Creating a financial services marketing strategy is a straightforward exercise. Define your unique value proposition, identify your target audience, articulate your key messages around issues, features, and benefits, get everything approved by compliance, and distribute marketing campaigns through an omni-channel communications plan where your Ideal Client plays. It’s so easy you can find hundreds of marketing plan templates online. Pick one and fill it out.
Completing a financial services marketing strategy is simple but NOT easy.
After 20 years of immersion in financial advisory, accounting, HR, and consulting firms, I have seen firms fly high and I have watched firms crash and burn. All of the firms had highly educated people, great client relationships, and money coming in the door, but so many of them never reached and/or sustained their potential—financially or reputationally.
Growing a financial services company, like all service companies, is hard.
The trust-based relationships, intangible, fungible nature of solutions, matrix structures, competitive landscapes, and high-performance cultures make professional and financial services firms unique.
These firms attract some of the best minds in the business. The firms are savvy, global, and progressive. The real issue is that, while professional firms provide a great model for the modern organization, they are plagued with a unique organizational dysfunction. I call this imperfection “BS of PS” and it severely impacts a financial services firm’s ability to develop a cohesive marketing strategy.
This “marketing problem” in most organizations is the result of this organizational dysfunction. Until firms attack the right problem, they will not develop a successful marketing strategy. Even more, if this issue is not addressed strategically, the problem leads to suboptimal growth and can cost a firm its soul.
Marketing Strategy 101: Financial Services Sector
First, your marketing strategy has two goals:
In brand study after brand study, preference for professional services brands (financial services, account, law, consulting, IT) is driven by 3 things:
Each of these is critical, but the weight placed on each will differ by buyer. However, your marketing strategy must solidly address and demonstrate each in your user experience. The BS of PS gets in the way of articulating, creating, and executing a marketing strategy because it can inhibit the strategic choices that need to be made around each of these preference drivers.
The BS of PS can damage a number of critical “upstream” strategic enablers that undermine the firm’s marketing efforts and growth potential. The areas and issues include:
Culture: The firm does not reward client centricity, sales prowess, or intellectual capital development behaviors properly, if at all.
Market Focus: The firm lacks focus (markets, clients, solutions) and allows its individual practices to race in opposite directions in pursuit of individual growth.
Brand: The firm focuses on building awareness of its brand instead of its more important relevance.
Core Capabilities: the firm narrowly defines its capabilities in terms of its functional discipline, instead of its client value and broader business acumen.
Intellectual Capital: the firm does not differentiate its thinking; it follows the herd and avoids the risk of stating an alternative POV or does not set high expectations for thought leadership development.
Ideal Client: The firm has not identified an ideal client who values the differentiated value that the firm offers and chases “bad revenue.”
Solutions: The firm’s solutions are firm-centric, not client-centric, are overly complex, and difficult for the client to understand and buy confidently.
When the “product” is people, and knowledge workers, in particular, each of these areas is inextricably linked and shapes, not only marketing strategy, but sales and delivery strategy as well. Weakness in one area impacts several others. If you want to develop an effective financial services marketing strategy, you have to make sure that it has fertile ground in which to germinate. The key to developing it is engineering as much of The BS of PS out of your firm as possible.
So how does a firm remove or reduce the effect of The BS of PS? Let’s lay a foundation for developing a successful marketing strategy and then address each of the areas above so you can create the proper marketing techniques.
Our 7 most powerful marketing strategies
Let’s take each one of the enabling areas and explore the approach to addressing it for maximum effectiveness in your marketing strategy. As you address each one of these growth enablers honestly, your firm will get clarity on the proper marketing strategy for your firm and mutually reinforce these interrelated growth-building blocks. Let’s begin with the most important area, Culture.
1. Create a marketing culture: Marketing strategy begins and ends with culture
Brand equals reputation and reputation equals behaviors. Culture is the fuel for behavior. After all, you get the behaviors you reward. Your culture is the result of your leadership values and strategic choices.
