Peanut butter and jelly combine to make terrific sandwiches. But they aren’t the same thing.
Similarly, branding and investment management marketing work together to promote an investment management firm, yet the important distinctions between them are often misunderstood or ignored.
Marketing vs. Branding
I’ve written before about how some firms do a poor job of differentiating between their investment philosophy and investment process, or marketing versus sales. It suggests muddled thinking about core business processes - not a good thing.
In a similar way, branding and marketing are often conflated in ways that are self-defeating; namely, some firms hire branding consultants when what they really need is a marketing agency.
Branding is an activity that influences the way an investment manager wants to be perceived. A killer website, elegant fonts, a slick logo, memorable tagline – these are a few of the essentials of a branding effort.
Marketing, on the other hand, should be a demonstration of an investment manager’s value proposition; one that ultimately converts prospects into leads, and leads into clients. It is accomplished by:
- creating great content that’s reliably delivered to clients and prospects
- completely and comprehensively populating industry databases
- communications that answer questions, solve problems, and are highly useful
- timely performance updates
- attribution analysis
All of these activities signal to a client or prospect that an investment manager is going about their business in a way that’s thoughtful, professional, and highly differentiated.
Certainly an argument can be made that branding vs. marketing is more than simply "perception vs. reality," yet I think it’s still a useful framework for comparison.
For Most, Marketing is the Key
When choosing a significant other, which quality is more important: looks or personality? I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to suggest that both are important for the long-term health of a relationship, but prioritizing looks over personality reflects... poorly.
So it is with branding and marketing, though (as in relationships), it depends on a firm’s individual goals.
For firms looking to increase their lead generation and grow AUM, marketing is the way to go. For firms with an already-successful marketing strategy, one that’s produced AUM at or near the firm’s capacity constraints, then adding a more formal, aggressive branding effort may be appropriate.
The Role of a Branding Effort
Most of the marketing advice I offer is a variation of:
“Focus on what you audience wants to hear, rather than what you want to say.”
Branding, it seems to me, is the place for firms to take a more firm-focused approach. In other words,
“Here is how we want to be perceived.”
Branding is the packaging that surrounds your marketing - logos, colors, images, taglines - but without the client and prospect-oriented marketing strategy, all the branding in the world won’t help.
Apple has one of the best brands in the world, but if all of their products were derivative of what’s already on the market, “Think Different” would be a joke.
In short, branding refines perceptions, while marketing actively creates a process by which a firm can grow its AUM.
Branding is Important, but Marketing and Sales are the Vital Functions
The primary focus for most investment management firms should be:
- a clear articulation of how their value proposition benefits clients over the long term, then
- a demonstration of that value through a great content strategy and world-class client service.
In truth, hiring a branding agency does very little to help small- to mid-sized investment managers get and convert leads into clients.
Lead generation and conversion is a sales and marketing function. They are far and away the biggest non-investment issue confronting most asset managers, irrespective of the market niche.
Differentiation via Demonstration
Branding and marketing do share one key goal: establishing differentiation. But contrary to what many branding experts will assert, branding isn’t what determines customer/client loyalty – what we do in the service of our prospects and clients is the only way to win that loyalty.
This isn't to suggest that clients and prospects can’t form deep attachments to those brands, it's just that those brands must represent reality.
For example, let's say that a firm wants to rebrand itself. After the branding agency does some market research, they determine "Clients First" is a suitable tagline/concept around which to build the asset manager's brand. After all, it's a good, catchy idea that resonates with the asset manager's core buyer personas.
But if the firm doesn't return emails or calls promptly, only reaches out quarterly, and the content on the site is derivative, sparse, and thoughtless, it is tough to reconcile "Clients First" with the firm’s real-world behavior.
You can “brand” yourself all you want, but unless the underlying business performance is there, it all rings hollow - cynical, even.
Plenty of firms have great brands in addition to thoughtful marketing and aggressive sales. These are the successful firms that grow over time, irrespective of their investment performance. They can deliver below-average returns because they take care of their clients and prospects in other ways that enable their businesses to grow.
Conclusion: Making them work together
Understand that branding is, essentially, a luxury that should never supersede a firm’s marketing effort. It can contribute, certainly, but what you say should never eclipse what you do.
If growing AUM is your firm’s primary goal, spend resources on your marketing. Branding agencies aren’t there to help with lead generation and conversion – that’s not their function. Branding is there to make you look good and help your clients and prospects to form a deeper emotional attachment to your firm.
And in practice, many outsourced investment management marketing firms, such as DQCOMM or third party marketers, perform some branding as part of our overall service. As I said earlier, the two activities are closely related.
Branding and investment management marketing both have an important role over the long term. If a firm first has...
- developed a sound marketing message and strategy that clearly and unequivocally demonstrates its value proposition, and
- is able to articulate exactly how clients benefit from their business approach
... a branding consultant can then help to optimize how those things can be better received and internalized by clients and prospects.
So know yourself and your business, then choose to allocate your resources where they will have the greatest impact on your firm’s top line goals.