What Brand and Design Can Do for Investment Managers

Charlie Ittner of the Darien Group examines the rise and recreation of brand and design at Accenture, Deloitte, and McKinsey & Co.

In 2015, consulting giant McKinsey & Co. purchased a controlling stake in product and service design firm LUNAR. Over the past two years, Deloitte and Accenture have acquired over a dozen creative agencies between them, with the former now operating Deloitte Digital, an internal division generating over $1.5B of revenue per year.

McKinsey, Deloitte, and Accenture now use their creative arms to sell new services, but they’ve also integrated design capabilities into long-standing core practices. Their collective attention toward ‘soft sciences’ like design and communications would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

In what John Edson, President of LUNAR, calls “a very natural kind of partnership,”1 these acquisitions seem forward-thinking rather than out of place, as the significance of user experience becomes prevalent in ever more industries and business models. Case in point, Deloitte’s purchase of London-based design consultancy Market Gravity proposes to help clients create and launch “innovative products and services” across an array of sectors including financial services, retail, energy, telecommunications, and automotive.2

In the past, consumer-directed marketing was considered the key venue for design and branding talent, where packaging and commercial jingles might sway purchasers and increase market share. Business-to-business purchase decisions have long been assumed to be made through either existing personal relationships or sober, practical analysis. In either of these determinants, the ‘brand’ as such has no bearing on ultimate business results. Or does it?

[To read more of Charlie Ittner’s thought leadership click here]

The Prevalence of Emotional Decision-Making

Humans frequently make decisions based on emotions influenced by indicators present in a given scenario. Psychology scientists contend that these emotions are actually the dominant driver of most meaningful decisions in life, and that our decisions serve as conduits through which we attempt to avoid negative emotions and outcomes and increase positive ones.3 A ­related term is heuristics, which are approaches by which our brains employ practical methods (often imperfect ones) to reach efficient decisions in the absence of full information.

By bringing a higher level of visual design, messaging strategy, and copywriting to our clients’ investor-facing materials, we hope to shorten the length of capital raise periods, allowing key team members to get back to making transactions and creating value in portfolio investments.

These concepts are directly applicable in considering how brand might affect not just what cereal or detergent to buy, but also larger decisions, such as which bank to select to manage a large account. Research shows that within contemporary market conditions, a strong and widely-recognized brand correlates strongly with long-term financial success.4 What deci­sionmakers know about a brand and how they feel toward that brand are relevant and do factor into their ultimate choices.

A distinguishable brand can lead customers toward lower price sensitivity, greater candor, and more leniency, all valuable considerations that factor into acquisition and profitability of current and prospective clients.5 Furthermore, within sectors where there exist many substitutable and credible competitors, a well-developed and -articulated brand can serve as a key differentiator. As industries mature and individual companies’ performance metrics trend convergently, such as in the investment management field, a firm’s story, culture, and philosophy become ever more critical for key constituents choosing with whom to engage.

Good Communication Matters

At Darien Group, we provide branding and communications services to private equity and real estate investment firms, entrants in industries that shunned press and branding almost altogether as recently as ten to fifteen years ago.

With increased competition for investor dollars and target assets, we’re seeing a remarkable sea change in the willingness of investment managers to consider their communications as a means of separation from the herd in the eyes of their audiences. Investor presentations and private placement memorandum, once only functional and legal requisites for going to market, are increasingly seized as opportunities to advance brand narrative. Digital presences have gone from nonexistent to robust and attractive, with space reserved for content on portfolio value creation, sometimes including video.

By bringing a higher level of visual design, messaging strategy, and copywriting to our clients’ investor-facing materials, we hope to shorten the length of capital raise periods, allowing  team members to get back to creating value in portfolio investments. On certain occasions, we reduce the need for our clients to employ costly placement agents to raise capital. These integrations of brand and communications resources can advance strategic imperatives and effect real and significant business outcomes.

Discovering Your Brand’s Value

More recently, we’ve found interesting peripheral applications for our capabilities. Among our current assignments: a rebrand and materials development for a boutique accounting firm; investor pitch materials for a film development and production fund; and a website and white paper for a cannabis-focused Initial Coin Offering (ICO).

In each of these cases, we’ve taken our traditional processes and applied them to industries or business models that are, in part or in whole, new to us. The three central phases to any thoughtful branding work are:

1. Discovery, to understand as much as possible about a business, its history, model, personality, and goals

2. Development, using the groundwork of the Discovery process to tease out messaging themes and visual brand worlds that strengthen and grow in collaboration with the client

3. Production, in which the Development roadmap is realized into concrete deliverables by creative and technical experts with requisite acumen and training.

These three steps are applicable to practically any business. And whether or not you have resources available to contribute to your brand, you can still work through your own Discovery and Development processes just by considering strengths and weaknesses and your key constituents’ experience with your company.

Twenty years ago, most people would be skeptical as to why an accounting firm should care about its clients’ user and brand experience. Today, we assume user experience to be important in the majority of our purchase decisions. Why exclude business-to-business and professional services applications? Psychology and behavior have proven that the quality of a company’s brand and communications platform is critical within every industry and to each client relationship.

[For more on Darien Group’s approach to Branding & Communication click here]