Build a great differentiated brand or drown in a sea of sameness. Today having a strong investment management brand is not a nice to have, it’s an imperative.
For years building an investment management brand was left to the big mutual fund players and others vying for retail clients. Then, with the global financial crisis and the massive outflows across segments, firms of all shapes and sizes rushed into the market with what they thought was “branding”. Today, just about every investment management firm has a name, logo, website and a trusty pitch book—likely all blue and peppered with navigational images and icons. Many thought, therefore, that they had built a brand and that this, combined with good, consistent performance was enough to get them noticed, win business and develop loyal clients. Once upon a time that may have worked, but not today.
With the increased complexity of the financial markets, expansion globally where firms may be virtually unknown, commoditization and a growing preference for specialty managers—many are taking serious stock of their brands.
The Value of Truly Building an Investment Management Brand
Brand strength is the second most important attribute in selecting an investment management firm after performance. As the lines between retail, intermediary and institutional buyers blur, more stringent disclosure requirements are imposed and with the move to more global distribution, brand and reputation are increasingly more important drivers in clients’ decision to invest. As the following chart shows, according to intermediaries, brand strength and reputation ranked as the second highest factor when considering a firm.
Key Drivers of Asset Growth
The field is crowded, noisy and confusing. Today hundreds of investment management firms with countless strategies and vehicles are battling it out for assets. Add to that the lack of distinction between firms, it’s nearly impossible for potential investors to see through and understand what a firm does and does better than its competitors. Net, it takes a lot to win and retain loyal clients.
Key promises sound the same. Without doing the work to create meaningful differentiation, most firms push out promises that sound the identical, creating a virtual sea of sameness. Here are some commonly used messages that permeate the market and have no specific insight into the manager:
So, to get noticed in an over-crowded marketplace a firm must build a brand that means something and ultimately matters to its clients. To do this, the story it tells must be clear, differentiated and memorable.
Investment Management Firms Face Unique and Formidable Challenges
Simply put, investment management brands are different—from their products and services to their diverse audiences—and operate by a different set of brand rules.
How do you brand thinking, advice and insight —all intangibles?
With consumer goods or manufacturing, customers can “experience” a product, they can taste it, wear it or drive it, and this offers more opportunities for differentiation. However, with an intangible based brand, creating an experience and ultimately building a brand is much more difficult. In investment management, the proposition rests largely on the thinking, insight and expertise of the managers and they are therefore chiefly responsible for conveying the brand to investors. It is important to identify and cultivate a brand idea that captures the essence of the “intangible”, is at the core of what the firm stands for, and that all can rally around.
How do you build an authentic brand experience when your audience is layered —sometimes its B2C, sometimes its B2B, sometimes it’s both and both at the same time?
Investment management brands are neither consumer brands or B2B brands, they’re different. Their primary audiences are a mix of professional buyers—financial advisors, plan sponsors, institutional consultants—and consumers with very different needs and expectations. They must be perceived as offering the deep insight and information required by professionals and at the same time instill a sense of trust and confidence with end investors. Adding to the challenge, is that all of this needs to be conveyed through a complex distribution system. Deep knowledge of the markets and investment products—from traditional to non-traditional—and a solid understanding of the nuances of various distribution channels is key to mapping out relevant propositions and communications.
Investment Management Layered Distribution
How do you build an investment brand when what investors are buying is a promise that their assets will grow and outperform, when the future lacks certainty and that promise is based upon past performance?
Customers and intermediaries alike are ultimately expecting that their assets will grow and they are being asked to believe that they will based on past performance and information. The problem is that the future is uncertain, promises are just that, and history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself. Therefore, clients need reasons other than history to believe that a firm will deliver. It ultimately comes down to trust. Crafting a brand of reliability, openness and confidence are keys to gaining that trust.
How do you build trust, because that’s what it takes, in an industry that is largely considered not trustworthy?
With the financial crisis came significant investor skepticism and lack of trust in financial institutions. It was a logical outgrowth. Rebuilding trust starts with uncovering the firm’s authentic identity and value and from there a compelling brand can be constructed.
