People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.

That was the insight of late Harvard Business School marketing professor, Theodore Levitt. In other words, your clients aren’t looking for a product or service—they’re looking for an end result.

Of course, the world has changed a bit since Levitt’s tenure 40 years ago. These days, everyone goes online to do their own research. This makes it pretty easy for them to figure out which drill they need, then ignore your marketing messages on their way to the lowest-cost drill vendor.

One way you can regain relevance in this environment is to challenge the way clients think about the thing they care about most. And that’s the hole—not the drill.

How did you take your measurements?

What type of material are you drilling into?

Are you even sure that a hole is the right solution to your problem?

Asset manager culture shock

In the world of financial services – and especially asset management – rational thinking and disciplined processes are valued. Asset managers build cultures that prize predictability. But great marketing can’t happen in places that banish the element of surprise.

Think about any ad campaign that has captured your attention. It almost definitely surprised you on some level. It took you out of your day-to-day routine. And whether you laughed, cried, lusted or cowered, it made you feel something.

This isn’t to say you need to be silly or salacious in your marketing. There are several ways to elicit emotion from your audience while remaining thoughtful and grounded. For example:

  • Challenge them. If you encounter a myth, expose it. If your competitor is beating you up on an issue, fight back. If everyone seems to be moving in one direction, look for opportunities to go the other way.
  • Shake them up. Clients are out there seeking solutions on their own—but do they really know what they’re doing? Are they missing big opportunities or walking blindly into a trap? Don’t be afraid to give them a gentle shake.
  • Let them in. Transparency is easy to talk about, yet often difficult to execute. But clients love to see what happens to their money behind the gilded veil of the investment industry. Find ways to show them.

Where to go prospecting for ideas

How do you find great marketing ideas?

Listen to your clients

Learn about the issues that matter to them—the topics on which they want more clarity. Market research helps, but I also think marketing departments should spend more time talking to the sales team. They know what’s really happening out there. You might also consider surveying your clients. The results may provide surprising and shareable insights.

Look to your brand

Not just the things you say you stand for, or the mission statement posted on a wall somewhere, but the way you actually live your brand. I know an asset manager who keeps two years of operating expenses in the bank so that job insecurity will never distract their staff from serving their clients. That’s an interesting way to turn a platitude about client service into a powerful and differentiated proof point.

Form a committee

Marketing by committee is a bad idea, but getting the right stakeholders around the table can be a great way to surface great nuggets. It can help you find the sweet spot that aligns the pains and desires of your clients with the vision of leadership, the know-how of product people, the creativity of marketing and the street smarts of sales. Plus, you never know when a propeller head in the engine room will come up with a critical insight or inspiring angle.

There’s a lot of competition for attention out there. The internet is full of “experts” on everything from drill bits to investment strategies. To stay interesting, asset management marketers must change the way investors think about us… by showing that we are actually thinking about them.

Published by Michael Wickware

I'm a financal industry writer and marketer, startup advisor and musician living in Toronto with my wife and son.

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