Damn, I was just getting the hang of behaving like an individual

The Co-op’s new mega-commercial has Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind as its soundtrack, but it might just as well use The Times They Are A-Changin’.  Because A-Changin’ is definitely what the times are doing right now.

Take ING Direct’s new outdoor campaign.  I’ll try to import a couple of examples later, but all you really need to know is that it encourages you to behave like one of the crowd.  (The headlines say things like “When others zig, zig” and “What’s wrong with sheep anyway?”)

Thoughts like these represent a complete, total, 180 degree, execute-a-handbrake-turn-and-head-off-in-the-opposite-direction volte-face on 20, or 30, or even 40 or 50 years of advertising history.  If advertising has stood for one idea during the whole of the time that I’ve been involved with it (somewhere around the middle of that range of time periods), it’s been that your choice of goods and services mark you out as an individual, say and show that in some way you’re different from your peers.

There has of course been the odd exception to this, most notably on occasions when advertisers have wanted to persuade target groups that certain previously-taboo behaviours have now become widely acceptable. “A million housewives every day pick up a tin of beans and say ‘beanz meanz Heinz'” was a copyline designed to normalise the use of canned convenience foods, to give housewives permission to abandon all that overnight soaking and lengthy boiling that had gone with the use of dried beans up till then.   And the odd mega-brand has been so confident of its universality that it’s dared to present itself as part of the glue that binds large numbers of different people together – the Halifax, for example, in the days of its “Human House” campaign, or most obviously “I want to buy the world a Coke.”  

But these odd exceptions never added up to a trend.  Today, especially in the financial world, where anxiety levels are so high and reassurance that you’re doing the right thing is so important, ING’s is only the latest in a heavy current crop of campaigns featuring, so to speak, beckoning and welcoming groups of sheep.  Norwich Union are running what seems to me a particularly odd commercial, in which a queue of 70,000 people wait interminably to be welcomed back into the Norwich Union fold.  The two biggest surviving building societies, Nationwide and Britannia, both encourage us to start saving with them by pointing out how many people are doing so already.  The subtext in Confused.com’s new video diaries campaign is that absolutely everyone – old, young, men, women, upmarket, downmarket – is now unconfusing themselves by using the online price comparison site.  And taking a step outside the financial world, T-Mobile’s impressive but weakly-branded Liverpool Street Station commercial tells us it feels good to be one of the crowd.

All this is more that a blip, it’s well on the way to being a new zeitgeist.  Choosing products and services because they say you’re the same as lots of other people, not that you’re different, represents a clear break with one of the most hallowed tenets of branding, marketing and advertising. 

There couldn’t be a clearer sign of that mighty pendulum-swing, from greed-fuelled individuality to fear-driven conformity, that I’ve written about so often lately.  Nor a clearer sign that we can expect more tenet-shattering developments in quick succession now:  if the promise of product or service as conferrer of individuality can lose its mojo, then anything can. 

New but harsh light cast on last entry

I think I’ve just about calmed down now.  Yesterday afternoon, I went to a short conference/seminar sort of thing supposedly about “the future of financial services distribution.”  It was quite jolly from a social and networking perspective, but, my goodness, the speakers were grim.

And, specifically, grim in a way that cast a kind of grim light on my last entry, about why financial advisers don’t seem to have noticed that the kind of “financial advice” I want is completely different from the kind of “financial advice” they provide.

The reason is simply that actually, on the basis of yesterday’s evidence, none of them has the faintest idea that I exist.  And it’s not just me:  they don’t have the faintest idea that any of my fellow 45 million UK adults exists either.  This is still by a million miles the least consumer-focused of all consumer-facing industries in the country.  Or indeed the universe.

I saw a very salesy presentation from the sales director of a platform provider who – perhaps not entirely surprisingly – told his story almost entirely in terms of the benefits he could offer the adviser, not the client;  then a presentation from a representative of a big bancassurer who, as far as I can remember, didn’t say anything of any interest at all but certainly didn’t give the poor bloody customer a look-in;  and then a really shocking presentation from the CEO of a large advice firm who talked about all the things you need to do to set up a successful advice business, with only one rather conspicuous exception:  think for a moment or two about your target market and what they might actually want or need from you.

With this total lack of market focus or awareness, you won’t be surprised to hear that the whole session seemed like a complete time-warp. Apart from some new regulatory jargon, and some new technology, we could have been talking about FS distribution ten, twenty or even thirty years ago.

All this led me to the unexpected conclusion that any business with even a modest ability to get close to consumers and understand their needs would be mad not to launch a financial advice arm.  You simply couldn’t fail to wipe the floor with this useless lot.�

What is it about financial advisers and the way they use words?

Heaven knows I’ve rambled on enough over the years about the single most crucial – and in my view catastrophic – linguistic confusion in the world of financial advice.  The misuse of the word “advice” to describe any kind of interaction with the public, from what we would all be happy to call advice right through to what we would all most unhappily call ruthless churn’n’burn commission-driven selling, lies at the heart of many of the problems, confusions, regulatory flip-flops and levels of public odium that have tormented the sector for decades.  

But that’s not what I want to write about today.  Instead I just want to touch briefly on another confusion around the term “financial advice,” less pernicious but arguably more mysterious:  why is it that especially among the better class of firm and individual, including many of those working on a fee basis rather than commission, the broad term “financial advice” is used to describe a much narrower activity that any normal person would describe as “portfolio management”?

If we take it for granted that these “advisers” are only interested in clients up in the top, say, 5 to 10% of the affluence league, then I’m sure that almost all of these people must have a need for some sort of portfolio management, but also a much broader need for advice on all sorts of aspects of their financial lives.