The Expertise your firm provides, the Results you deliver, and the Simpatico your clients experience reflect your Cultural DNA. That is who you are and the unique way you consistently “show up” in the marketplace. Most buyers can distinguish a Goldman Sachs person from an Edward Jones person pretty easily whether through a meeting, webinar, chatbot or social media platform.
Your firm’s culture will either enable or limit what you can do in your marketing strategy. For example, you cannot do content marketing if your culture neither values nor rewards thought leadership creation. There is no well from which to draw. As a result, your firm will lack a unique point of view and you will be dependent upon other thought leaders in the financial services industry to define the market and the issues. You will be challenged to demonstrate differentiated Expertise. It’s OK to not be a thought leader. It does, however, mean that you have to find an alternative approach to differentiation
2. Focus on one market: Your marketing strategy must define the market you will serve
One of the most common pitfalls I see in financial institutions is an attempt to grow everything and/or be all things to all people. After all, no one wants to limit their opportunities for growth. These marketing plans collapse under their own weight. An ironclad law of branding is “The specialist always wins.” If you want to win in the market, you must choose a market on which to focus and over-resource your marketing strategy in that area. Your area of focus can be an industry, a buyer, a solution, a capability, a geography, a mindset, or some combination of the above. You simply need to choose one and make owning it your firm’s goal.
3. Build brand relevance: Focus on building your brand’s relevance, not on building awareness
Common refrains I hear from leaders of financial services firms include, “We’re great but nobody knows us.” or “We can win against anybody. We just need more at-bats.” Leaders feel that if more people were simply aware of the firm they would be more successful. Perhaps, but many times that belief is simply not true. Firms often have more awareness than they believe but buyers simply do not engage them because they do not see the firms as relevant to their needs. Awareness is about name recognition. Relevance is about having “permission to play” in a market. If you have not demonstrated the requisite Expertise, Results, and Simpatico in a buyer’s mind, you have no permission to play. Marketing must build trust. This is why your marketing strategy must relentlessly focus on a market and demonstrate a superior combination of Expertise, Results, and Simpatico through your customer experience. Demonstrate Relevance time and time again and you achieve both brand Awareness and Brand Preference, one of your marketing strategy’s key goals.
4. Exploit your core capabilities: Define and strengthen the skills that lead to the ultimate value your clients purchase
Firms define their skills in terms of professional discipline: strategy, accounting, tax, investing, trusts, etc. In doing so, firms too narrowly define what it is that they do and, therefore, what clients are actually buying (growth, efficiency, risk mitigation, financial performance, etc). In addition, firms neglect the skills that truly differentiate or empower them to serve their chosen Market Focus because clients don’t “buy” them.
For example, firms often identify c-level executives as a Market Focus in their marketing strategies because executives possess bigger budgets, more decision authority, move faster, and have more brand cache. Unfortunately, firms lack anyone (or enough) people capable of having a strategic conversation at the executive level. It makes no sense to target a market for which you do not have the requisite capability to attack. You must choose another market, build the capability internally, or go outside and acquire the skills. In its most simple form, Core Capabilities are the opposite side of the coin of the issue your client is trying to overcome. It makes no sense to develop a brilliant marketing communication that sets an expectation that your Core Capabilities cannot deliver.
5. Develop intellectual capital NOT content: Differentiate your thinking
It is asking a lot of any marketing strategy to differentiate a firm that lacks original thinking, chooses to follow the herd, or avoids the risk of stating an alternative point of view (POV). Clients listen to and pay experts that have a clear, distinguished POV. Your clients and potential clients want to know what you think about a given issue. Many firms split hairs when expressing their opinions. They either do not want to restrain an opportunity to win business by offending a prospect with a conflicting opinion or cannot articulate a cohesive point of view because the firm is of multiple minds internally. Leaders feel it is better to play it safe. Top firms do not play “safe.” Intellectual capital precedes and informs the content strategy.
The path to building a brand’s relevance goes through Intellectual Capital manifested in a clear point of view. Your intellectual capital is the fuel for your search engine optimization and social media marketing. If you do not have a strong point of view, you will not differentiate your brand, build relevance, or be the preferred brand in the market. Your Intellectual Capital’s goal is to educate, inspire the interested, reduce indecision, compel action, and build permission to play in your markets of choice. Your Culture must set high expectations for Intellectual Capital development and your marketing strategy must bring it to life. Set a goal to become an influencer in your industry from LinkedIn to industry associations. That means developing a POV and letting it permeate every touchpoint in your marketing campaigns and marketing tactics from email marketing to social media to SEO.
