Sustainable investing goes mainstream. And we all benefit.

Nearly 10 years ago, 360 was chosen by Pax World, a mutual fund company that was instrumental in the emergence of socially responsible investing in the 1970’s, to help them draw attention to how they’d rather be known – as a skilled practitioner of a little used category name at the time, “sustainable investing.”

Back then, no one was a more outspoken champion of the practice than Joe Keefe, Pax World’s President, CEO and charismatic leader. At an annual gathering of the SRI clan at a trade conference that was then known as SRI in the Rockies, Joe chastised his counterparts for drawing attention to what they didn’t invest in – e.g., tobacco, liquor and firearms – rather than what they did invest in – companies that meet strict environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. He believed the future of progressive asset managers like Pax World lay in their ability to recast their approach so that it was seen as contributing positively to investment performance, and he was outspoken about it.

360 partner Nick de Sherbinin wrote about this in a blog three years ago, From SRI to SI: changing a mutual fund category by losing a letter.

One of the first things we created for Pax World was an ad aimed at financial advisors with the headline, “Who’s going to bring up sustainable investing first, you or your clients?” I think it’s fair to say that “sustainable investing” hadn’t appeared in many ads before that one ran. For years after that, everything we built for Pax – advertising, collateral, sales aids, webinar decks, emails, etc – sought to convey why sustainable investing was, as Joe liked to say, “a better, smarter way to invest.”

Fast forward to this week’s Barron’s (10/10/16), which in its quarterly Mutual Fund section features its first annual performance ranking of the “Best 200 Sustainable Funds.”

What’s surprising to me is how few of the 200 large caps funds on the list are run by companies, like Pax World, that explicitly claim to be sustainable managers. In fact, just 19, or fewer than 10%, qualify as that (and none, by the way, are Pax World funds). Most of the rest are managed by companies you won’t find on the website of US SIF, the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investing.

Recognize any of these names – Fidelity, American Funds, Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, Franklin, Pioneer, Columbia, Dodge & Cox, MFS, JP Morgan, John Hancock, Invesco, BlackRock, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Natixis and Nationwide? Of course you do. What investor doesn’t? Those are the kinds of names that appear on the Barron’s list.

What does it mean?

Well, as Barron’s writes, “What is perhaps most interesting is how mainstream sustainable investing is becoming – so much so that many funds that don’t wear that label still embrace the practice. Major fund purveyors…are already using environmental, social, and governance factors in creating their portfolios.”

This is good news for both investors and all of us generally. For investors, it means we now have access to a larger roster of mutual funds informed by the principles of sustainable investing. For all of us, it means publicly traded companies are being held to higher standards, and that can’t help but affect business practices that directly impact things like the environment, employee diversity and empowerment, and management activities.

Thank you, Joe.

For Wealth Managers, Differentiation Is Job #1

A number of years ago, through a marketing relationship with Charles Schwab Advisor Services, I had face-to-face meetings and telephone interviews with a number of financial advisors around the country. Some were partners in well-established, multi-billion-dollar firms and others had just recently bolted from wirehouses and hung their shingles. But to a person, they all seemed to genuinely enjoy what they were doing. They were devoted to their clients, were proud that they were delivering real value to them, felt they were being fairly compensated for their efforts and were optimistic about the future. I was impressed.

We are currently working with several wealth management firms, and it’s clear that various factors have made the business more challenging. Fees are under pressure; cable channels and the Internet have given investors easy access to information they may quote as gospel; millennials, a demographic expected to inherit vast sums of money in the not too distant future, are hard to attract and rein in; and portfolio construction itself is being threatened by commoditization and the emergence of roboinvesting. And while the managers we work with are fee-based, the new DOL fiduciary rule governing retirement investing is nonetheless raising questions about marketing parameters going forward.

The DOL notwithstanding, one thing remains true about good marketing, and that’s that it can help address some of the more common challenges advisors are facing today. The one we consider the most important to the success of progressive wealth management firms is differentiation – standing out.

Wealth managers are not all created equal.

