I wrote in my last post about how financial planners need to find ways to avoid using challenges as excuses for poor marketing and the importance of starting simple before adding too much complexity to their marketing efforts. In this post, I want to focus on one specific challenge that many financial planners face when it comes to articulating and promoting their value: commoditization.
Commoditization can be defined as the process by which goods that have economic value and are distinguishable in terms of attributes (uniqueness or brand) end up becoming indistinguishable from their competition in the eyes of the market or consumers. Every lucrative profession must eventually face the specter of commoditization, as the success of individuals or organizations in an industry prompts a flood of new entrants looking to get in on the action.
And financial planning is far from immune. Even given the contraction in the industry and profession over the past decade, there were still more than 300,000 financial advisers in the U.S., including all channels (as of January 2017). Yes, this number includes all of the different tiers and types of “advisers,” and the case could be made that true financial planners are a cut above the rest. The case could also be made that a good portion of the American consumer public does not grasp that there’s a difference at all, much less what that difference is.
The mantle then falls to financial planners to dramatize that level of differentiation, not only as it pertains to separating themselves from competing planners, but also in helping consumers understand the problems you can help them solve. Yet, if that was easy, we wouldn’t have a commoditization problem in the first place. The process of finding differentiation can require profound soul-searching, and may force you to dig as deeply into the weaknesses in your practice as you delve into your strengths. You may even find that what got you here (your recipe for past success) won’t get you there, and that can be a tough pill to swallow.
That said, I believe it’s a process that’s worth your time, as knowing who you are, who you are not and why your clients should care will serve as the foundation of your marketing for years to come. The following are a few tips to help you get started.
Do you remember the Coke Zero advertisement in which a young man is shown in a variety of different situations asking “and?” when receiving a reward (like an ice cream cone)? (FACT: describing commercials always makes them sound far worse than they actually are, so there’s a link above to watch it). The commercial does an excellent job of visually and verbally illustrating Coke Zero’s tagline of “real Coke taste AND zero calories,” but is also a useful way to think about differentiation.
In other words, what’s your AND? What do you, or your firm, offer that makes you truly different? Many planners and even large financial services organizations are still providing prospective customers with a laundry list of benefits, with a few awards sprinkled in, and calling it “marketing.” These are often lists of the things that every organization or individual does: “creation of a personalized financial plan,” “maximizing client investments” or “minimizing taxes.” If a prospective client was being direct, they would likely respond to these messages by saying, “You had better do those things.”
Essentially, planners are focusing on the baseline, what’s expected, when they should be focused on what sets them apart. As your differentiator must be unique (obviously), I can’t tell you exactly what you will find, but I do believe that, as a true financial planner, the act of planning itself (and why you spend the time to do it) could play a significant role. To most consumers, financial planning is not about investment selection or rate of return—it’s about the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they have done the work to prepare to fund an uncertain future. This makes the financial planner much more than someone with whom they are completing a transaction; the planner becomes one of the few critical trusted confidantes that their client can call upon in a time of need.
Great marketing does not ask prospects to sift through the message to find the benefit or feature that speaks to them. Great marketing shows the prospect that what the organization or individual cares about most is solving their most important problem. Find that problem, articulate your solution, and you will have found your AND.
Dan Martin is the Director of Marketing for the Financial Planning Association, the principal professional organization for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM (CFP®) professionals, educators, financial services professionals and students who seek advancement in a growing, dynamic profession. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @DanW_Martin and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/danmartinmarketing.