What to say when you can’t say "independently owned" or "non-aligned"

Last month, ASIC clarified their position on use of the terms "independently owned" and "non-aligned" under section 923a of the Corporations Act. They more or less said it’s a no-go, unless you meet the strict requirements the true independent financial planners must meet.

When I saw some of the reactions to the news online, I started to have flashbacks to circa 1980.

Nareena Hills Public School, sitting cross-legged on the heavy duty, green carpet in the library. Mrs Cobbin reading out loud as she slid her finger across the page, pointing to the words as she spoke.

The book?

Chicken Little.

In case you missed the hullabaloo, let me catch you up. And I’m going to leave it to ASIC to tell you what’s what.

"A financial service provider cannot use terms such as 'independently owned', 'non-aligned', and 'non-institutionally owned' if it does not satisfy the conditions in s923A (e.g. the financial service provider receives commissions from the issuer of a financial product).
We recognise that these terms are often used to convey the ownership and structure of the financial service provider, which is not intended to assert any independence or absence of conflict or influence from a product issuer.
However, the use of these terms could also imply that the financial service provider has an independent decision-making structure, free from conflicts of interest and influence from a product issuer. It is still open for these terms to mislead or confuse a consumer as to the nature of the financial service provider's connection to the financial product issuer.
In this way, these terms convey a meaning that is of 'like import' to the restricted terms in s923A(5)(a)(i), and so are restricted under s923A."
Source: 17-206MR ASIC clarifies its position on the use of 'independently owned' under s923A (It’s worth the 5 mins to read the statement in full, if you haven’t already.)

The news drew quite a reaction from some advisers, consultants and the industry media. The main concern being, advisers think this leaves them with no way to differentiate themselves from the big banks and institutions.

But I'm here to tell you, "It's just an acorn (and ASIC ain't Foxy Loxy)."

It's actually a brilliant opportunity to improve how you communicate with prospects and clients.

Why should I change the way I think about my positioning?

The reality is, if you’re using "independently owned" or "non-aligned" terminology as your primary point of differentiation or positioning, you’re probably not getting your message across as clearly as you could.

So this presents a great opportunity to start thinking beyond the jargon, and delving into your messaging a bit more.

Do clients really know what the terms mean?

I don’t believe most Aussies have any idea about the licensing structure of the financial advice industry in Australia. So saying you’re "non-aligned" probably doesn’t help your prospective clients too much.

You and I understand the term, but I don’t think most "normal" people do. You actually need to provide more information, using words and phrases your audience can unmistakably understand.

Do you want to be the same as 20% of the market?

Positioning your practice based on whether you’re independently owned or not, is really just saying, "hey we’re just like 20% of the advice market" (assuming a rough 80/20 bank/non-aligned split).

Being viewed the same as 20% of the market, doesn’t really differentiate you that much.

Nor does it speak to your ideal clients…unless of course your ideal clients are "anyone that can pay, that hates banks, and isn’t a psychopath", which, let’s be honest, is the positioning strategy of a whole lot of advisers in the market.

Your goal is to stand out as the business to choose -- not to everyone, just your dream clients. Saying the same thing as 20% of your peers, doesn't help you do that.

What do your clients care about most?

I think the simplest way to improve your communication and messaging is to look at it from a client or prospect’s point of view.

What is the most important thing they care about? (If you don’t have a clear target market, this is going to be hard.)

In a general sense, they probably care about whether you can solve their problems or help them achieve things that are important to them, both now and in the future.

More specifically, a young family in their 30’s might have buying and paying off their home, or having a balanced work/family life at the top of their list.

For a retired couple, maximising what’s in the kitty after they’ve gone might be number one. Or maybe it’s "spend it all and screw the kids".

This is where knowing who your ideal client is, is vital.

Being "independently owned" is probably not the primary thing your ideal clients care about. It's most definitely a factor (especially "independence" for the true independents) and an important message, but it’s not the main thing.

It doesn't matter if you're independently owned, if you can't (or don't want to) help the client with what they care about most i.e. if they aren't the people you're trying to reach.

What to say when you can't say "independently owned" or "non-aligned"

How do I get my message across?

So how do you communicate the "I’m different from a big bank / I'm independently owned" message to your prospects and clients (as a secondary message), without using those no-go phrases?

More importantly, how can you communicate your message more effectively?

Try these three steps.

1. What are you really trying to say when you call yourself "independently owned" or "non-aligned"?

Using "independently owned" or "non-aligned" is really just a short-cut way of saying a bunch of different things. But short-cuts aren’t very good from a communication point of view, unless everyone interprets their meaning in the same way you do.

So have a think about all the things you’re trying to communicate when you use those phrases.

They might include:

  • We’re a small business  
  • We’re local and part of your community
  • We want to distance ourselves from the high-profile scandals that have plagued the big banks
  • We’re trustworthy
  • We aren’t trying to sell people a particular product or have a wide choice in our product selection
  • We’re focused on advice, rather than product sales

Make sense?

2. Why does it matter to your clients?

Now you’ve broken down the deeper meaning, it’s time to put your client hat on and ask, "why does it matter?"

Not to you. To your clients.

And to do that, I suggest using the magical phrase, "which means…".

For example:

"We’re a small business
which means
we treat people like family, not numbers."

Can you see how using "which means" (you can also try "so that"), helps you explain the benefits and communicate more clearly?

But, you wouldn’t necessarily use those exact words on your website, or other marketing collateral.

There's just one more step.

3. "You" more than "we" 

Now, take your "which means" sentence and, in the words of the modern-day poet, Missy Elliot, "flip it and reverse it".

Switch the focus of your message from being about you, to being about the client. Change it from "we" language to "you" language. Make the client’s needs and desires the focus, and address their fears and objections.

For example:

"You’re like family, not numbers. 
Your success, is our success."

…or…

"You’re not just a number or another mark on a sales tally board. When you work with Patience Planning, you become part of a small group of ambitious Sunny Coasters, who’re stoked about life and taking control of their money."

Better than just saying, "We're independently owned", don't you think?

The "you/we" switch is subtle, but it makes a big difference to how you make people feel, when they read your message.

Get it right, and your ideal clients will be nodding their heads and raising their hands for more. 

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There’s more to effective messaging than the simple process above, but it's worth spending some time with your team, figuring out how best to tell people about what you do, for whom, and why it matters (to them).

Be clear. Use detail. And look at it from your ideal clients' point of view. Speak their language and empathise with their challenges.

Remember, whether you're independently owned or not, is more of a secondary message than a primary one. 

And don't get lost in the black hole of Chicken Little-esque outrage about the regulation change. Not being able to use a few vague phrases, is more blessing than curse. Better to use your energy to reinvent how you can more effectively communicate with your ideal clients, instead of screaming, "the sky is falling".

If you confuse, you lose.
— Donald Miller