These are the kind of questions we’ve encountered when working with our wealth management clients:

  • “What can we say and share about our firm to establish a discernible difference between ourselves and our competitors?”
  • “How can we position ourselves to strengthen our leverage with potential prospects?”
  • “How can we create a perception of difference?”

They understand that images of marble columns, couples on beaches and rowing sculls do not a differentiation make.

Here are some suggestions for any wealth management company that wants to try to distinguish itself in a crowded market.

Drill down to the point of leverage

In an environment in which competition for market share is more intense than ever and growth of the pool of prospects is reportedly near zero*, we believe financial advisory firms can gain an advantage by identifying their value proposition and promoting it actively.

Use internal and external research to arrive at a compelling platform that’s true to the brand.

Interviews with internal stakeholders, including firm leadership, portfolio managers and client service personnel, will help answer such questions as:

  • What are the attributes and strengths of the firm?
  • Do your current clients share common characteristics?
  • Can you describe the type of clients you’d like to be bringing in? How do they differ from your current base?
  • When a client chooses you rather than a competitor, what made the difference?

Interviews with current clients of the firm and centers of influence, typically accountants and lawyers the firm has a relationship with, will answers questions like:

  • In what ways does the firm provide value to you?
  • How did you first become aware of it?
  • What were the deciding factors that prompted you to choose it over other firms you may have been considering?
  • In what ways does the firm go “above and beyond” in its delivery of services?

Construct a positioning platform

Comparing and evaluating the responses that come from this kind of qualitative research makes it possible to craft a positioning platform that expresses the essence of the brand – what the firm stands for, what clients can expect from the relationship, how it provides added value.

The specific elements of the platform include a positioning statement, brand promise and messaging hierarchy, each of which is indispensable for good marketing.

Communicate your difference

For a wealth management firm, being able to communicate a meaningful difference can help it:

  • Create and expand mindshare
  • Compete more effectively
  • Reassure and retain current clients
  • Attract new clients by giving them reasons to believe they’ve found an advisor with a unique purpose and distinct point of view

This is the province of an authentic brand.

* The problems investment managers face are compounded by the fact that the number of new clients who are up for grabs is shrinking. Michael Kitces, who writes a lot about financial planning, summarized the situation this way. “While AUM and revenues are up, the ‘growth’ is increasingly coming from just the tailwind of market returns. Once those returns are backed out, the underlying net organic growth rates are rapidly approaching zero.”


Themelines: the tie that binds

I was riding my bike through downtown Boston recently and saw a Dana Farber Cancer Institute tag line newly applied to the side of a Dana Farber van. It said “Discover. Care. Believe.” I don’t love it, I don’t hate it, but I know where it comes from and how it was developed, presented and sold in. Call me a forensic scientist of tag lines (or themelines, as they’re commonly called). Dissecting Dana Farber’s new line, the first word describes the world-class research going on every day at “The Farber” and invites you to learn about it. Care is pretty obvious – it’s what every health care institution delivers, which carries an implication of emotional support, too. Believe is where the magic happens – Dana Farber researchers and caregivers — and of course, patients — believe in positive outcomes. I give it an A for effort, but a gentleman’s C for creative inspiration.

We at 360 are often involved in themeline development. Many of our branding and rebranding efforts focus on capturing a brand’s essence in shorthand, and that’s what themelines do. If we are successful, we have created a rallying cry for employees within and an inspirational message for various external stakeholders. Good themelines integrate well with all communications efforts. Great ones become nearly synonymous with a brand, its value and its values.

Chasing the “dream theme”

It’s hard to come up with a good tag line – really, really hard. Every day, thousands of creative teams, linguists and consultants boil down strategy statements, positioning presentations, value propositions and creative briefs, then put their minds to work in an effort to create the pithy, provocative, bang-on home run. The process is roughly akin to tiptoeing through a minefield. Many of the more obvious lines are already taken — by a firm in Omaha, Palm Beach, or Fargo.

