Bill Hortz's picture

"Brands are living things and need to evolve as your business grows. " - Paul Leibowitz, Leibowitz Branding & Design

[Innovation and creativity efforts across all industries, world-wide, borrow a lot from the design industry. The proven, repeatable processes developed by many design firms have been termed “design thinking”.  As an example, the ongoing, cross-industry accomplishments of design firms like IDEO - as measured by thousands of patents and successful new product and service launches - bear testament to design thinking’s applicability to any firm or specific business challenges.  Given the high rate of success and practical outcomes, asset managers and RIA firms should also look to borrow and harness that proven power of design thinking for their branding and client engagement strategies.

To better understand how design and design thinking is being applied to financial services firms, we decided to have a creative discussion with Institute member Paul Leibowitz of Leibowitz Branding & Design – a NYC-based design firm that delivers smart solutions in branding, communications strategy, marketing, digital design and development. While Paul’s recent article Five Steps to Effective Branding and Marketing for Smaller Asset Managers  does a great job of synopsizing the steps to his process, we wanted to dig deeper to uncover the critical thinking behind them and how they shape perception and forge emotional connections with prospects and clients. What can advisors learn from the practiced thinking of designers that alchemically combine strategy, creativity, and technology to unleash multiple long-term benefits for their client firms?]

Hortz: What drew you to the design field and motivated you to build a design firm?

Leibowitz: Growing up, I was the ‘class artist,’ the one kid who could draw, so attending art school was natural for me. While there, I enjoyed my design classes and recognized that images, color and typography can be combined to create powerful messages and moods. It became clear to me that strong design can position a company in so many ways and inspire people to act. Combined with solid research, design and branding are an integral foundation to a company’s success as they strive to separate themselves and provide their audiences with information to engage with them over their competition.

This is especially true for asset management companies because there are many firms with similar products and strategies. How you differentiate yourselves will provide investors with confidence to invest with you – in all market cycles.

Hortz: You speak a lot about critical thinking in describing your firm and value proposition. Can you explain what you mean by that and how you apply that skill to your clients?

Leibowitz: At Leibowitz Branding & Design, our value proposition is “Critical Thinking Fosters Creativity.” Critical thinking is defined as the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment or course of action. It’s a detailed process of asking really challenging and relevant questions and getting rid of all ideas that are not essential to developing key points about your firm. In applying that to our clients, we bring in a honed process to truly understand the client firm and their business goals and, further, to develop creative, unique solutions that solve for their specific challenges. I take pride that we don’t have a ‘Leibowitz style,’ as every project is tailored to each client.

Hortz: The first step of your branding process focuses on research to fully define the problem and goals of the firm, but don’t most business executives consider that the easy part?

Leibowitz: A good brand design agency will conduct research that includes isolating and challenging assumptions imbedded in the firm that busy business leaders may not even be aware of.  Every stakeholder in an asset management firm, or any company for that matter, approaches a rebrand or website project with a priori assumptions and that’s great because who better knows you’re your business than you? However, it’s our job to be objective, ask tough questions, make strategic recommendations and present fact-based research that will uncover unique strengths and align all the stakeholders. Our research and discovery enables us to create a road map for all to follow and provide a rational strategy that informs the visual and editorial messaging. The first step to a strong brand is clearly defining what your company stands for.

Hortz: Your second step is building strategy. What is the goal when you are developing strategy?

Leibowitz: Branding and design without strategy is worthless. It becomes mere decoration, which will never advance a client’s business and marketing goals. Think of it this way: research defines the problem and strategy is the solution to that problem. A solid strategic direction aligns all communications, whether it’s the overall brand, a public relations campaign or the writing and design of a simple flyer. When your messaging is clear, it’s easy for clients to understand your values and offerings, and that’s where the magic happens. That’s where you get that emotional connection that clients need to feel before they engage with your brand.

Hortz: Tell us more about your third step of content and visual design. How do you translate research and strategy into imagery and color palette?

Leibowitz: After we solve the strategic messaging, we move on to the third phase of our process which is content and design. The combination of the words we write and the images, colors and typographic tone of voice we choose articulate this messaging strategy. It’s in this phase where we make the intangible, tangible. By providing your audience with content and images that capture the essence of your brand and messaging, you are enabling them to interact with your brand in a very familiar way. If done well, your desired audience with see themselves, or what they seek in an investment firm, in your brand imagery and content. Typography is the silent secret weapon. The fonts we select provide the unique tone of voice that will resonate with your target audience.

We like to present what we call mood boards, which are a combination of the images, color palette and typography we feel best espouses your messaging. The recipe of these elements is unique for every brand we create and acts as the foundation for all marketing materials. This ensures consistency in all communications, which is vital to eliminating doubt about your company’s values and offerings.

Hortz: What are you focused on in the 4th stage which is implementation?

Leibowitz: Our fourth stage is implementation. With mood boards in place, every marketing effort will be consistent, regardless of the channel you use. We write and design to the best practices of a particular medium such as a website, email communication or brochure, but the established brand is the underlying foundation or all these efforts. Essentially, with research, strategy, content and design established, it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel every time you wish to engage with your audience, accelerating the time it takes to reach your clients.

Hortz: In your last step of evolution what have you seen as best practices in keeping your brand a living, breathing and relevant entity?

Leibowitz: Brands are living things and need to evolve as your business grows. Even with core messaging in place and a solid brand presence that clients understand and appreciate, it’s important to step back and assess if any adjustments or improvements are necessary on an ongoing basis. Listen to your clients for feedback and new opportunities to engage, pay attention to the competition and get inspiration from other non-related industries. Your brand may need to focus more resources in one particular channel that is lagging or may even need to pivot messaging to remain relevant.

Hortz: While you have a strong focus on financial services, does you work with other industries bring any wider perspectives and creative ideas to your financial services clients?

Leibowitz: I believe a good designer is like being a good actor, able to play many roles. We all get tired of actors that are cast over and over again in the same types of roles. That gets stale, very quickly. While financial services clients are about 65% of our business, we also do a great deal of work in higher education, media and non-profits. This keeps our team fresh and we definitely apply the best practices and subtleties we learn from these other categories to all our clients. Looking at every project in a fresh way is our edge. Remember, critical thinking fosters creativity.

Hortz: Any final suggestions or recommendations you can make to asset managers on why branding their firm is a vital part of growing their firm?

Leibowitz: To sum it all up, when the external perception of your company and your internal perception align, you have a strong brand - a brand that celebrates what is unique about your company. This clear visual and editorial messaging will enable clients to understand you and feel attached to you and feel comfortable working with you in all market cycles.


The Institute for Innovation Development is an educational and business development catalyst for growth-oriented financial advisors and financial services firms determined to lead their businesses in an operating environment of accelerating business and cultural change. We position our members with the necessary ongoing innovation resources and best practices to drive and facilitate their next-generation growth, differentiation and unique community engagement strategies. The institute was launched with the support and foresight of our founding sponsors - Pershing, Voya Financial, Ultimus Fund Solutions, Fidelity, and Charter Financial Publishing (publisher of Financial Advisor and Private Wealth magazines). For more information click here.


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