Marks & Spnecer invests belatedly in spellcheck

Dunno if you’ve seen that big press ad for the M&S Ethical Fund in the papers over the last ten days or so.  If you have, you’re probably not sad enough to have noticed quite how many typos there were in the first insertions.  There really were loads, including the word “predominantly” spelt twice as “predominately” and – one of my betes noires – the expression “this criteria” when criteria, of course, is a plural.

In the latest insertions, all these mistakes have been fixed, although it’s still a horrid, ugly, badly-written piece of copy.  But for those of us who care about such things, the damage is done.  You can whisper “This is not just food, this is M&S food” in my ear as much as you like.  If you can’t spell “predominantly,” you don’t get my business. 


Nice strategy, shame about the ads

You can’t help thinking of the world of financial services advertising over the years as a very large and very dark coal cellar populated by an awful lot of blindfolded people aiming at an awful lot of invisible dart boards.

No-one’s had much of an idea what they’ve been trying to achieve.  Every now and then – as a result of sheer luck, the law of averages or maybe a secret supply of matches – someone would hit a bulls eye.  But no-one was ever quite sure how they’d done it – not even the people who’d done it themselves – and we’d all go back to chucking our darts all over the place until the next lucky shot.

It wasn’t good, but at least we were all in it together.  Which is why I’m pleased, but also a bit concerned, to find that one group of residents of the coal cellar is showing signs of finding its own private source of illumination.

Recently, agency planners have started coming forward with some really rather interesting insights about the way that financial products and services relate to people’s lives.  For example, even though it played a big part in helping win the business from cchm:ping, I really admired the insight at the heart of Fallon’s pitch to MORE TH>N – that the ultimate purpose of insurance is to restore normality after some kind of disruption to customers’ lives.  I like the look of the new Lloyds TSB insight, wrapped up in their new strapline “For the journey” – that our lives consist of a whole series of overlapping journeys, some long and complicated, others short and simple, and we look to our financial services provider to help make them a bit easier and to help make us a bit more likely to reach our destinations.  And of course I hugely admire the whole range of insights in Nationwide’s Mark Benton campaign about how we perceive other High Street financial services providers.

But of these, and a few others with surprisingly insightful insights, only one – Nationwide – has been able to come up with a creative execution even half as good as the strategy. 

Obviously I’m biased because we lost the business, but I’m quite certain that MORE TH>N’s quiet, sad little commercials were a complete and utter waste of money.  They would quite literally have done better to burn the budget in their central heating boiler:  at least it would have delivered a few minutes of useful warmth.  The new Lloyds TSB campaign isn’t in that league, but, given the clarity and focus of the strategy (which, I strongly suspect, probably included the strapline or something very close to it), I’d have thought the creative team at Rainey Kelly might have come up with something a bit better than a bunch of animated characters on a train.

For many years, when we’ve teased agency creatives about the bland and generic nature of most financial advertising, they’ve responded by blaming the briefs.  Bland and generic brief = bland and generic creative, they’ve told us. Now, the briefs are getting better quite rapidly, but the creative work is generally making much slower progress.  Sharp and insightful brief = bland and generic creative?  Surely that’s not really very satifactory.

A perfect example of anti-advertising

I’m no fan of Gordon Brown’s increased Air Passenger Tax – like most people, I can easily spot a tax masquerading as an environmental initiative, even from 35,000 feet.  But if there’s one thing that can make me think perhaps Gordon’s idea isn’t such a bad idea after all, it’s discovering that Michael O’Leary and Ryanair are against it.

And all the more so when O’Leary makes his views known in typically rubbish advertising, like the subject in today’s Times which he would no doubt say is bursting with irreverent, chirpy, punchy attitude but we would no doubt say is the usual crude, lumbering, amateurish rubbish that we expect from his ghastly airline.   

The result is a perfect example of anti-advertising, a campaign that makes us think the exact opposite of the advertiser’s intentions.   I’ve said for a long time that Ryanair seems to me to be the continuation of the Irish republican struggle against the English by other means, and although in a public medium like this I suppose I have to add that I don’t mean it literally, the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” still applies.  Good on you, Gordon.  Bring that tax on.  If you’ve got O’Leary rattled, you must be doing something right.

