What is the first impression prospects have when visiting your website or looking over your literature? Do they perceive a clear message about your firm, what you value and how you'll solve their problem? Does it confirm your credibility and motivate them to want to know you better?

We all know Coke and Apple. Unfortunately, many of us in more modestly sized financial firms think of our brands as not much more than our logos, corporate colors and a handful of nice-looking materials. Our pieces are often one-offs, such as fact sheets, commentaries, websites and brochures that operate on autopilot. Later, as we send out newer communications, we may focus on points that are important, but seemingly different or even contradictory to previous messages that are still available to the public.

All of this and more speaks to who you are as an organization - your brand. So how do prospects and advisors understand who you are? Dan Sondhelm, a partner at Sunstar Strategic, often notes, "If you don't have a brand, all you have is performance. And, if your performance stumbles, you're left with nothing and you simply get dropped."

STRONG MESSAGE

We asked a Huntington marketing executive to define brand for us. His simple but eloquent definition: "The visual and verbal identity that represents who you are and what you value. Brand is not defined solely by visuals or written communications, but more importantly by the message itself, whether written, graphically represented or spoken."

A while back, a client of ours was about to launch its first family of funds. As these executives began their pre-launch activities, they discovered that each person in the firm articulated the strategy differently. While each had a strong grasp on the technicalities, they weren't positioning the firm in the same manner, resulting in a somewhat convoluted, mixed message. With some coaching and earnest work by these executives, they reached consensus and each person began to embrace their brand message as part of their "pitch."

Think about the firms you consider to have the best brands. An ideal brand conveys a strong message intended to lead prospects to see you as the only one that provides a solution to their problem.

Apple showcases its innovative technology and has the ability to create products no know even knew they needed; these days McDonald's is all about "sharing the love." These companies ensure that their core brand message permeates everything they do - refreshing their brand over the years as times and products evolve.

MAKE IMPROVEMENTS

How can you ensure your brand is fresh and reflects who you are as a firm? Here are some ideas that may help you improve upon what you have today:

* Take a new look at everything you use to communicate: electronic messages, hard copy collateral or even how people are greeted when they visit your office or call on the telephone. Do all of them position your firm consistently and help differentiate you from your competition today?

* If a current client referred a friend to your organization, would your website provide a good first impression? Is there a clear message about the benefits you offer to investors?

* Is your brand somehow tied to the past, such as a past office location? Are you showcasing older executives, yet new talent and their passions, knowledge and experience are not reflected?

* Consider the images, colors and design used in your collateral. Are they stale or dated? Do the graphics express your firm's personality and help set you apart? One industry consultant I know told his audience to remove inverted pyramids because they made firms all look alike.

* Talk to your colleagues at all levels - perhaps some loyal clients as well. Ask them for the firm's elevator speech. Is everyone telling the same story or might your firm be suffering from multiple personality disorder?

BRAND REVIEW

When you have reviewed everything and thought about what needs work, act quickly on making changes. Involve key players early and build consensus.

If you find your brand already has a strong, well-defined message and is appropriately illustrated in your collateral, then ensure everyone is on board. Brand review is not just an exercise in revising materials and graphics, but is also an exercise in education. Communicating what you're doing and why will help ensure your entire staff is cohesive, with a goal to consistently communicate your key messages to clients and prospects.

Existing clients should be among the first to embrace your freshened brand - confident that your core philosophy remains intact, but your ability to consistently and professionally communicate has been enhanced. Let them know what has changed and what has not changed.

Often, we have only one chance to make an impression. New brand, updated brand, old brand: everyone, from the receptionist to the founder, needs to hear, embrace and articulate your firm's value proposition and personality.

Once you've made an informed decision to keep, enhance or start over on your brand, make it your goal to ensure that each employee has the knowledge and passion to tell a consistent story and be an ambassador for your organization.

Jeff Young is senior vice president, business development, distribution, custody, and relationship management for Huntington Asset Services.

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