By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding
What is a brand? Usually when this question is asked, our answer is threefold:
-It’s what people (including you) think of you.
-It’s the culture of an organization.
-It’s not a logo or any other piece of marketing communication.
Yet some current brand campaigns are making clear, to our trio of definitions, some nuances:
-The brand of an organization is the sum total of its employees’ personal brands.
-The brand of just a single employee can comprise a highly disproportionate share of that total.
For is the organization the salient thing at all? “Organization” is an important shorthand without which (I am discovering while trying to write this paragraph) it is difficult to communicate. But organizations in and of themselves do not do anything. It is the people within them that do something.
Two organizations in the investment advisory industry, by running well-executed brand campaigns that put the spotlight on star employees, seem to have seized upon this worldview at almost the same time. This coincidence is remark-able, yet I submit the most remark-able thing is that these campaigns are well done – considering that individuals and organizations in the investment advisory industry generally have wonderful potential to improve their branding.
The two investment advisory firms currently doing it well are Fidelity and Sprott, both of which are trumpeting the personal brands of star employees. Sprott’s star is Dennis Mitchell, described by Investment Executive as a “star investment fund portfolio manager.”
Fidelity’s star is Joel Tillinghast, described by SmartMoney Magazine as one of the “world’s greatest investors.” Joel is such a star that Fidelity’s campaign drives us to Joel’s very own website, www.investwithjoel.com.
These campaigns are strategically bold because they invest so heavily in one employee, which is a highly differentiated approach from that traditionally followed, which is to focus on the sum total strength of the brand – the organizational brand, in other words. The boldness of this strategy also derives from the fact that it is very risky: if the star employee has a bad year, so does the brand of the entire firm.
Could this bold strategy be executed to an even higher level of excellence? There is room for improvement in any campaign. Consider this question and answer on Joel’s website:
“Why Joel? Joel’s philosophy is based on instinct, hands-on management and quantitative research that identifies opportunities others often overlook….In simple terms, Joel looks for companies that have a stock price that reflect a lower value than the company is actually worth.”
This messaging does not convey something truly different about Joel’s investment approach. I emphasize convey because we can not expect Joel to give away his secret sauce for free, and it is not unreasonable to believe that Joel is an investing genius with a one-of-a-kind approach that will make us all a ton of money. I am just saying that the message being conveyed to the public is not differentiated, and Fidelity could rewrite the copy in a way that expresses Joel’s true difference.
Why are Fidelity and Sprott relying so heavily on one particular employee? It could relate to the fact that it’s been so tough to make money in the stock market lately. The Dow Jones, for example, increased by more than four times between 1990 and 2000, but by only 1.5 times since then. The pressure is on advisory firms to convey how they’re different – different meaning better – than the next firm. And while there are a large number of firms in the industry, there are a far larger number of people, meaning – given the infinite variety of human beings – a far larger array of ways in which to differentiate.
And so the key points:
-Your organization, being comprised of people, can differentiate by featuring the personal brands of those people, the key requirement of differentiation being being different.
-As said by legendary investor Warren Buffet, “You only find out who’s been swimming naked when the tide goes out.” Any firm that makes a big bet on its stars, therefore, had best be suited up.
IN THE MEDIA THIS FALL: In the National Post re Amazon and Etsy; on CBC Radio One re Volkswagen; in the National Post re Mac’s convenience stores.
NEW VIDEO: Check out my presentation in Houston earlier this year (to client USG) on what a brand really is. (For the abbreviated version, start at 3:45 and stop at about 6:00. For the longer version, watch the whole thing.)
Coin Branding president Andris Pone is co-author of the Globe and Mail #1-bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo and appears as a branding expert on CBC’s The National, CBC Radio One, the Globe and Mail, National Post and other media outlets.