Has the Northern Rock brand gone west?

Fame at last:  I appear briefly in Marketing today, complete with photo taken back in the days when I almost had hair, pontificating on the future of the Northern Rock brand. 

Basically, I say it hasn’t got one.  Refloating it would be a bit like refloating the Titanic:  theoretically possible, but ridiculously difficult and dreadful value for money compared to the cost of building another from scratch.

But am I actually right about this?  True, if we look for other brands struck in bow, amidships and stern by torpedoes, the first we’re likely to find is Arthur Andersen, which fell to the bottom of the ocean so fast that it practically bounced.  But the damage that the Enron saga did to the Andersen brand was, clearly, catastrophic:  in clients’ eyes, the whole point of the brand was to act as a mark of truthfulness and trustworthiness on the financial statements it was attached to, and becoming a mark of untruthfulness and untrustworthiness made it, literally, valueless.

There’s a long list of other brands which have run into pretty choppy waters – BA with the recent anti-trust fine, M&S when we all thought it was going bust, Perrier when it was found to have the benzene in it, lots of financial institutions mixed up in mis-selling scandals of one sort or another – without suffering terminal or indeed long-lasting effects.  And recent research by the reinsurer Swiss Re, looking at the brands consumers would feel happiest to trust with their retirement savings, found that in the top ten names on their list, the brand in the No. 4 slot was none other than Equitable Life – the same Equitable Life which, of course, went spectacularly tits up some years ago and did in fact cost a great many people a big slice of their pensions.

Bear in mind that in fact no-one’s actualy lost any money at Northern Rock at all, and one’s tempted to take a Jim Callaghan “Crisis?  What crisis?” line.  It’s a little local difficulty.  Six months from now, all will be forgotten.

But actually, I don’t buy that argument.  Maybe the brand isn’t unrefloatable, but why risk it?  We’ve seen how quickly new brands can be built from scratch in financial services:  not so long ago it was First Direct, then ING, more recently Icebank.  You probably could do something with Northern Rock (perhaps in a few years it’ll be a candidate for my brand brokerage, as described on 9th September).  But as the punchline of the old Irish joke has it, if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.


Front office vs back office: have we got our priorities back to front?

Excuse me if what remains of my hair has fallen out, but a client has asked us to have a look at their suite of back-office letters.   They really are bad beyond all belief – not just ugly, amateurish and hopelessly off-brand but in many cases utterly and completely incomprehensible. 

With the result that, for the hundredth time, I find myself fretting about the obvious folly of a world in which we polish everything in the front office till the shine almost hurts our eyes, while chucking any old rubbish out of the back office in the direction of any poor benighted soul with the misfortune to be an actual client.

You could think of this as grotesquely cynical – we’ll offer up any old blandishment to seduce the clients, then dispense with the mask as soon as they’re in our clutches.  But actually, as so often in financial services, I think it’s more cock-up than conspiracy.  For long-standing organisational reasons, marketing and communications people don’t have authority over the back office:  and, what’s more, they don’t much want it, because they can see that getting a grip on the situation calls for loads of unrewarding gruntwork on very tight budgets.  (Worse, it usually means coming to terms with horrendous systems constraints which mean that of the 30 things that would make the most difference to clients only 4 are actually achievable.)

Agency people are usually more than ready to collaborate in this front-office-centric way of thinking.  Several have been genuinely puzzled to see me poring over the form of words in our client’s Partial Redemption Statements.  But I guess that one of my odder but more ingrained characteristics is that I am, genuinely and deeply, committed to producing communications that people can understand.  And if changing something grimly dull and meaningless into something reasonably lively and pertinent floats your boat, as it does mine, you’ll find that once you get into the stuff on the back-office system you’re ploughing shoulders-deep through opportunities to make a difference. 

Look, Judy, I’m admitting I was wrong. Well, sort of.

My wife says I hate admitting I was wrong.  I say I’m perfectly happy to admit I was wrong on the (rare) occasions when it’s clear that I was.  And that last blog entry looks very wrong indeed.  (Not just in its main message.  It was wrong in detail too:  Northern Rock doesn’t have a branch in Heckmondwike, which is in any case in Yorkshire and not in NR’s north-eastern heartland.  Still, it’s an amusing name.)

