is in creating the framework of how the brand is experienced. Literally everything can represent the brand – the icon that defines you, the look and feel of the website and collateral materials, the way people answer the phone, the way you conduct yourself in meetings.
We recently went through a major business change ourselves – we merged with our sister company, Gemcom, LLC, and went through this exercise first hand. In the classical sense, this wasn't a true merger, as we both come from the same parent company. However, from a brand perspective, it was exactly that. Blu Giant, while relatively new, had developed brand recognition and was making some noise in the financial services space. Gemcom, a steadily growing business now in its tenth year, had been primarily positioned as an extended service of its sister company, Gemini Fund Services, LLC and did not have the same visibility in the marketplace. When deciding what to call this new, not-really-merged-but-combined company, we decided to use the Blu Giant name, for brand recognition purposes. But behind the name, we evolved the overall brand identity to reflect the improved offerings and culture of both firms—from the messaging, to the company ethos, to the client experience.
I believe whenever two firms merge, an evolved brand should be created. It needs to be something that speaks to the clients of both firms, but is also intentionally designed to reflect the trajectory of the newly formed company. Simply combining names, aggregating imagery and blending materials will not make a strong brand. It only serves to water down, confuse and mash together two brands that don’t actually complement one another. You'll have something you think is safe, but in reality may forever be a stumbling block. Each element should be carefully considered.
An Important First Decision
Choosing a name is an incredibly important first decision, as there is a great deal to consider. It's very easy to get mired in thoughts of what each (or both) used to be, rather than what they will become together. In a well-handled transition, with stable companies, most current clients will stick around regardless of the new name. Unless you name the new enterprise "Ponzi Financial Management" or something similarly terrible, you don't stand to lose most of your current crop. To quote Shakespeare, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." The obvious focus, then, should be on the new clients you want to attract. Younger investors are more interested in the technology and expertise you will bring to investing than the names of the partners or a date of inception. As a result, they are less likely to be drawn to Smith-Jones-Williams Investments, Inc. It doesn't mean anything. Not to them. In contrast, we recently helped brand a new firm called, "PathWise." It's simple, clear, and conveys a strong message.
From there, think about the kind of relationship you want to have with your clients. How do you want to be perceived? Are you experts? Are you technology driven? Do you have a specific area of focus? What is your differentiating approach? Choosing imagery that supports this in a real-world way is vital to brand experience. Stock photos of people in a board room say nothing about your firm. How will prospects connect if nothing is being conveyed? Take this example. According to an EventBrite study, conducted by Harris, the Millennial generation is much more interested in great experiences than material things. In trying to attract those clients, showing them a Ferrari will likely not make the impact that showing them a beautiful view from Bora Bora would. Making the right emotional appeal with imagery can mean the difference between gaining a new client base and alienating its core sensibilities.
When two firms become one, the branding goal is simple. Tell your story. Through a name, a logo, a website – through everything, tell that story. Create a brand experience that is approachable and let prospective clients know exactly why they should choose you. That's branding.
Brett Clarke is the Chief Executive Officer of Blu Giant, and has been with NorthStar Financial Services Group, LLC since 2006.