The Keys to Building a Powerful Investment Management Brand
Developing an investment management brand takes not only an understanding of the complexities of the industry—intermingled audiences, complex distribution and nuanced products—but also the knowledge and expertise of brand-building.
Identify a core, unifying brand idea that embodies the purpose of the brand and the ultimate benefits to all that it engages. Brands are essentially about a firm’s identity, driven by purpose and meaning, and the connection that people make to that purpose and meaning. So, getting to the essence of a firm, who it is, what it believes, how it’s better or different than others and telling a credible, compelling story is how great brands are created.
Understand what each target audience needs to hear to engage. Because audiences are often layered and over-lapping, spend time developing a brand messaging strategy that communicates effectively to each important audience and at the same time builds common equity for the benefit of each product or service.
Tell a meaningful and differentiated story. For years, investment management firms stayed in a very narrow range of brand building—lackluster messages focused largely on performance, rock-star teams, and complex, at times mysterious, descriptions of who they are and what they provide. It became a maze of mirror images making it difficult to distinguish one firm from the next. So, the new rubric is about telling a true and meaningful “story” that is the surest route to clarity and differentiation.
Be consistent in all communications and behaviors. Again, investment management firms must appeal to a variety of different audiences. Add to this that each distribution channel has a distinct process and preferred system of communication. This condition offers ample opportunity for messaging to break down and ultimately dilute brand awareness and appreciation. To develop investor confidence and build brand equity, careful attention must be paid to consistency in communication and alignment with the brand messaging strategy.
Invest in building the brand. For a time, with good performance, generally content investors, reasonable compliance constraints and an intermediated sales process, many firms were reticent to develop a powerful brand. In fact, their strategy was to “stay under the radar”. Then the markets melted down in 2008 creating a fog of mistrust of the industry. This changed the game almost overnight with clients looking for reasons to believe beyond performance. This is where investing in a powerful, differentiated investment management brand is now an imperative.
Building a strong and enduring brand in the investment management business is both an art and a science. The pursuit involves two essential pieces; understanding the true and authentic identity of a firm to create powerful differentiation, and deep understanding of key audiences to unlock what they need to hear to engage. From this foundation, strong brand can grow.
For any questions, contact:
John K. Grace
President & Managing Partner
February 22, 2017 No Comments
The question is… can trust be revived in a brand that is seriously damaged? Almost every year there are brands that amaze us with incredible stupidity… mostly generated by a drive for bigger sales numbers. Volkswagen not only misled consumers and dealers about emissions and gas mileage claims, but
tried to make it a small and inconsequential issue until investigators uncovered an ever-growing circle of management and leaders who actually knew exactly what was going on. [Read more →]
September 30, 2016 No Comments
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May 20, 2015 No Comments
Intel just created its own proprietary corporate font to be easier to read in the global digital world. They call it “Intel Clear”. A smart move in a number of ways. First, it gave them the opportunity to assess the equity in their existing font and think through whether and how much to change. Second, It caused them to think about how their critical audiences, internal and external, national and international, should perceive Intel as the communications media evolve so dramatically and rapidly.
April 8, 2014 No Comments
Inertia is an amazingly powerful force, and “reason” often proves inadequate to overcome it. Think about how hard it is to get people to move their bank accounts even when it is clearly in their financial interests. Or why nearly three-quarters of all corporate change initiatives fail, no matter how well argued, or how compelling the business case.
Human behavior is hard to change, and this is one of the biggest obstacles facing businesses selling sustainable products and services. We believe that brands are uniquely well placed to help, because they can speak two languages – reason and story. And they can leverage the unusually powerful relationships they have with consumers.
November 12, 2013 No Comments
David Brooks, an Op-Ed Columnist at the New York Times writes a very interesting article about the differences between the use of and understanding of brands between the Americans and the Chinese. His premise is that the Chinese are not good at building brands that connect with consumers in the West despite the fact that they have the largest economy in the world. This will hinder their achievement of global economic dominance. He is right.
However, one of his notions is only partly correct and flies in the face of what great brands work hard at every day. Brooks believes that “People who create great brands are usually seeking some inner longing of their own…”. In this he is thinking about romantic notions of founder-led brands like Nike or Ralph Laruen.
