As Edwin Starr said, absolutely nothin – or next to nothin,Â anyway, as far as figuring out how to build financial services brands is concerned.
IÂ spoke at a conferenceÂ last week about the way that ideas about brands and how to build them have changed over the years.Â It was one of those speeches where I hope what I said was surprising and thought provoking for the delegates, but it was definitely surprising and thought provoking for me.
If I think back to my early days in advertising working on textbook FMCG brands – notably Mars confectionery products – some of the most important things we all believed unquestioningly were that:
-Â Building brands is a very long-term business.Â Â They take 30 years or more to establish.
-Â You do it mostly with advertising.
-Â The advertising should be focused on a clear and unique proposition, expressed in a memorableÂ strapline.
-Â Strong brands areÂ better able to survive scandals, disasters and setbacks.
-Â Brands are managed and controlled by brand managers.
-Â Brands are very malleable things, which can be rethought and reworked at any time.
-Â Strong brands are much more trusted than weak brands.
-Â The best brand-builders work in FMCG.
None of these ideas really stands upÂ any more.Â Building brands isn’t a long-term business:Â the likes of Google, Facebook and You Tube needed more like 30 months than 30 years.Â Advertising often has little or nothing to do with it:Â ever seen an Amazon ad? Brands need a clear purpose, but the whole business of unique propositions sounds almost comical these days: what brands need is not a USP but an EAP, an Extremely Attractive Personality.Â After Arthur Andersen, we stopped believingÂ that strong brands can survive scandals, but just in caseÂ anyone was still dubiousÂ a whole bunch of financial brands from Icesave to Lehman Brothers have just re-emphasised the point.Â More and more brands are managed and controlled by their customers more than by brand managers, especially on the Internet:Â it’s really interesting to see, for example, how studiously bland and characterless the Facebook visual identity is, presumably on the grounds that the brand is all about what the users bring to it, not what it is in itself.Â Â Whereas FMCG brands are indeed pretty malleable and redefinable, service-sector brands clearly aren’t:Â I’ve been arguing for some time now that it’s demonstrably daft to keep on believing you can conjure up a new, clear and different sense of what, say, Barclays stands for, when the truth is that it doesn’t stand for anything at all.Â In financial services, if “strongest” means best-known, then generally the strongest brands are the least trusted.Â And finally, we’ve gradually come to appreciate that since brand-building in big, complicated service businesses is to brand-building in packaged groceries as chess is to noughts and crosses, even though we’re far from perfect at it we’re about a hundred times better than people dealing with nice simple passive malleable groceries.
So what I’m saying, in short, in that last far-from-short paragraph is that actually none of those pieces of received wisdom from the world of FMCG branding 30 years ago stands up today in financial services.Â And I reckon that’s aboutÂ 25% because things have changed over the years, and 75% because when you come to think about it service brands and FMCG brands are and always have been incredibly different species.
All of which, I hope, goes to explain why I get so incredibly cross when people say – as they still surprisingly often do – “Financial branding?Â Just like baked beans, innit.”Â No, actually.Â It really isn’t.