Free advice – quality not guaranteed

Some of my colleagues see a danger that I’ll give away too much free advice in this blog.  “Why will anyone want to pay for our advice, when they can get it for nothing here?” they ask.

Privately, I’m thinking it’s a pretty long shot for a client with a brand, marketing or communications problem.  “I’ll just check out that blog and see whether, by chance, of the 400,000 topics it could have covered, it covers exactly the issue that I’m worried about.”

Still, just to be on the safe side, from now on I’ve decided to throw in the odd bit of disinformation every now and then, a bit like David Whitney used to do back in the days when everyone copied his Lain homework.

Today’s free advice is for retail funds providers.  I’m writing quite a lot about them at the moment, because we’re much weaker in that area than we should be and I’m hoping to generate some interest.  So far it’s not working, but I’m playing a long game.

Anyway. Here’s the advice.  I think it’s time for most bigger players with large or large-ish fund ranges to start thinking about developing more sub-brands.  By this I mean brands that sit below their corporate brands but above their individual funds’ identities, giving some shape and coherence to groups of funds that have something in common.

These groups could be defined by asset class (our bond funds);  or by investment objective (our high alpha funds); or by geography (our European funds); or, perhaps most attractively, by investor need (either rational need, like ‘our income funds,’ or emotional need, like ‘our sleep-at-night funds’ or indeed ‘our environmentally responsible funds’).

Of course there are a few sub-brands already.  There are two or three ranges of ethical funds.  A few firms launched small ranges of ‘focus funds’ a few years ago, following the then-current fashion for concentrated portfolios.  And you can argue that to all intents and purposes, many firms now position their multi-manager funds under a sub-brand to distinguish them from their individual funds.

But these sub-brandings have been more or less forced upon managers by circumstances.  If you’re launching three focus funds at once – say a UK one, a European one and a US one – it really would be daft not to brand and promote them in a way that demonstrated the relationship between them.  Very few firms have chosen to build sub-brands when they didn’t have to.

And yet – here’s the point – it would make life so much easier if they did. 

Most of all, sub-brands would provide promotable, brandable, distinctive entities at that all-important middle level between corporate brand and individual fund.

Corporate branding and promotion certainly has its place, but it’s a fairly small and cramped place.  Sure, it helps if I know, like and trust your corporate brand.  But it’s really difficult to say anything specific and meaningful about corporate brands, especially in terms of the benefits they offer to investors (or indeed in terms of any particular way that they go about investing - can anyone really give a clear, coherent and remotely differentiating account of a single process which they use for everything from government bonds to emerging markets?). 

For providers with dozens of funds, from fixed-income plodders to derivative-fuelled sprinters, the corporate brand can do little that isn’t, well, corporate.  It’s like Unilever or Yamaha:  good names, but what have you got for me today: fish fingers or face cream, a racing bike or a baby grand?

At the opposite end, individual fund promotion certainly has its place too, but it’s a somewhat temporary kind of place, often with shallow foundations.  Individual funds are promotable, and indeed sellable, for as long as the manager stays and the performance holds up.  During these happy circumstances, all is well.  But what happens afterwards?  You become “the firm which used to employ X” or “the firm which used to win all the awards for its European fund.”

A sub-branded range can avoid all these problems.  A sub-branded range can make a specific investor promise;  it can say something distinctive and compelling about how it’ll keep its promise;  and it has a bigger and solider story to tell than any single fund ever can.

It must, of course, be supported by the corporate brand from above, and ideally by individual fund brands from below.  But in terms of consumer-facing communications – including advertising – and I think probably also adviser-facing communications, sub-brands actually offer more potential, more power and (crucially) more sustainability than either corporate or individual fund brands ever can.

If this advice is any use to you, you’re very welcome to it.  But don’t forget the slim possibility that it’s the opposite of what I really think.


Could Resolution Asset Management’s advertising be “the new Impressionism”?

Ever since France’s mid-19th Century chattering classes poured scorn on the early exhibitions of the Impressionists, fellow-chatterers have been very dodgy about scorn-pouring when confronted with something new and different.

