Building the brand of you

By Jeff Thorsteinson | February 1, 2006 | Last updated on February 1, 2006
6 min read

(February 2006) Do you need to be a branded advisor? It’s an important question to ask yourself today. Why? Because the financial services industry is becoming increasingly commoditized. Yet, while many advisors are oblivious to this fact as they work harder to earn less money, top producers are doing something about it. And the results are clear: increasing incomes with a steady stream of new opportunities. These advisors don’t compete on products or fees — nor do they feel like they have a hand tied behind their back at the office.

So what’s the secret? How do you brand yourself? Oh sure, it’s easy to talk about branding when you’re talking about a tangible product — a can of pop, for example, or a car, or a washing machine. But when it comes to financial services, we’re dealing with intangibles. Do you "brand" the client experience? Your solutions? Or is your brand based on your firm’s reputation?

Certainly, branding touches on all these things. But going that route can become too scientific and expensive because it usually involves hiring a consultant to help you. In a world where the cynical, jaded, skeptical consumer approaches almost every brand with suspicion, the most successful brand is a real person. The more real you are, the more successful you’ll be. And therein lies the key to branding success for financial professionals.

An example will clarify my point. Let me introduce you to an advisor I met in Vancouver while I was facilitating YouFoundation’s Brand Builder workshop:

The branded advisor Barry Greenfield is a financial planner who’s been in business for over 25 years. He has a successful practice based in the Greater Vancouver area. He handles insurance and financial planning for about 120 clients of moderate wealth, all of whom have been carefully screened for a "fit" before coming into the practice. He has an intensely loyal client base with an extraordinarily high retention rate.

What’s the secret to this success? Branding. Barry is successful precisely because of branding. Not his product offering, his process, or his commitment to service — he’s branded himself. Because of Barry’s unique branding efforts, clients know who Barry is and what he stands for, both in his personal and his professional life. They see him as honest, upfront, and on their side. This has led to an extraordinarily deep relationship with his clients that often spans generations.

A different kind of branding Mind you, the kind of branding Barry does isn’t the kind you usually read about in the marketing magazines. You see, before he was a financial professional, Barry was a professional musician. He recorded a number of albums, and had a string of hits in the early 70s. He’s written songs with some of the superstars of Canadian music, including Randy Bachman and Buffy St. Marie. He’s been on tour with Supertramp, John Lee Hooker, and even Cheech and Chong. Suffice it to say, when it comes to music, Barry is about as professional as it gets.

During the workshop, Barry asked whether or not he could build a brand around his passion for music. Armed with this "permission" to meld the passions of music and "helping people", he planned out his future. Eighteen months later, without the use of professionals helping him, he used the workshop materials to incorporate music as a foundation of his brand.

Barry started hosting a number of client appreciation "concerts." After an hour-long reception, Barry picked up his guitar and played for clients. The phenomenal response by his clients led him to book similar events, and put on a small concert at Vancouver’s 500 seat Rothstein Theatre. In time, Barry returned to the recording studio, where he cut a new album. Now he’s booked a number of concert dates to showcase his new songs. His "exclusive" audience has the opportunity to see them first.

This invitation to share something very special with Barry has reaped rewards for his financial practice. "I’ve always been a very personal advisor," Barry admits. "Sharing my music was just an extension of that." By showing clients his personal side, Barry hoped to demonstrate qualities that clients are looking for in a financial planner. "All clients really want [in an advisor] is integrity and honesty. Not salesmanship." For him, the strategy worked. Clients brought friends to concerts. They told their friends how happy they were with Barry. That led to referrals.

To Barry, this is a very natural process. "Clients like to know who their advisor is. What their life has been like," he explains. I think it’s one of the best branding strategies I’ve ever seen.

Success is what you make it Now, Barry’s definition of success isn’t for everyone. After all, he doesn’t have a big corner office, or a large staff, or a fancy brass sign on his door with an impressive title on it. But Barry’s ability to work the way he wants, as much as he wants, with whom he wants ? that’s about as close as you can get to success in this industry. Barry’s branding efforts give him the time to pursue his passion for music, while his passion for music leads great clients to his financial practice. It’s a perfect match. So what can we learn from Barry’s branding efforts?

Follow your passion A brand doesn’t have to be all-business, all-the-time. Barry’s brand is successful precisely because it’s based on his passion, not business. By shifting the focus of his marketing onto his music, Barry focuses the prospect on character (rather than process, product offering, etc.). The personal nature of Barry’s songs gives the prospect a chance to see what Barry’s about. In essence, Barry’s passion for music leads clients to his door.

Be authentic Brands work best when they’re authentic. Barry’s brand works for him precisely because there is no difference between "Barry the brand" and "Barry the person." When Barry plays, he bares his soul, so to speak — there’s no pretension, falsehoods, or salesmanship involved. This authenticity naturally leads clients and prospects to see Barry as someone who’s genuine and honest.

Break down the barriers Many professionals make a division between their professional and their personal lives. And most of the time, it works, but this strategy requires the use of a consultant. The result is an increase in cost, and some extra time to work into the brand personality. Barry’s success demonstrates how one of the best ways to form long-lasting client relationships is to build long-lasting personal relationships. So go ahead and connect with clients on a personal level. Show them what you’re passionate about. Invite them to an event that matters to you, and tell them why. Don’t be afraid to show clients your personal side once in awhile — it will help your business.

Know what you want from business (and from life!) Beyond the branding, Barry’s success really boils down to one thing — he knows what he wants from his business. Before he started branding, Barry thought a long time about who he wanted to work with, and how he wanted to work with them. He knew right away that he wanted to work with a small group of clients. He wanted to know them intimately. And he wanted to make an immediate and lasting impact on their lives. Even if your goals are 180 degrees from Barry’s, take a page from his book and treat your business goals just as seriously.

At the end of the day, the best brands are simply an extension of you. Barry Greenfield is successful because he knows that clients want to work with a real person. If you’re having difficulty building a brand around your business, perhaps it’s time to take step back and brand yourself from the inside out.

Jeff Thorsteinson is the creator of the YouFoundation, an organization that helps investment advisors build world-class practices through innovative concepts, tools, and systems since 1993. With over 3,000 investment advisor marketing projects and business cases behind him, Jeff has become a well respected speaker in the industry and over the last 3 years, delivered his practice-building programs to thousands of financial advisors throughout Canada. Contact or 1 800-223-9332, ext. 1, for more information about YouFoundation, or visit the website at


Jeff Thorsteinson