So how do you develop a terrific tag line that has the potential to live a long, happy, productive life? Lines like Just Do It for a shoe company you may have heard of, an imperative that’s gotten millions out of bed at 5 in the morning when saner people are pushing the snooze button. Or We Bring Good Things to Life, a transcendent line that described GE’s reason for being for over a quarter century. Or #1 ball in golf – a themeline that remain familiar to golfers thanks to its consistent use by Titleist golf balls. Or For Tomorrow, two words that neatly summed up a sustainable investing mutual fund company’s commitment to investing wisely and making the world a better place in the bargain.

(Okay, I snuck the last one in. It’s one of 360’s taglines, and it’s something we’re still proud of 9 years after its introduction.)

If you’re interested in coining a new themeline for your company, here are a few pointers born of hard-won experience.

Don’t rush it

As Diana Ross sang, you can’t hurry love, and it takes time to sift through the chaff.

Be inclusive

We tell our clients, “Good ideas can come from anyone,” and we encourage contributions from all quarters.

Weed and feed

If you have an idea that’s not quite there, try subtracting words or finding synonyms that add personality, attitude or meaning.

Evaluate on the messaging continuum

Draw a line and write “literal” on the left end, “suggestive” in the middle and “fanciful” on the right, then place the themelines under consideration where they seem to fit along the line. Emotional hooks tend to gravitate to the right and rational lines to the left. This can help to determine the appropriate fit for your brand strategy.

Put it up against a competitor’s brand

Look at lines you’ve come up with under your competition’s logo. Does it work equally well there? Then it may be a good category line, but not a differentiating brand line.

Review and winnow down

Good themelines often rise to the top through pure merit, and there is general recognition that you have a winner on your hands. That said, if everyone likes — but doesn’t love — a selected themeline, you may be flirting with mediocrity. Evalute carefully. Take seriously objections which may reveal a fatal flaw. Get opinions from outside the conference room. And thoroughly check all legal or competitive claims to similar lines.  A web search and a check with the U.S. Patent and Trademark site will reveal issues quickly.  Lastly, anticipate tweaks in company direction and be sure that the line is future-ready.

Pencils down

When you have a line that’s credible, inspirational and memorable, you’re done. Congratulations.

Launch with purpose

While the virtues of a new themeline may appear self-evident, don’t miss the opportunity to introduce it thoughtfully and intentionally to all internal stakeholders before rolling it out to the market. Share why it is an asset, how it was developed, the logic behind it, and leverage the opportunity to draw attention to the main tenets of your brand strategy – your brand’s value and how best to communicate it to others.

To view some of the themelines developed by 360 Branding & Communications, visit our themeline gallery.

Knight Moves

Earlier in my career, I did advertising for New Balance, and Nike to me was the big, bad enemy.

Sure, it was the dominant brand in the athletic footwear category, had the slickest, most impressive, most crowded booths every year at the National Shoe Show and could basically buy athletes at will. (American runner Steve Prefontaine – “Pre” – was one of the first big-name athletes to ink a deal, receiving a $5,000 stipend in 1973 so he could stop bartending and concentrate solely on running.) But I never thought their footwear was as well made or technologically advanced as NB’s. And while I grudgingly admired Nike’s advertising, I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of the company itself.

In my dismissiveness, I thought Nike was another example of a mass-market company that didn’t stack up to a smaller, more exclusive competitor. It wasn’t exactly IBM versus Apple, but in my mind, it was something like that.

Recently, though, I read Phil Knight’s fascinating, heartfelt autobiography, Shoe Dog, and candidly, I found myself seriously rethinking my point of view about Nike.

There’s no doubt about it – this is one of the great success stories in contemporary American business. More than that, it’s a tribute to one man’s unwillingness to settle. Talk about just doing it.

A passionate evangelizer for the transcendence of sports, Knight was determined to create a company whose brand essence epitomized that concept. He founded its precursor company, Blue Ribbon Sports, in 1964 based on a thesis he wrote during his MBA program at Stanford Business School. Any number of things along the way to Nikedom could have derailed his ambitions – a bad economy, inadequate funding, resistant bankers, distribution challenges and, most especially, lack of cooperation from Onitsuka, the Japanese company that manufactured Tiger running shoes, which were Blue Ribbon’s sole product. But Phil Knight was a man on a mission. Long before “There is no finish line” became a popular Nike ad, it was his personal mantra.