6. Define your ideal client: Identify the client who values the value your firm provides
Strong brands by definition simultaneously attract and repel. As I said, a financial services firm cannot differentiate its brand and build preference by trying to be all things to all people. As Bob Dylan famously said, “You have to serve someone.”
Your Ideal Client is that buyer who 1) Values the value your firm provides (i.e. is willing to pay a premium for it) 2) Shares your worldview (i.e. POV on an issue and how to solve it 3) Reflects a market large enough to fuel your growth ambitions. Selecting an Ideal Client is critical in setting marketing strategy for two reasons. First, you do not want to waste marketing dollars and resources convincing buyers to see the world the way you do. You simply want to speak your POV into the world and attract those that already share it. Second, choosing an Ideal Client allows you to deeply understand the buyer, get smarter at applying your Core Capabilities, and achieve economies of scale that lead to greater speed, higher quality, and stronger profitability. Having an Ideal Client makes it easier for everyone in the organization to identify and serve our chosen Market.
Your ideal client will have demographic dimensions (age, gender, income, assets, etc.). More importantly, he/she will have psychographic dimensions (Millennial vs GenZ vs GenX, views on money, and using financial services providers, and financial advisors). Your Ideal Client will be a multi-variant combination of attributes that align with your firm’s culture, POV, and Core Capabilities.
7. Simplify the solutions you provide: Make your financial products client-centric, simple to understand, and easy to buy
Financial services marketing strategy often begins in the wrong place–—with Solutions and financial products like credit cards, or insurance. As a result, the firm’s marketing plan becomes the proverbial hammer looking for a nail. The hero of your marketing strategy is NOT your solutions, you, or your firm. It is your client. This is why Intellectual Capital and your POV are so important. Together they demonstrate that you listen and understand your client and his problem. Your marketing plan should communicate that your prospect and you agree on the problem being solved. As the old saying goes, “People don’t buy drill bits. They buy holes.”
Marketing 20 services is confusing and leads a buyer to rightly believe that you really are not the best at what you do because you are doing too many things (i.e. you have NOT demonstrated Relevance). Recall the specialist always wins. Keep your marketing strategy primarily focused on the key client issue(s) you want to be known for solving (i.e. your Core Capability). Share a well-reasoned and differentiated POV on the issue and the Solutions will logically fall out of the process.
Marketing trends come and go, but one thing never changes. A financial institution cannot create an effective marketing strategy unless it understands how its own innate organizational dynamics (i.e. its BS of PS) affects the strategic choices and execution of the strategy. A firm must first engineer out this “dysfunction” in critical, upstream, and inter-related growth-building blocks to attract new customers. Then, the marketing strategy can draw together these blocks.
Your Marketing Strategy’s goals are to build preference and deliver sufficient leads for growth goals. Preference is built by demonstrating Expertise, Results, and Simpatico. Your Intellectual Capital ties these three areas together and should educate, inspire the interested, reduce indecision, compel action, and build permission to play in your markets of choice. Intellectual Capital is the fuel and its accompanying POV is the voice that makes you stand out in the market. The result is more leads.
Your POV voice builds Simpatico because each interaction communicates “how you sell me is how you serve me.” Your Market Focus allows you to concentrate on clients with a manageable set of considerations and to offer client-centric, concrete, evidence-based Solutions. Without explicitly promoting your products, your prescriptions facilitate progress along a purchase path leading to a solution that you are uniquely able to provide.
Your Delivery Strategy takes your Core Capability and turns it into tangible, repeatable, and Solutions with scalable Results. By recognizing and applying your Intellectual Capital to your Solution set, you get better at solving your Ideal Clients’ problems and are asked to solve more of them.
This interdependence is why you cannot develop an effective financial service marketing strategy until you have made strategic choices that address the BS of PS that exists in all professional services companies.