What he is missing is that great business leaders spend a great deal of time and energy to understand their customers and their needs, and then address them in a way that builds an enduring relationship that can last a long time. In most cases it is the diligence and hard work requiredto build stronger relationships with consumers than competitors in every category that leads to sustainable market leadership.
Much of what Brooks writes about is very true, and he is astute to recognize as much as he does. Where he misses the mark is realizing that there is a process and method to establishing and building a strong brand that connects with key audiences that works on it’s own and is not necessarily founder led. Just look at a few minor brands like IBM, General Electric, BMW, New York Yankees, Mayo Clinic, etc. Sure each was founded by great thinkers and leaders, but they have evolved into very strong brands generations past founder longing.
Congrats to Brooks for recognizing how brand have become an engine of the Western economic growth. His basic premise is more than correct.
May 31, 2013 No Comments
In a recent Wall Street Journal article by Sumanthi Reddy on new theories about why people sweat when under stress… it made me think that there is a strong parallel with brands and how they react to difficult business situations. Scientists now believe that stress-triggered sweat plays a role in sending warning signals to people around us that something is wrong. This body odor conveys a lot of information from one individual to another.
Brands under stress can “sweat” too.
They can give off signals, much like odors, and we can sense that something is amiss. Take American Airlines as an example. They have been under stress in bankruptcy for quite a while. Not only have creditors been worried, but also travelers. So what did they do… they rebranded themselves with a new modern look. In some ways, we all smelled a rat. No, they haven’t really gotten much better… their service is as sparse as other carriers, and their equipment is not significantly better than others. So they put on some new lipstick. Now we know that it was part of a complete, quiet financial re-packaging ending up with a recent merger with US Airways. So their “stress sweat” was apparent. To some extent, this scent should be a signal for investors and creditors alike. [Read more →]
February 19, 2013 No Comments
And if it does survive, will it ever be as strong as it was again? It’s difficult to know for sure but one thing is clear: the marketing leadership at Hostess Brands had failed to nurture a brand that is undeniably an American icon with a value far greater than it’s $68 million year-to-date revenue. After all, how many brands can invoke nostalgia like Twinkies has in recent days? How many brands have such an impact on society that they end up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal or a feature on every major news program? Not many when you consider the thousands of brands out there, and yet, the marketing leadership at Hostess Brands has done little over the past few decades to understand, let alone capitalize on the equity.
Twinkies was introduced in 1933 by The Continental Baking Company in Inianapolis to utilize the strawberry shortcake machines that stood idle when strawberries were not in season. They were originally filled with a banana flavored cream but switched to vanilla cream during WWII when bananas were rationed. It was so popular that they never switched back.
November 20, 2012 No Comments
Most people today, especially those in marketing, understand the tremendous value of a great brand name. A distinctive name will get an audience’s attention, help position and distinguish a company in the marketplace, take the company into the future, offer good ROI, and galvanize employees. Many do not, however, realize just how difficult creating a unique, “ownable” brand name has become.
Name styles seem to change every decade or so. Years ago, most companies preferred – and were able to own – generic, descriptive names like International Business Machines, American Airlines, and Radio Corporation of America. Now, the trend seems to be a desire for names that are arbitrary, i.e., they have nothing to do with the business, service or product they represent. Think Apple, Java, Yahoo and Uber. (Although if you dig into the etymology of these names, you often discover they actually do have meaning to the company founders, be it an emotional connection or a favorite fruit or drink).
June 17, 2012 1 Comment
“Long-term brand equity and growth depends on our ability to successfully integrate and implement all elements of a comprehensive marketing program.” – Timm F Crull, Chairman & CEO of Nestle
Branding and public relations (PR) professionals have a great deal in common. Branding professionals develop and communicate a promise. PR professionals bring that promise to life through stories, case studies, videos, events and points-of-view. Despite the common ground, branding and PR professionals don’t always collaborate. In some cases, this is because accountabilities reside in different departments. In other cases, it’s because each discipline has its own way of doing things.
May 1, 2012 No Comments