“Differentiation,” the action or process of differentiating, is a term that gets thrown around ad nauseam in business and marketing. It’s used so often that I worry we’ve begun to file it away as yet another buzz word that people say to sound smart, but that has little meaning.
I fervently hope that this is not the case, as I believe differentiation lies at the very heart of what separates successful marketing from mediocrity. That may sound harsh, but in an environment in which we are all exposed to an unprecedented volume of advertising and promotional content, it’s more difficult than ever to stand out.
It’s one of the most frustrating things about marketing today, especially for small business owners. You have something important to say, and something even more important to give to your clients, but you can’t get a word in edgewise. You can and should be perturbed! But you also can’t just give up on marketing for the very same reasons—you provide a critical service and are committed to doing the right thing and people should know about it.
So what do you do? To begin, let’s set aside the term differentiation—it’s too industrial and jargonized for our purposes. What it really means is finding answers to the question of “Why you?” Why should your prospective clients choose to work with you, instead of: a) investing on their own; b) getting free portfolio support from their 401(k) provider; or c) working with another planner?
Writing out your answers to this question will help you realize that a good portion of how you’re currently representing yourself and your business on your website, in your marketing materials and on social media isn’t helping you stand out—it’s actually making you blend in. The most common example of this in the profession is the ubiquitous list of “services provided” on nearly every financial planner’s website.
Yes, it’s important for current and prospective clients to understand what you do, but if it’s not far less prominent than who you really are or why you do what you do, you’re not only doing your business a disservice, you’re also benefiting your competitors. Stop showing people why you’re the same and start focusing on why you’re different!
There is a bit of an art to this, and it does take courage, but I believe every financial planner can at least take the following steps necessary to reveal their true selves to the world.
1.) Take a Stand. Doug Kessler, one of my favorite marketers, gave a presentation at Content Marketing World in 2015 that has really stuck with me. The title was, “How to Practice Insane Honesty in Your Marketing,” and the premise was that volunteering weaknesses in your products and services can actually bring in more customers than focusing only on the positives.
For most financial planners, going all in on that type of strategy would be an incredible leap. Starting with one small component of the concept, however, is inherently doable. For example, one of the pros Doug shared about “insane honesty” is that it alienates less likely customers or clients. Traditional marketing tenets state that we should never alienate anyone, and that our job is to make everyone feel good about our products and services.
I’m with Doug on this one, though—you can certainly attempt to position yourself and your business as being all things to all people, but that tends to backfire. In reality, you often end up casting such a wide net and staying so close to the middle of the road that you start to blend in with everyone else. In his presentation, he used the example of Hans Brinker Hotel in Amsterdam which, without waiting for the media or consumers to do it, went ahead and labeled itself as the “Worst Hotel in the World.”
As an extreme budget motel with small, dingy rooms and massively outdated appliances, the company knew it was never going to woo travelers seeking a nice family vacation or those who routinely stay at the Ritz-Carlton. So, Hans Brinker chose to alienate those people entirely through its marketing and advertising efforts.
While the ads undoubtedly turned away more discerning clientele, it resonated deeply with the company’s target market: young, extremely budget-conscious travelers looking for an all-night party in Amsterdam. Each advertisement reads like it was created expressly for these types of travelers, and the response was incredible—Hans Brinker quickly became one of Amsterdam’s most popular hotels (with its target crowd, of course).
Take a page out of the Hans Brinker book by taking a stand and telling your current and prospective clients what you truly believe in, why that matters to you and what you intend to do about it. Yes, you could certainly lose clients and alienate others through this approach, but were those clients your ideal clients in the first place? Were the others ever going to be your clients if they don’t identify with your values?
In today’s hyper-aware and distrustful world, talking about how great you are no longer signals confidence; it can actually signal weakness. Taking a stand based on your most important core values and using that stand as a filter for who you want as clients and who you don’t might sound heretical, but in practice, may be what sets you apart from your competitors.
2.) Your Clients Understand What Sets You Apart—Use Their Words. Take a moment to review the “Who We Are” or “About Us” sections of your website. If you’ve spent a lot of time and effort here, and you think that the content adequately represents you and your business, congratulations! For most planners, however, this isn’t the case. These sections are often treated as throwaways and populated with copy from old marketing brochures listing services offered and benefits provided. At best, this hurts the business from a search optimization perspective, and at worst, it completely turns off interested prospective clients from pursuing further inquiries.
When executed well, these sections can be a powerful and relatively low-effort way for you to tell your story and position for the clients who you want to work with. The best part? You don’t need to be a writer or marketing genius to put this content together. Your best resource—your top clients—are sitting right across from you.
First, identify what you mean by “top clients.” Your ideal clients aren’t those with the most assets; they are the clients you most enjoy working with. Want more clients like them? Ask them outright what they like most about working with you and your staff, why they chose you and/or plan to stay with you down the road. I can almost guarantee you’ll hear things that you never considered yourself, spoken or written in a way that will resonate with other clients who are looking for the very same things.
Yes, you have to be careful with testimonials, so don’t use this content for that purpose. Instead, gather the information and use the main themes, terms and phrases to populate your “Who We Are” or “About Us” sections, and start driving people to these areas with your social media or email marketing efforts.
3.) Find (Or Re-Discover) Your “Thing.” As a financial planner, there are many things you do every day to prepare for client meetings, conduct the meetings themselves and to craft and manage financial plans—and you likely do many of them well. Of the many things you do well, which one is your “thing?” Many of the skills and services that make you a good financial planner are the very same skills that other advisers and planners would list as their strengths. So the question then becomes, what makes you great?
Again, if this were an easy question, there would be no need for marketers or a burgeoning marketing industry. I can’t tell you the answer, as it’s a question that requires deep personal introspection on your part, but I can tell you that I’ve been surprised by how often someone’s “thing” exists outside of the day-to-day work of their profession.
For example, the greatest business leaders are rarely lauded for their tactical skill in any given area. Instead, we are in awe of their authenticity, empathy, emotional intelligence or the ability to make and stand by bold decisions in the face of significant opposition. It’s the same for marketers in many ways—the excellent public speakers, humorists and collaborators are positioned above even the strongest tacticians.
Don’t limit yourself to just your skills as a financial planner. Ask yourself: What makes me a person that people not only want to work with, but be around? What cause or issue am I so passionate about that I volunteer my time outside of work to local programs and organizations? If you asked my friends what they like most about me, what would they say? What makes me happiest, whether in or outside of work?
These types of questions may spark an answer, and the useful thing about a “thing” is you’ll know it when you hear it. Finding your “thing” should be a wonderful moment, regardless of whether you’re re-discovering it or finding it for the first time. It should make you feel powerful, energized and awaken or re-awaken that confidence that says, “Oh this? Yeah, this is my thing.”
I’ll leave you with a quote from Debbie Millman, author of Brand Thinking and How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, who said, “A brand is simply a set of beliefs. And if you don’t create a set of beliefs around your products or services, well, you stand for nothing—you have no values and no vision.” So get out there, take a stand and tell the world not just what you do, but who you are, and why it’s time for them to pay attention.