As I think about strong brands, it’s interesting to me how often they are born of the passions of one exceptional leader. Think Steve Jobs, think Howard Schultz, think Mickey Drexler, think Elon Musk. In advertising, think Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy. And most definitely, think Phil Knight.

There may be no more authentic brands than those founded or driven by strong leaders whose personal vision and corporate mission statement are essentially one and the same. That kind of passion is contagious, inspiring and differentiating. People who are part of companies like that know why they get up and go to work every day. It’s why Phil Knight was able to attract a group of talented individuals to a company that often could barely pay its bills.

About Nike, I stand corrected.

Maintaining Brand Continuity in a Shared World

Over the course of my career, I’ve been a brand custodian for global brands and start-ups, rebranded 50-year-old companies and launched shiny new brands. Managing brand communications has become increasingly complex along the way. The reasons center around three trends that present both challenges and opportunities for brand and marketing leadership:

1) Brand Co-Ownership

If you’ve been actively managing a brand in the last 10 years, you’re acutely aware that brands are no longer managed by you exclusively, but shared with all your constituents – prospects, customers, shareholders – pretty much everyone who has occasion to touch your brand. Enabled by social media, stoked by blogs, encouraged by customer reviews, your stakeholders own your brand as much as you do.

2) Next Gen Marketers

New hires in marketing departments throughout the world brim with smart, digitally savvy young professionals who are as likely to have basic photography, design, and web-coding skills as they are to be working towards their MBA at night. Is it any wonder that more and more branded content is developed in-house when all that talent is ready and willing to take it on?

3) Distributed Content Creation

Most of the marketing leaders we work with maintain multiple relationships with content providers, from subject matter experts for copywriting assignments to marketing automation providers for online lead tracking and nurturing. Add in advertising agencies and public relations firms, and you have numerous individuals and groups responsible for maintaining your brand image over multiple marketing channels.

Avoiding Brand Chaos

Whether your brand communications is managed internally or by an external resource or resources, it’s imperative that your brand team have a crystal clear view of your brand in all its facets.  The most common and effective tool for communicating a brand’s values, voice, messaging, and visual vocabulary is a reference piece, variously called brand guidelines, brand standards, or simply a brand book.

Brand books come in all shapes and sizes, but they are created with the same purpose in mind – to inform content creators and achieve continuity in all brand communications.

I’ve worked with brand books in all sizes, from a simple 8-pager to a client’s 72 page tome. The basics start by defining a brand’s visual elements:

  • Logo design and usage
  • A color palette that includes primary and secondary colors
  • Typographic standards

Additional options include:

  • Primary visual elements
  • Photography style guidelines
  • Photographic and infographic library
  • Primary densign elements and applications for specific communications

From there it can get nuanced, often addressing brand voice elements such as tone and personality:

  • A ‘reason for being’ statement that goes beyond boilerplate language
  • A messaging hierarchy that includes a brand positioning statement, elevator message, and supporting messages that drill down on the primary value of the brand’s offerings.

Brands today take different approaches to brand management. Some companies embrace brand fluidity, creating visual options within a loose structure, while others tightly define all facets of their brand. How your brand approaches the challenge will likely fall somewhere in-between these extremes. Too few rules, and brand communications become subject the whim of the designer, too many and they can stifle creativity and engender a bland sameness.

Back when Apple used their ‘rainbow’ apple logo I happened to be chatting with a guy sitting next to me on a flight to Chicago. It turned out his job was to supervise logo print reproduction throughout the U.S., checking to make sure each of the 6 stripes of color matched the brand color palette precisely. It seemed a bit obsessive, so I’m guessing Steve Jobs had something to do with the policing policy at Apple – perhaps the only time he could be accused of doing things ‘by the book’.