Sometimes, we’re painfully reminded why we’re wise to hold back.  I was grumpy when Artemis launched their “profit hunter” campaign a couple of years ago, mainly because we’d taken part in the same pitch and lost, and I wrote a piece for a trade paper which didn’t exactly pour scorn, but certainly raised a distinctly unimpressed eyebrow.  Two years on, I have to say the campaign has been a success – and, in particular, what seemed very odd and silly and out-of-category at the time now looks like a pretty successful and increasingly mainstream way for an investment advertiser to promote its funds.

Now, though, we face that Paris Salon moment again.  The same agency that does Artemis has launched its new campaign for Resolution Asset Management, again using illustration and again using an extended analogy to dramatise the role of the fund managers.  But this time, instead of representing them metaphorically as posh members of the 1930s hunting, shooting and fishing set, like Artemis, they’ve gone up a notch or two.  The new campaign represents them as Marvel-comic style superheroes.

I have to say that the scorn-pouring instinct is extremely strong.  “You’ve got to be kidding!!”, I want to say.  “Is there no height of vanity and self-importance to which these fund managers won’t go?  How about a campaign that treats them as Greek gods, poncing about on Mount Olympus?  Or as saints?  Maybe the guy running the India fund could be Mother Theresa.  Or as rock legends?  No, hang on a minute, that’s been done, the multi-manager team at F&C have already represented themselves as the Beatles.  No, when I come to think about it, I don’t think there is any height of vanity and self-importance to which fund managers won’t go.”

I must admit, the scorn-pourer and balloon-pricker in me really wants to put forward an investment funds campaign in which the fund managers are represented in an extended analogy as school dinner ladies or care-home workers.  But I fear that probably explains why the Superheroes agency – happily taking the odd litre or two of scorn in its stride – is doing so much better in the funds market than we are just now.

Can you help explain the great mystery of the 1960s?

No, it’s not how Engelbert Humperdinck prevented the greatest single ever released (Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields) from reaching No. 1.  It’s not how Swansea City managed to spend a few heady days one October at the top of the old First Division.  (They were relegated at the end of the season, and relegated down to the fourth division over the three following seasons.) It’s not even why tie-dyeing.

The really great mystery of the 1960s is much more complicated – and indeed much more mystifying – than any of these (and also, I must admit, more than a little off-piste even for a fairly loosely-defined blog like this).  Here it comes. 

Back in the sixties, in real terms people earned something like a third of what we do now, and total tax rates – income tax, NI, local taxes, VAT (which didn’t exist then) and all the others – were less than half what they are now.

Against that, the population was smaller, but not that much smaller – say something a little under 50 million, compared to today’s 60 million.

So governments, national and local, had a fraction of the money that they have today – maybe something around a quarter as much in real terms.  And since people were a lot poorer, arguably they needed a lot more help.

And yet – here’s the mystery – in the 60s pretty much everything worked.  Hospitals worked, schools worked, trains worked, roads worked, libraries worked, public parks worked, refuse collection worked, buses worked, GPs worked, NHS dentistry worked, extremely large armed forces worked, the mental health system worked, post offices worked, even unemployment benefit worked to the extent that well into the 70s layabout students like me could spend months if not years drawing the dole without any serious pressure to get a job.

To put the same paragraph the other way round, these days, with something like four times the money, patients in hospital spend the night on trollies in corridors and are chucked out within hours of operations, whereas after I had some routine dental work under general anaesthetic in 1967 I was kept in for three days just to keep an eye on me;  just under half of eleven-year-olds leave primary school effectively unable to read, write or do simple arithmetic;  trains are shatteringly much more expensive and unreliable, and their scheduled journey times generally longer, than they were 40 years ago;  it’s more or less impossible to make a journey on major roads without maddening delays and difficulties arising from road works; public libraries have been closed left right and centre, and the few than remain are mostly Resource Centres offering CDs and videos but precious few books;  public parks are wastelands of needle-strewn and dogshit-fouled grass…well, I could go on, but the grumpy old man thing is only amusing up to a certain point.