Self-deludingly, I still intend to mount some sort of defence.  For one thing, at the time of writing that last entry, I was well ahead of the curve.  At that point, I don’t think anyone had written anything much about the prospect of a run on the bank. It wasn’t a bad bit of trend-spotting. And for another thing, I didn’t think that it would take the Government so long to offer satisfactory reassurance.  It’s only today, five days after my last piece, that the Chancellor has actually deployed the magic word “guarantee,” and I don’t think there can be any doubt that if he’d done so five days earlier then an awful lot of people would have spent an awful lot less time standing around on the country’s pavements.

Oh well.  From my point of view, those newspaper photographs of those long queues of anxious-looking grey-haired people in cardigans and car coats, withn their flasks of tea and their clingfilmed sandwiches, will serve one very useful purpose.  Whenever I have to brief a creative team on a high street savings account, I’ll show them a couple of the photographs, just so they can be in no doubt as to the full horror of the target market they’re dealing with.


Will they be queuing round the block in Gateshead and Heckmondwike? (Personally, I think not)

It’ll be very interesting to see where this Northern Rock story goes in the next few days – most of all, of course, to see whether there’s any sign of a run on the bank, with anxious north-eastern savers waiting in line to get their money out.

In these distrustful times, you wouldn’t bet against it.  On the radio this morning, there were so many reassuring voices that you couldn’t help thinking that the situation must be far worse than anyone has admitted.  And you also couldn’t help thinking that if Northern Rock, with its very-largely-prime mortgage book, is having such problems then there must be a load of sub-prime lenders who are in the direst of dire straits.

Still, as things stand, I calculate that there are still limits to consumers’ distrust.  Actually, it may not be a question of “still.”  In a world where we calibrate our distrust much more carefully than we used to, I think most will figure that no government with the faintest interest in being re-elected could let a couple of million customers – sorry, voters – lose their shirts in a credit crunch. 

I’d be surprised to see our cloth-capped Mackem and Geordie friends clutching their passbooks and waiting patiently outside Northern Rock branches today.   But I don’t think the reasons for that are particularly reassuring:  it just means that people’s cynicism about politicians and their motives is greater than their distrust of the financial services industry.     

Sorry, procurement departments, we’re only pretending to appreciate you

In big financial companies, procurement departments are now so important and so all-pervasive that dissing them to their faces would be really stupid.

Behind their backs, though, we’re still 100% unsympathetic towards them.  All of us in creative agencies simply refuse to believe that a procurement-led process is the right way to buy our services and manage business relationships with us.  We find the processes they put us through bizarrely irrelevant and inappropriate.  We find the questions they ask us often either irrelevant, or impossible to answer.  And we find their approach to negotiations on cost almost comical.

Pleasingly, it’s increasingly clear that many of our clients in marketing, branding or comms roles feel much the same.  At lunch today, I was sharing war stories with a former colleague who is now in charge of advertising for a very large FS provider.  His agency’s 2008 fee proposal was recently rejected by procurement , he told me, because even though it showed an acceptable hourly rate for the copywriter and art director, and an aceptable allocation of time to the account, and an acceptable all-up cost for their services, it didn’t specify their names.  Procurement couldn’t sign the proposal off without names.

My friend did what any sensible person would do in the circumstances, which was to make some names up.  Problem solved. 

Ha ha ha, we laughed.  But thinking about it afterwards, the story reminded me of a very ancient folk tale – about how things used to be in the print room at Times Newspapers, long before Rupert Murdoch and back in the dark old days when The Times was still printed in Fleet Street. 

The management were completely out of control, we were told.  Things we so bad that salaries were being paid to non-existent workers with ludicrous false names – M. Mouse, D. Duck, B. Bunny.  The real workers were splitting these bogus pay packets between them and spending the money down the pub.

I’ve no idea whether anything similar is happening, or will ever happen, at my friend’s firm.  But there’s nothing that managers can do which is much more dangerous than forcing their people to tell stupid lies to fit in with their processes.  As Stakhanovite underlings proved in Stalinist Russia, there are few surer ways to erode an organisation from the inside.

Procurement departments, with their stupid unsuitable processes, force us to lie and bend the truth all the time to fit in with them.  Much as we may pretend we’re happy to go along with that, the truth is that we hate it.  And in the long run, the procurement people’s bosses have reason to hate it even more.

Hey, amigos, this isn’t going to work

As I just mentioned in the previous piece, those expansive Spaniards at Banco Santander are well on the way now to dropping the Abbey brand and replacing it with their own.

