Public Equity, Public perception

 By Camilla Butcher, Associate Strategist, Siegel+Gale

At first glance, one might assume it’s a pretty great time to be a private equity firm right now. The market has been booming for the past decade and investment into private equity in major markets like Europe is at its highest level since 2007. Interest rates have been held low making borrowing cheap and easy, and there is a lot of “dry powder” about…$1.08trillion of the stuff to be exact.

At the top of the market, in an industry that traditionally hasn’t considered its marketing efforts a priority, it is more important than ever to differentiate yourself by clearly articulating your firm’s core proposition, to cut through the noise of your peers, and to clearly demonstrate the business practices and behaviours that provide better and more reliable returns than your competitors.

But we are a branding consultancy, of course we’re going to say that, right?

Sure, but a private equity market awash with growth and liquidity comes with increased complexity and competition. As firms look to diversify their offerings to open up new markets and geographies, inevitably they are changing the way they operate and how they present themselves. In this crowded landscape competition for fundraising has increased and firms need to differentiate. Alongside achieving crucial differentiation, the benefits of a strong brand for these firms are numerous; from acting as a buffer during times of underperformance, to the proven halo-effect it projects on to the perceived value of a firm’s acquisitions.

Camilla Butcher
Camilla Butcher

It seems many firms clearly recognise the need to update and change the way they position themselves and this is reflected in the way they are communicating intent. They simply have not translated this into action. A quick review of the messaging of the major private equity players reveals that every firm across the board seems to declare ‘responsibility’ and/or ‘realising potential’ – whatever that actually means – as their calling cards. We know that ‘responsible investment’ must stand as a cornerstone of any firm and any investment strategy today. Indeed, one doesn’t have to look very far to see the casualties that a lack of responsible investment strategy brings. Remember the cautionary tale of The Abraaj Group, a Dubai-based private equity firm accused of misusing investor funds for its own corporate purposes. Beyond the statement of intent, it’s those firms that decide to make the shift from simply declaring responsibility to actually demonstrating it, that stand to win. Like the age-oldline “stop telling people you’re funny and just tell a joke”, firms that make this shift will be the only ones making people laugh in a room full of people claiming that they’re funny.

This shift would be supported through the adoption of a range of brand behaviours, from consistently communicating with a distinct tone of voice and language that truly inhabits a consistent character, to creating a signature brand experience. This would mean investors and partners having a clear picture of what to expect from your firm before its representatives even walk into the room. Then, when they deliver upon that expectation, it not only reinforces your signature experience, but demonstrates that you are an organisation that keeps your promises. Businesses that use brand to elevate and unify the moments of influence within their interactions in this way gain both gravitas and trust in the minds of their clients.

A more obvious ‘quick win’ with regards to demonstrating responsibility is with gender diversity in the workplace (or lack thereof). With the recent publication of BCVA’s report on Women in Private Equity, the immediacy of the issue is highlighted. The report reveals that only 6 percent of senior private equity investment professionals are women. It is surprising that an industry so acutely aware of what makes businesses profitable could have overlooked the commercial case that has been made and proven for diversity in the workplace. One only has to look to a recent study by Mckinsey that concludes firms in the top quartile for diversity are over 20 percent more likely to enjoy above-average profitability than those in the bottom quartile. As well as this, diversity of thought when it comes to sound decision-making and the obvious fact that innovation doesn’t happen in an echo chamber, stand out in the long list of reasons why change is necessary. With the series of high-profile female appointments we are now finally beginning to see within the business landscape, there is a very real danger that even within the historic boys’ club of financial services, private equity may be the last to catch up.

If you need to make a compelling demonstration of your commitment to being responsible and fulfilling potential, how about realising the potential that diversity in the workforce brings? Diversity is responsibility in action because it’s a long-term investment for growth through the value of people and building a strong working culture. It’s not relying on the market’s strength today, but creating an environment for sustained success into the future.

For private equity, public perception in terms of attracting the right opportunities, investment and talent has never mattered so much. What could be more responsible than building for the future, now?

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