Over the same time, for all our waste and foolishness, it’s clear that our private lives have become incredibly much more affluent.  The cost of all goods has plummeted in real terms:  we’re up to our necks in fridges, DVDs, computers, cars, microwaves, digital cameras, cinema sound systems, plasma TVs, alarm clock radios, expresso makers, ride-on mowers and all the rest of it to an extent which would have astonished our 1967 counterparts.  We eat and drink better (and probably more), we travel much, much more, we buy far more out-of-home entertainment, we own more clothes, we spend more on everything from birthday presents to duvet covers.

But while the increase in affluence is plain to see in our private lives, it seems utterly, completely, mystifyingly absent in our public lives.  The Chancellor dips ever-more-desperately into our pockets with more and more stealth taxes.  Speed camera fines generate another few hundred million.  Not indexing inheritance tax: a billion or two.  A transparently bogus “environmental tax” on flying:  a few hundred million more.  None of it makes any difference.  Nothing works.  The Army don’t have the right equipment, thousands of Post Offices will be closed in the next year or two, the last fragments of NHS dentistry are falling apart like rotten fillings before our eyes.

Where is the money going?  I understand some of it.  High tech medicine:  in 1967 we needed scalpels and bandages, in 2007 we need MRI scanners and retrovirals.  Motorway maintenance:  our poor overused motorways need resurfacing more often in a decade than the old A1 did in a century.    Catching up with decades of underinvestment:  there probably isn’t enough money in the world to replace all of our overground and underground Victorian infrastructure.

But the thing is, all the factors like this that I can think of don’t begin to solve the mystery (especially when you take into account that if the price of goods in public life has fallen just as much as the price of goods in private life, the NHS can probably buy an MRI scanner today for about the same price as a box of a dozen scalpels forty years ago anyway).

I know, also, that some of those services which I say “worked” in the 1960s left a good deal to be desired.  I know about what was going on in mental hospitals – hey, I’ve both seen and read “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”  But at least there were mental hospitals.  Now, it’s Care In The Community, one of those phrases which means the exact opposite of what it says.  Rather like the offices of some friends of mine located out near Hammersmith at a place called Kensington Village, for the obvious reason that it isn’t in Kensington and it isn’t a village.

But anyway.  Even when I’ve made every allowance I can imagine, I can’t begin to explain the mystery.  How could everything pretty much work with no money then, whereas almost everything doesn’t work with lots and lots and lots of money now?  The mystery really bothers me.  If you can cast any new light on it – not just telling me about the MRI scanners again – I’d be really grateful.

Large empty tent available

One of the weirdest things about today’s financial services market is that hardly anyone – retailer or distibutor – has any serious interest in doing business with ordinary middle-of-the-road mass market consumers.

In consumer markets generally, this situation is unique in my experience.  Usually, the mainstream middle market is the most crowded and competitive sector.  Marketers coming to financial services from other industries – automotive, retail, travel, food, utilities - must find this emptiness and silence at the heart of the marketplace most disconcerting. 

There is a reason, of course – namely, that no-one has a business model that can make any money out of the middle market.  Models depending on time-consuming face-to-face “advice” - actually face-to-face selling – don’t work when the prospects only have small amounts of money to spend.  No-one knows how to make any money out of direct marketing-based businesses.  Worksite marketing still obstinately refuses to take off.  Bancassurance is still mostly a failure.  It’s all very depressing.

To put the point in Blairite language, what we’re seeing here is a situation in which the “big tent” – as New Labour like to describe the mass market – remains strangely empty, while the High Net Worth tent and the Mass Affluent tent are rammed with customers and advisers doing business with each other.  There are even a few clusters of people hanging around in the Downmarket tent, buying financial services from a range of quite populist organisations like the last few IB sales forces, a few switched-on trade unions and some other affinity groups like Age Concern and Help the Aged.

Personally, I remain doggedly confident that there are many huge and completely untapped opportunities in direct marketing for companies willing to re-invent the wheel and throw out all the out-of-date and consumer-unfriendly nonsense that has doomed previous efforts to failure.

That may sound like a bit of a long shot, but even if so it’s still better than nothing, which is pretty much all that everyone else in the industry - manufacturers, distributors, consumers, regulators, politicians – has to offer.  Right now, we’re in a bizarre and frightening situation in which tens of millions of people are sleep-walking their way into serious long-term financial hardship, and apart from a couple of government-backed projects which could easily be taken for window-dressing no-one seems to be doing anything much about it.

