PANC 2014: Differentiating Your Brand

Ranging over a number of factors that impact branding and differentiation, panelists at the 2014 PANC in Orlando, Florida, discussed what builds a retirement plan adviser's brand.

How best to develop a brand owes a huge amount to the pioneers of this business, who created brands where none existed, said Charlie Ruffel, founder and director of Asset International. The role of retirement specialist adviser has grown in a remarkably short amount of time, and created an extraordinary momentum for the industry. “The role retirement partners play is well understood,” Ruffel said, “and has changed our whole industry so much for the better.”

A live poll showed the vast majority of the audience (88%) at PANC said they specialize in retirement plans and use them as the core of their value proposition. Most (92%) said their value proposition includes services outside the three Fs (fees, funds and fiduciaries), and most (82%) said they believe their value proposition is unique, compared to their competitors, with the most consistent answer (54%) pointing to the firm’s service model as the thing that most sets it apart from the competition. Other factors included pricing, investment research capability and fiduciary services.

“I do think brand matters, because it really is the outcome of the collective actions of what we do as a firm,” said Rick Shoff, managing director of CAPTRUST Financial Advisors. “What we do is our brand. It can have an impact on people that will influence other people—and it doesn't always happen when we are in the room.”

“It’s extremely important to differentiate yourself,” said Randy Long, founder and managing principal of SageView Advisory Group. “In smaller firms you are the brand. It’s the service model and the value you bring to individual clients.”

Being independent and conflict-free are still important, but they are the price of admission, Shoff said. “It’s harder to get in the game nowadays. Not every ticket gets you in the same seat. Plan sponsors definitely value not only that we are specialists, but that we have a proven and sustainable business, and we’ve been doing this for a long time.”

Shoff noted that reputation becomes even more important since the hiring process is now generally conducted through requests for proposals (RFPs). “Being able to demonstrate depth and stability really matters,” he said. “We get to the finals 82% of the time, and we win 60%—and a lot of that has to do with how the plan sponsors now view us.”

Bill Chetney, a panelist and CEO of Global Retirement Partners, said it wasn’t so long ago that plan sponsors asked if they even needed an adviser. That has certainly changed, and he feels the marketplace has fully embraced the need for an adviser and consultant. “But in order to differentiate yourself and position yourself, you definitely need to have an area of specialization,” he said. Simply being a retirement specialist is not enough. Specialization in 403(b) plans or 457 plans, or specializing in a particular region or city where the adviser has a number of other clients is necessary, Chetney said, “or some other connection that draws you together.”

The brand of the individual is just as important as the brand of a firm, according to Chetney. “People buy from the person in front of them,” he said.

Most important is the connection you forge with the committee or the folks you are presenting to, Long said. “A brand will get you in the door, but at the end of the day it’s you as an individual and your team that will get the sale.”

Shoff noted that the firm’s growth strategy involves finding and keeping clients, but just as important, he said, is recruiting other advisers and doing acquisitions—and brand plays a key role. “I think brand is more important when it comes to recruiting and keeping or winning advisers,” he said, noting that recruiting and acquiring a firm can be a tough decision. “I feel like the brand halo effect is more important than it is at the client level,” he said.

Chetney’s elevator speech to prospective advisers highlights the firm’s interest in independent-minded advisers and a brand that enables greater sales success. Shoff asks what makes them want to join CAPTRUST, and he uses the average growth in sales (19%) for firms that join as a selling point. Long said firms that want to grow their practice will be interested in SageView.

These days, the focus today is really more about your business, not your practice, according to Ruffel. The net result is what we see hear today,” he said. “In some ways, the difference between having a brand and having a practice is ambition,” he said. “It’s easier to run a practice when the winds are behind you.”