big green apple small red apple

Sound familiar? A mid-size investment bank has experienced impressive growth in the recent past. It is now struggling to communicate a differentiated value proposition in the increasingly crowded marketplace. Though the firm is far smaller than the “Big 10” – the JP Morgans and Morgan Stanleys – it is far larger and more established than the very small firms often dominated by a single “name” dealmaker. The investment bank is facing a critical brand challenge: how to translate its size into a true advantage for the firm and its clients.

We recently partnered with a rapidly growing, mid-size investment bank struggling with this very issue. In getting to know the firm, one term came up a lot: “boutique.” Half of the firm’s executives enthusiastically used the word in describing themselves. They felt it conveyed a sense of prestige, partner-level attention and focus – and clearly set them apart from the behemoths that dominated the financial headlines. But others detested the word. They felt passionately that “boutique” signaled “small,” “weak balance sheet” and “shallow bench.” These executives wanted the word banished from the firm’s vocabulary.

To be honest, we have no fixed sense of whether boutique is a good or bad word for investment banks. It depends on the firm – what it stands for and what it wants to stand for. In this instance, research showed that the firm was not well served by the word. But the issue – to boutique or not boutique – comes up a lot in conversations with investment banks.  And it underscores a challenge that the industry is facing that transcends the word itself.

Fast-growth, mid-size investment banks have become increasingly high-profile in recent years. They compete for larger and larger mandates, as well as for top-talent. These firms are quite substantial, employ large teams of bankers at all levels of experience and often work side-by-side with bulge-bracket firms on giant transactions. Many of them have gone public in recent years.

At a certain size – a size that many of these firms have already achieved – investment banking firms start to lose a sense of identity. Most of them are still not large enough to communicate messages like “global” and “well-capitalized,” two pillars of bulge-bracket brands, yet they’re too big to describe themselves as “scrappy” or “street smart.” As these firms continue to grow and evolve, they are increasingly finding themselves stuck somewhere in the middle, trying to straddle both sides of the spectrum.

Which brings us to the key question at hand. If you’ve outgrown “boutique,” what have you grown into? Ultimately, this is a branding issue. Firms must rethink and redefine their story – who they are and why it matters to the audiences most important to their success. Finding that compelling and distinct position in the marketplace will enable a firm to build and sustain momentum in the increasingly crowded investment banking arena. It isn’t always easy. But it’s critical.

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