Part of the plan, unsurprisingly, involves building consumer awareness of the Santander name, so that there’s as little consumer mystification as possible on S-day when the Abbey logos are all replaced.  Quite right and proper.

The bit that isn’t going to work, though – despite the valiant efforts of the TV commercial voice-overs – is persuading us to pronounce their name “SantandAIRE”, with the emphasis on the last syllable.  Trust me, compadres, we’re going to call it “SantANDer”, with the emphasis on the middle syllable and an “…ur”, not an “…aire”, at the end.

I don’t say this just for the pleasure at sniping at the Spanish, although I must admit that travelling a lot through Spanish-owned BAA airports this summer has rather brought out the Espanophobe in me:  BAA is now by a million airmiles the worst, most loathsome, despicably cynical, customer-hating business operating anywhere in the UK, and in saying that I include both Ryanair and Thames Water.

My point is that like many things in branding, advertising and marketing, naming can only be done with the consent – sometimes active, sometimes passive – of the consumer.  Santander can try as hard as they like to programme “Santandaire” into our heads.  I’ll happily bet you a delicious dinner for two at any Ferrovial-owned BAA airport that three years from now they’ll still be “SantANDer.”

Yours free: my best-ever business idea

No joke, no strings – I just know I’m never going to get round to it.  It’s an idea of total simplicity, and although I think of it in the context of financial services I’m sure it would work in dozens of other markets.  And it takes just two words to describe:  brand brokerage.

In financial services, the huge number of mergers, acquisitions and restructurings over recent years has left dozens, if not hundreds, of brands superfluous to their current owners’ requirements.   But all sorts of other organisations – most obviously start-ups, but also businesses expanding into new market sectors or even just ones wanting better-known and more meaningful brands – would be happy to pay extremely good money for them.

As a brand broker, you could either simply introduce buyers to sellers on a matched bargain basis, or - better – become a market-maker in your own right, stockpiling brands and becoming an obvious port of call for anyone planning a suitable initiative.

The latter approach, I’m pretty sure, would be the more rewarding even if only because there would be no potential buyer on the scene to overheat the seller’s expectations.

And just think of the sort of stock you could put on your shelves.  In the space of a couple of minutes, I can come up with Save & Prosper (perhaps the best retail investment brand ever, now owned by JPMorgan and clearly surplus to their master-branded requirements), Scottish Amicable, Eagle Star, Allied Dunbar, London Life (like several others still technically in use as a life company closed to new business, but in fact very tradeable), SG Warburg, General Accident, Commercial Union, Equity & Law, Midland Bank, Bankers Trust, Mercury Asset Management and James Capel.  And the list gets longer all the time:  I would be surprised if, within the next couple of years, it doesn’t also include Abbey, to be replaced any day now by Santander;  PPP healthcare and Sun Life, finally eliminated by AXA; Newton, given the chop by Mellon;  and, at slightly longer odds, First Direct, looking increasingly unsafe and anomalous as part of another business, HSBC, which takes a master-branded world-view.

If you go for it as a business idea, good luck.  Send me a bottle of something when you make your first million.


How the office is different from home

Well, altogether, in lots of ways, obviously.  My children don’t live here.  I can’t have a bath here.  Other people do what I ask them to do here, at least occasionally. But these are not the ways that interest me this morning.  I’m interested in the amazingly different costs of things.

Some things are astoundingly much more expensive when bought for offices.  I never like knowing, for example, what we pay for computers, because it’s so much more than normal people pay at home.  When home PC buyers can buy a perfectly good Dell desktop for £300 or so, for example, people in offices are paying three times as much for less powerful machines.  I don’t know why.  In offices, you just do.

But sometimes the balance tilts the other way – literally, if I use the balance tilt facility on my new leather executive style chair.  This cost about £50, and as well as tilting it rotates, goes up and down and very likely ejects me through the ceiling if I’m not careful.  £50!  You try buying a big leather chair, complete with arms, for £50 in a home furnishing store. Even IKEA.  Look in the catalogues – Viking Online is a good one – and you’ll see that office furniture is so cheap, it makes IKEA look like Harrods.

Obvious solution:  office people buy computers in home computing stores, homeowners buy furniture in office equipment stores.  Your sitting room might look a bit, well, officey.  But think how much you’d save.