Yet even as the company has worked to build its national reputation, Ameriprise now has 10,000 advisors in the field -- about three-quarters of whom are independent affiliated advisors with their own personal brands.
And therein lies the tension. While any consumer-facing business is only as good as its retail staff, big financial services firms face a specific challenge. Advisors are essentially sales professionals for the bigger companies, and their personal relationships are key to a firm's success. Yet if advisors tend to see their personal brand as more important -- which they do, according to data from marketing firm HNW -- then how does a big independent broker-dealer such as Ameriprise weigh how much to impose the larger firm brand upon an individual advisor’s own reputation?
“We believe both are very important,” Sharan says. “But at the end of the day, consumers have to be comfortable with their advisors.”
Ameriprise's advisor websites reflect the balancing act. All have the same look and infrastructure, bolstered by corporate search engine optimization efforts -- but planners can customize the content, using company video production resources and choosing from about 200 pieces of pre-approved content to share online, Sharan says. “We do encourage advisors to develop their personal brand to make them feel authentic, [showing] that they stand for something and can deliver it consistently over time.”
In addition to the websites, Ameriprise also supports advisors with a contact platform, seminar and event support, local marketing support, social media campaigns and more.
Sharan says the firm’s overall reputation supports advisors as well. “In this industry, trust is at a very low point,” she says. Yet while many financial services firms emerged from the financial crisis with badly damaged reputations, she adds, Ameriprise never took a bailout and its advisors “came through the crisis in beautiful shape.”
'NO SUCH THING AS LOCAL MARKETING'
On the other hand, a firm like United Capital places much greater emphasis on a unified brand. Gail Graham, United Capital’s senior vice president of strategy and execution, agrees that both the personal and unified brand are important, but says the bigger brand is becoming increasingly so.
“We believe the business is changing and building a unified brand is critical,” she says. United Capital hopes to build a household name, to generate leads and drive more business, Graham adds.
Graham points out that an increasingly digital environment has changed the way people search and find things. “There’s no such thing as local marketing anymore," she says. "That’s one of the big reasons that big brands matter.”
That doesn’t mean advisors find it easy to let go of their own brands. “It is difficult to give that up,” says Brandon Ross, an advisor who was working at Denver-based Peak Capital Investment Services when it was acquired by United Capital in 2011. “There’s a great sense of pride in something that you ... worked long and hard to make successful.”
Yet Ross says the potential future benefits of United Capital’s larger brand outweighed the disadvantages of rebranding. “I knew that in the short term it would cost us business, and it did,” he says. “But long term, I wanted a brand more associated with financial advice that’s more emotional than some of the large brokerages that are still leading with investment advice.”
Whether United Capital will become a widely recognized name, and in doing so generate leads for advisors and business for the larger firm, remains to be seen. Ross is optimistic: “I truly believe we are going to be a very dominant brand within five years.”
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