It’s Time To Jettison The Generic

Today’s crowded market for financial advice requires firms to get creative

I am actively involved in efforts to revitalize the downtown area in the small Massachusetts town where I live. So I recently attended a webinar on “The Art of Branding a Community,” presented by Roger Brooks of Destination Development International.

In his presentation, Rogers advises communities that are looking to market themselves to “jettison the generic.” Phrases such as “so much to see and do,” or “the four-season destination” do nothing to distinguish a town from hundreds of similar places around the country. Communities that are serious about attracting more visitors need to identify what it is that makes them unique and then promote the heck out of that attribute.

A quick review of marketing materials, websites, and thought leadership materials across the financial services landscape reveals a similar glut of “generic” communications.

  • How many advisors promote the fact that they offer “independent, unbiased advice”?
  • How many mutual fund companies talk about their “bottom-up research methodology”?
  • How many wealth managers “act as your financial quarterback”?

In each case, the short answer is too many.

The challenge in jettisoning the generic, of course, is figuring out a better way to communicate what sets your company apart from its competitors. While most of us are familiar with the concept of identifying a “unique value proposition,” actually doing so takes some serious time and thought. Once you have honed in on what makes your firm special, you then need to find the right words to describe yourself and how you can serve your target market.

One way to do this is to talk less about yourself and more about the clients you serve and the problems you solve. If your target customers see themselves and their challenges described in your marketing materials, they are more likely to experience an “aha” moment where they conclude, “these guys (or gals) understand me and can help me.”

Another way to jettison the generic is to have (and express) actual opinions. Over the years, many of us within the financial services industry have been worn down to such a degree by legal and compliance reviewers that we shy away from taking strong positions on important issues. To paraphrase something your compliance department might have you say, “this may cause your audience to potentially tune you out*.”

Therefore, my advice is to push the envelope and develop an actual point of view. If you’re a financial adviser who manages portfolios of passive ETFs, you’re probably a strong advocate of indexing. So explain WHY you favor this approach and WHY you believe passive ETFs are better than actively managed funds (or vice versa).

If you are an asset manager and you’re writing a white paper on the benefits of alternative investments, state your case with passion. You can include as many disclaimers as your compliance department requires (nobody reads them anyway), but first be sure to express your point of view with energy and clarity.

You can also jettison the generic by letting a little personality shine through. Some humor and attitude can help you make your case more strongly and will set you apart from the “corporate speak” that is so prevalent today. This recommendation can be applied to communications that target consumers or business-to-business audiences.

Finally, keep in mind that it’s virtually impossible to avoid some generic language when describing products and services that—let’s face it—are not unique. Sometimes you simply need to call it as you see it. Just be careful to describe the concept, product, or service in clear language while avoiding a lot of unnecessary fluff.

* The experience of this reader may not be indicative of the experience of all readers and your own results may differ.

Neil Rhein is President of Bullseye Communications, where he and his team specialize in content review and content development for financial services companies and other clients.