4 Steps to a Successful 401k Brand Audit

Why are some 401k plan pitches winners and others losers?

401k, marketing, branding, retirementHere's how to win the business next time around?

‘I can’t believe we lost out on this 401k plan!’

It’s what one advisor told me about a final presentation his retirement team was convinced was theirs to win. To add salt to the wound, it was a good size 401k plan and they lost to an advisor team with their same broker-dealer, one to which they had deemed themselves superior.

So how did it happen?

They questioned if it was their final deck. They wondered if they hadn’t communicated their statement of services as effectively as they could have.

Despite being a very successful retirement plan practice, they were filled with self-doubt and looking for something more tangible than, “you win some, you lose some.” It’s about this time that I asked them if they had ever been through a brand audit. I received a rather blank stare in return.

As a Registered Corporate Coach running our Retirement Advisor Institute, our main focus is to partner with advisors to grow their plan business and run more efficient practices. Most advisors spend virtually all of their time working in their practice and rarely invest time working on their practice.

While there are many tools and several categories in the Institute that can be of help, branding is a natural starting point for working on your practice and yet often overlooked. But to understand a brand audit, one must first grasp the importance of establishing an effective brand.

Branding comes before marketing or selling. Without it, you have nothing to market or sell; thus, the importance of brand. Brand is the essence of who you are. It is your reputation.

Capturing this in words and communicating it can be a daunting task. Books have been written, but I prefer a much simpler approach.

It starts with asking an advisor to draw four quadrants on a blank piece of paper and labeling them: Who? What? How? Why? The first two quadrants are asking the questions,” Who are you?” and “What do you do?”

I find most advisors do a decent job of answering. They typically can write down an adequate amount of information about their credentials and their list of capabilities. The third quadrant asks the question, “How are you different?”

It causes hesitation and can be more difficult to answer. Sure, an advisor can have an impressive list of capabilities but is it really that much different than the advisor down the street who also has plan business?

The fourth quadrant, the “why?” question, is by far the most difficult.

Why are you in the plan business? Why do you stay here? Why have plan sponsors chosen you in the past? Why do they stay with you? This four-quadrant approach when given some thought, especially completing the How? and Why? questions, is the starting point of creating and maintaining an effective brand.

The crucial next step is the brand audit, which in essence asks how well you articulate your brand, and in what mediums. Although there are multiple mediums, many can be categorized as either print or digital.

Print is everything one might put into a final presentation package: the deck, brochures, bios, statement of services and even a value proposition or mission statement.

By far, the more difficult part of the audit is the digital side or what we refer to as the digital footprint.

For an advisor, what does it say when their name is Googled? What presence do they have on Facebook or, more importantly, LinkedIn? What does their website communicate and how well is it organized?

The audit, to a large extent, is looking for effective answers to all the four quadrant questions. Being that we are a plan provider, the majority of advisors we work with are retirement plan experts; it is who they are and what they do.

Yet it is not uncommon to see that, through the various mediums and especially digital, retirement plans are barely mentioned. Even if they do articulate it extensively, there is a common pitfall of not placing a heavy enough emphasis on the “how are you different and why?”

I have asked many advisors how they are different and most can give me good reasons, yet it does not appear anywhere else other than verbally.

Concerning the opening scenario, specifically, there are many resources that can provide feedback as to why a particular advisor was chosen or not chosen. For example, Chatham Partner’s win/ loss value-add, available through Franklin Templeton, can be extremely valuable.

In this case, a brand audit was performed and the results, especially the digital medium, were very revealing. LinkedIn and their website made no mention of how they were different than competitors and why they do what they do.

Even on the basic “what do you do?” there was quite a bit of information about their investment and wealth capabilities, but virtually none about their qualified retirement plan expertise, despite being very successful in that market.

Unfortunately, a quick glance at the competing practice (which won the business) revealed they would have successfully passed a brand audit. They had concisely answered all four of the questions that make for an effective brand. Was this the sole reason they lost the plan to this other practice? It’s hard to know, but the lack of a digital presence and effective brand certainly didn’t help them.

When choosing an advisor in today’s market, plan sponsors obviously use more due diligence in their decision-making process. Even sponsors of small plans are employing methods previously only large plans were using. One of the quickest and easiest ways is to search the Internet to see what it reveals about an advisor’s practice (and possibly their personal life). Does the search paint a good picture and someone with whom the plan sponsor wants to work?

Randy Fuss is a practice management consultant at Cuna Mutual Retirement Solutions.

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