It may be that someone knows something I don’t, like we’re all going to die of New Variant CJD or within 50 years global warming will have developed to such an extent that there’ll only be a few thousand of us left clinging to the upper reaches of Ben Nevis and Mount Snowdon, so none of this will much matter.  Otherwise, surely it can’t be too long now till someone starts wanting to take up a position in that great big empty tent.  Can it?

New New Star poster poser

I haven’t really got anything huge to say about this, I just liked the headline.  But New Star’s new mash-up poster for their property fund is, I’d say, the most significant departure in the look and feel of their advertising since they launched in 2001.  It was definitely about time to move on, so congratulations to all concerned for that.

That said, for most people passing by on their Clapham omnibuses, the headline – still “DIVERSIFY”, as in the previous layout – remains on the opaque side, and purists would argue that the 32,287 words of copy are a few too many.

This whole advertising and branding thing seems to get more perplexing by the minute.  I wrote a few weeks ago about businesses like easyJet, amazon, even in their detestable way Ryanair, which have built puzzlingly-successful consumer brands without paying a blind bit of attention to the brand-building textbooks. Now here is the biggest advertiser – and best-known name – in investment funds taking just as little notice of the how-to-do-effective-outdoor-advertising textbooks. 

I’m starting to entertain a dark suspicion that maybe all the textbooks are wrong.  I don’t think I’ll be buying any more for a while. 

So what do people do when they get home from the pub these days?

I’ll tell you what I did, a lot of the time and for a long period right through from later school days pretty much up to birth of first child:  turned on the television, BBC2 for well over ten years and then increasingly Channel 4 as well, and watched late-night European art-house films.

Jules et Jim , Last Year At Marienbad, Rome Open City, La Dolce Vita, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Claire’s Knee, The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, Fitzcarraldo, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Day For Night, Closely Observed Trains, Spirit of the Beehive, Breathless, God, now that I’ve got started on this list there’s no stopping me. 

And I can do the same with the directors, more or less matching to the above:  Truffaut, Resnais, Rossellini, Fellini, Bunuel, Rohmer, Herzog, Wenders, Fassbinder, Menzel, Erice, Godard, yes, OK, I’m turning into Nick Hornby.

Anyway, the thing is:  brilliant films, fantastic to watch after four or five pints of Guinness, and a really important part of several generations’ learning about popular culture (key message:  Hollywood doesn’t call all the shots).  But where are they now?  Sky alone has ten movie channels;  there are probably half a dozen other equally-dedicated channels of one sort or another;  and up to another 30 or 40 channels showing between one and four movies a day.  But as far as I can see, there isn’t a single one regularly showing this kind of material

In the short term, this must result in a distressing gap in the lives of millions of students and others coming home late in the evening from licensed premises, who presumably can find little else to do except go to bed with each other and role-play some of the more involving scenes from some of the films they’re not watching.

But in the longer term, the gap in people’s cultural understanding will be more problematic.  It’s ironic, for example, that Stella Artois, which does so much to promote and sponsor modern (and largely Hollywood) films on television, has based its advertising for many years on lovingly-made parodies of films that most of its target market have now never seen.  (Who aged under, say, 25 now knows anything about the films where Stella’s “reassuringly expensive” parodies campaign began, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources?) 

Call him a ghastly misogynistic old fascist (he’d probably take it as a compliment), but Kingsley Amis expressed one of the great truths of modern life when he said – on the subject, I think, of the increasing number of places at universities – that “more means worse.”

It seems almost impossible to believe that this principle could apply to movies on TV, over a period in which we’ve moved from a mere three or four channels showing a couple of films a day to fifty or sixty showing several hundred.

But if you hanker after a touch of Mastroianni, Ekberg, Belmondo, Deneuve, Delon, Hauer, Bergman (Ingrid or Ingmar), Schygulla, Seberg, Auteuil, Seyrig, that’s enough foreign names (ed), then I think you’ll find Kingsley’s quote applies just as well to the boom in the number of TV channels as it does to, well, everything else really.