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Recently we helped a top-10 ETF firm launch an innovative new investment product. From the beginning, it was clear the firm’s leadership saw an ad campaign as the means to an effective launch. During our initial conversations, they wanted to jump right into creative concepts. That might have been the right approach with an established product. But in the crowded and competitive ETF marketplace, a first-of-its-kind solution would need to quickly communicate a value proposition that was both understandable and convincing. In short, before creating a campaign we needed to create a brand.

This experience was not unique to this particular firm, or even the financial services industry. Too many companies rush to market with a new product without the benefit of a differentiated and durable product brand. Admittedly, this can sometimes work, particularly when the parent company has a strong brand that is capacious enough to embrace the new product. But when the product represents a significant departure from the business strategy of the parent, or when the parent’s brand doesn’t fully support what the product represents, a new sub-brand is in order.

Consumer products and pharmaceutical companies have long adopted a “house of brands” approach in which product brands are virtually autonomous, with little if any connect to the parent (think Crest and P&G, Lipitor and Pfizer). In financial services the master brand approach usually rules, with all offerings adopting a common nomenclature. But this doesn’t mean that individual products don’t have their own brand.  Compare American Express’ Platinum and Green Cards. Or the distinctive value propositions underlying the various iShares ETFs.

The process of launching a financial services product should be similar to that of building a brand. It starts by leveraging research to understand market dynamics, decision criteria and the customer journey from awareness through consideration to purchase. It means developing a unique voice and positioning for the product linked but not identical to the parent brand. Often this also means developing a messaging platform, with core messages supported by individual messages “mapped” to specific audiences. Only when this brand foundation is in place should any work be done on creative executions.

Developing a brand before a campaign may take a bit longer (though it needn’t delay the launch). But it helps to ensure that the campaign is on target – and that the product’s connection to the marketplace will endure beyond any one ad or even campaign.

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