Tip Sheet: Branding in Troubled Times: Find Your ‘True North’

As PR professionals, we all know that the communications campaign should not be the first budget line item to cut during troubled times. It is our job to prove to clients the positive impact a PR campaign can have on their business and how crucial branding is to the preservation of the company. Perception is reality and a company must do everything to sharpen its brand messaging—and keep it in front of its constituents if they want to weather the storm. This has never been more apparent than in the tumultuous financial services industry.


The financial markets have never been more volatile. Banks, liquidity venues and broker dealers are all starting to look alike­—and sell the same products and services. In February 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its lowest point since 1996. We all thought the worst had come and it would be smooth sailing from that point on.

Fast-forward three years and we have glimpsed the other three horsemen of the apocalypse in rapid succession. Mergers and bankruptcies happen every day and Eurozone backlash continues to have deleterious effects on the financial markets.

The bar for news has become a pole vault. Each time the North American economy under-performs, it sends spasms through the international markets, making it nearly impossible to get a vendor in the headlines unless they get indicted.

As with any other industry, firms need to ask basic questions to define the brand position in a highly competitive landscape.


The biggest brand killer in the marketing and PR game is the lack of a consistent message. If you poll a large base of customers and prospects only to find out that 20 think you’re an IT outsourcer, 10 think you are a consultancy and 25 think you are a quant shop, your ship is going to sink.

The old adage “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” rings truer than ever. Companies want assurances against financial failure, increased regulation, spending cuts, etc. A company with a clear, well-maintained message is always the safest bet in a down market.

When a company is struggling to identify its corporate vision or “true north,” it needs to undertake an extensive audit of investors, analysts, editors and other constituents to gain anecdotal evidence that will help define its corporate identity, marketing messages, value proposition and product positioning.

Some of the most basic (and illuminating) questions are as follows:

• How would you describe the company?

• Who is the competition?

• What is the company’s competitive advantage?

• What are the company’s biggest challenges?

• What are the best and worst aspects of the company?

• How long will the company’s products/services be useful?

• What is the company’s exit strategy?

Elemental questions it would seem, but more often than not, the respondents—even those intimately involved with the company—sound like they are talking about completely different entities. This exercise is the quickest way to surface a perception problem. If the people closest to the company all think it does different things, imagine what the general public could be thinking. This kind of perception problem is particularly dire in a struggling economy. If you seem confused, there are a dozen competitors ready to step in, dazzle your prospects and steal your sale.


One of the more visible examples of fractured brand positioning within the financial markets industry is coming from the liquidity venues. Traditional stock exchanges are seeing order flow and liquidity being threatened, so they are actively seeking new ways to improve service, increase product “stickiness” and be competitive. In the face of this identity crisis, traditional exchanges need to pay attention to their own reputations and go after analogous markets in their acquisition benders to build brand equity instead of diluting it.


It is important to remember that success will not be achieved overnight. Expect to chip away for a while before you see results. A sustained and circumspect approach to brand preservation will yield results over time as the markets continue to roil.

The key is to be thoughtful and proactive in your efforts, and to make sure you have realistic goals. PRN


Steph Johnson is head of North America for Aspectus PR, which focuses on financial services, technology and energy. She can be reached at steph.johnson@aspectuspr.com.