Building Your Retirement Practice Brand: Microbranding

By Marcus Chandler

With pricing pressures, competition and other factors potentially threatening to commoditize professional retirement plan services, many advisors face a growing challenge: getting paid what they are worth for the expertise and services they provide. The entry-level retirement advisor or financial services generalist can always “do it for less” — and will, if necessary, to win a plan.

To confront this challenge, the dedicated retirement plan practice with the ability to bring real value and effective stewardship to the plan management relationship must be more adept than ever at communicating its unique value proposition in order to win business and retain clients. Formulating and executing an effective brand strategy can play a critical role in achieving this objective.

Developing a Brand Strategy

There are literally hundreds of definitions of a “brand,” but here’s one, sadly unattributed, that might best apply to retirement practices:

A claim of distinction — whatever separates the business or organization from its competitors, makes it stand out as extraordinary or, better yet, more valuable to the customer — and the compelling evidence that makes that claim credible, or the evidence of distinction.

While this definition articulates a good starting point, there are many fundamental flaws with applying traditional major-brand strategy thinking to comparatively small and highly specialized retirement advisor practices. The examples often cited as brand success stories (Apple, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, etc.) are simply not applicable. Those companies rely on mass target-audience appeal for the products or services they offer and enjoy equally massive marketing budgets to achieve brand penetration. This is certainly not the case with specialized retirement practices.

This is where “microbranding,” a comparatively new way of thinking about brand development, can play a far more relevant and substantial role in retirement advisor brand development strategy.

A microbrand is defined as a small-scale brand recognized only in a certain geographic location or by consumers in a specific micro-market or niche market. The wonderful thing about microbranding is that both elements of that definition apply to retirement advisor practices:
• most retirement practices focus in a specific geographic region, and
• they have a highly defined target audience to influence (that is, plan sponsor decision makers).

Here are five elements to consider when employing microbranding techniques as the foundation of your overall brand development strategy.

1. Provide Ample ‘Evidence of Distinction’

Microbranding places more emphasis on specialization. With the primary goal being to differentiate your practice from financial services generalist, what processes or methodologies does your practice employ that help deliver more effective stewardship to retirement plans? How do you support participants, increase participation rates and help improve outcomes? Be specific, but be concise. The goal is “evidence of distinction” — there’s no need to write a book.

2. Present a Meaningful ‘Value Statement’

Microbranding places more emphasis on personal value statements than on corporate mission statements. Compared with a mission statement, which expresses what a practice does, a good values statement expresses why you do it, and thus can make a better emotional connection with the reader.

3. Provide Personal Biographies That Connect

While common knowledge tells us to provide biographies of leadership and other key firm personnel in marketing collateral, biographies that read like resumes are a missed opportunity. RidgeWorth Investments offers an excellent guide to help develop personnel biographies, Your PHD Personal Biography Workbook.

4. Use Imagery That Connects With Your Target Audience

Imagery (artistry) is important in your marketing collateral. Choose imagery or a theme that connects with your target decision maker audience and make sure that imagery is consistent on all materials —online, print, PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, etc. If your practice is national in scope, such imagery might be more metaphorical. If your practice is more regionally focused, imagery that is recognizable to the community or region your practice serves can be a good choice.

5. Less is More!

When developing marketing/brand collateral, in print or online, there is no limit to the amount of information and bells and whistles that might be included. Resist the temptation to incorporate materials or information on your website that don’t succinctly reflect your mission. Videos from third-party sources and blogs or newsletters that aren’t maintained can detract from your goal.

Microbranding Examples to Follow

Here are three examples of firms in the retirement industry that employ effective elements of microbranding strategy:
Gratke Wealth — What makes Gratke a particularly compelling example is that they not only do a fine job of presenting themselves as a retirement-centric practice, but also as one that caters to companies in a specific industry — the outdoor sports and recreation market. This dual distinction is abundantly evident from their home page, with imagery and text optimized to resonate with plan decision makers in that industry niche. While this level of target industry specificity is probably too risky for the typical retirement plan practice, it’s a great example of “association marketing.” If your practice targets companies in a particular industry or industry association, creating some collateral that speaks to that industry is a great idea.
Financial Telesis — They’re a broker dealer, but Financial Telesis offers a very relevant example for a retirement industry practice or entity with a national footprint. Each page of the website features a unique bridge landmark from various regions of the country, which identifies the firm’s status as a national player. Overall, the imagery rings with the desired metaphors: stability, structure, overcoming or bridging obstacles. The prominent placement of their mission statement on the home page is impactful. Advisors might consider similar placement, but use a values statement instead. Overall, the clear and concise retirement market emphasis throughout the site maximizes Financial Telesis’ ability to deliver their core message to the decision maker they wish to influence — retirement advisors.
Dietz and Lynch Capital — With the Boston skyline providing the backdrop, any employer located in Boston or the New England region will immediately identify this firm as a retirement practice that serves their community. Additionally, there is plenty of evidence of distinction from the “what we offer” section placed prominently on their home page and other areas. This clearly defines the firm as retirement-centric. Additionally, the “About the Company” page starts with a compelling values statement.

In summary, a well crafted brand strategy will help differentiate your practice from the competition and can pay substantial dividends in both new client acquisition and retention.

Marcus Chandler is the Founder of Sell401k, Inc, a brand and business development firm serving advisors in the defined contribution market. To learn more about brand development, visit www.sell401k.com or email Marcus at mchandler@sell401k.com.

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