When she took on her duties as Advertising and Design Coordinator at Qualified Financial Services (QFS) a year ago, Nina Hu, extensively researched the financial services distribution industry's approach to marketing and branding. She has a word for it: generic.
A bachelor of design graduate of Ontario College of Art & Design, she observed that, overall, many managing general agencies and financial advisors "have very, very generic marketing."
Their advertisements and websites are frequently quite similar, she explains. "They are strictly professional and not very creative... Without their logo, they all look the same!"
Meanwhile, she found that some financial institutions are doing strong, distinctive advertising, in particular she was impressed by Scotiabank and ING Direct. "They're doing brilliant advertising... I wanted to follow in the footsteps of those institutions."
Part of Ms. Hu's work at QFS has included developing the company's new branding. Another part of her job is to offer QFS advisors guidance with their own marketing efforts.
Financial advisors often sell the same products, such as life or disability insurance, but there is still a way to stand out, she emphasizes. They can do this by finding their own personal brand, which is the basis of any good marketing program, she adds.
How do you do this? "Basically I would say to strip everything away for now. Don't worry about brochures, don't worry about the advertisements ...or other marketing materials... First, each individual advisor has to sit down and find their brand - who they are. They need to find the one thing that differentiates them."
Ms. Hu says she is surrounded by financial advisors and they are certainly not a generic group of individuals. "I can tell you that not any of them are alike. They all have something special, one point that makes them stand out. They should use that. They should use that as their brand."
Once they've found this brand, "you can develop a tagline and then your communications pieces will have a fundamental point - you have a concept. All your ads will have that concept. All your brochures will have that concept. Everything will fall into place."
An example of a concept could be someone's specialty area. One advisor who Ms. Hu worked with did business with a lot of female dental professionals and occupational therapists. They built her brand around this specialty area and the fact that she was a female advisor working with women."
Another advisor had a passion for rowing. He had already built "his whole brand on that one thing about him. So, basically, just find something that expresses your heart. Find that point and turn it into who your company is. Do you work with charities? Do you have a speciality in the industry, something that you are really good at?" she asks.
Some advisors will list on the back of their business cards all the products that they sell, she observes. They don't need to do that. They should say one thing and if it intrigues the client, the client will want to know more, she advises.
In the case of QFS' rebranding, Ms. Hu says she "sat down with everyone here and tried to put into a concept what they strive to do." The concept that they developed is: "We're an MGA, but we're not a typical MGA. What we strive to do is to not be like all the others. So every ad spot has a different reason why we're different."
She adds that a branding process should be done with the help of a marketing professional. She suggests advisors ask for referrals to connect with such a person. "Ask your MGA if they have someone (internally) or if they're working with an ad agency to do their own ads. And there are agencies everywhere. It can be costly, but you probably don't have to work with Toronto's biggest agency." She adds that there are still a lot of smaller agencies out there and many freelance writers, graphic designers and website designers who can help.
Has she come across advisors who don't see the point of branding and marketing? She says she has met many advisors who haven't done much marketing, but they do see a point to it. Often though, they don't know how to go about it. "That's why I say work with a professional in marketing because advisors can't do all of it themselves."
Sometimes advisors don't invest in their own branding because their company is small, perhaps they work alone or with just one other person and they don't think branding is something that they can do. "They see branding as something huge companies like Apple or Nike do and think 'well we're not that.'"
Ms. Hu says, "I don't think that matters. A company is a company. The basic design elements, the fundamentals of design or branding are still there no matter the size and no matter the industry."
Often, instead of developing their own distinctive branding financial advisors will purchase generic business logos and business cards, etc. from an office supply store. "They pay $300 and get everything designed there." That's not enough, she believes. "I think that no matter the size, investing in branding is best in the long run."