Taking as an example a nice typical normal ordinary member of this target group – namely, me – I do need some help managing what you might call a “portfolio,” most of it held within my pension fund, but over the last year or so I’ve also needed, or wanted, advice on a range of matters including:

-  the tax implications of the sale of my business

-  funding further education for my two teenage children

– insurance for my growing (and ageing) fleet of motor vehicles

-  (the biggest issue recently) the financial implications of my parents-in-laws’ move into sheltered housing

-  some correspondence I didn’t understand about tax on my house in France from the local Tresor Publique

-  an argument with an insurance company when I had to make a claim on my buildings insurance

-  and of course my Schedule E tax return.

There are probably some other things that I’ve forgotten as well.  Yet to most financial advisers – and, indeed, to the well-known industry figure planning to set up a new fee-based IFA business who I met the other day – the needs in my list of bullet points are more or less invisible.  The only thing they see is the portfolio, and the only business that they want to do with me is to put this into exactly the same mix of assets as all their other clients, deliver third-quartile performance and charge me somewhere between 100 and 150 basis points for the privilege.

I can see why people would choose to describe themselves as “financial advisers” rather than “commission-driven salespeople,” but I really don’t understand why they want to call themselves “financial advisers” rather than “portfolio managers.”  I also don’t understand why their attentions, and intentions, are so tightly focused on the portfolio when the client would be so willing to pay more in fees to help resolve a much wider range of needs.

I suspect that all of this probably reflects the fact that the whole “advice” industry is still in a prety primitive state, having only just started its journey along the long road from sales monster to trusted ally.  It would be nice to think that as some of the better and more reputable firms continue along the path, they’ll gradually come to realise that the secret of long-term success is to understand, and satisfy, the real needs of their target market – and, I sincerely hope, as part of that process, to start using words in a way that clarifies, not obscures or obfuscates.

Introduce a friend, and get…nothing, I’m afraid

This blog is on a reader recruitment drive.  It’s a feeble and one-dimensional one – I’m just asking you to mention it to one or two people you know who you think might appreciate it.

On the upside, in return I promise not to clutter up your life with unappealing incentives – no sets of cheap luggage, no carriage clocks, no digital Home Weather Stations. 

I would promise to update you on progress, but since this is the only blog in the world that’s still never got round to introducing any metrics to find out anything about its readers I’m afraid I can’t.

So, just to sum up, no incentive to take action, and no way to check whether you do or not.  It’s not the most powerful acquisition campaign ever, is it?

Can today’s marketing directors achieve the Goldilocks Equilibrium?

You know the Goldilocks Equilibrium – it’s the way you describe a sitution in which the middle one of three options is “just right.”  In the Goldilocks story, it’s about the softness of the three bears’ beds and the temperature of their porridge.  In the marketing director’s version, it’s about something completely different:  the scope and scale of the job.

Allow me to explain.  As I’ve written on a couple of recent occasions, many marketing directors in financial services businesses still bear the crushing burden of the “colouring-in department” tag.  They’re depressed, disappointed, embarrassed and worst of all massively constrained by the assumption, all round their businesses and especially at senior levels, that the main purpose of their departments is to turn other people’s work into brochures.

As I’ve also written on a couple of recent occasions, there’s another way of thinking about this:  that, au contraire, so far from being a print-farming backwater, marketers and marketing departments should sit right at the heart of the business, designing products and services, managing every aspect of customer experience, defining and supervising all the behaviours of all the business’s people and ultimately taking responsibility for its strategy for future success and continuing development.  And then, I guess, producing the brochures about all the above.

What now worries me is that if the former option is, so to speak, Baby Bear’s bed (too soft), then let’s be honest, the latter is probably Daddy Bear’s bed (miles too bloody hard).  For senior managers used to talking about marketing and marketers in sentences that include the adjective “fluffy” and the plural noun “crayons,” discovering that the people in question harbour a secret belief that they should have responsibility for all the business’s key strategic decisions would be a bit like the Queen discovering that her corgis had an eye on her throne.  In such circumstances, it’s difficult to believe that the first response of either party – senior business managers or monarch – would simply be to abdicate.

Which leaves the possibility of the Goldilocks Equilibrium:  is it possible for marketers to find a middle path that allows them to play a significant, but realistically not completely dominant, part in helping the organisation understand how it can suceed by identifying and then meeting its customers’ real needs?

The simple answer is that I don’t know, but I really do hope so.  If colouring-in is a humiliation, but corporate domination is a fantasy, then I guess marketers have to hope that like Goldilocks – but perhaps not quite so like Tony Blair in his quest for that elusive “Third Way” – they can find a clear and worthwhile option somewhere half-way in between. 

Great news: I’ve had three breakfasts in the last three days

Crispy bacon and scrambled eggs at 1 Lombard St today, a “full Scottish breakfast” (basically a full English with haggis) at the Southern Cross Cafe in Edinburgh yesterday, and some agency coffee and a couple of chocolate biscuits in one of our meeting rooms on Wednesday.

Bad for my waistline, needless to say.  But quite good for morale – because more often than not breakfast meetings mean busy clients, clients who can’t spare the time to catch up during the main part of the working day.  And busy clients usually (though not always) have work for agencies.

Such was, indeed, the case with all three of my breakfast guests this week – two working flat out on major new business and brand development initiatives, with big budgets and big backers, and the third working just as hard on redefining the brand of an existing business, crunching his way through an endless series of staff workshops trying to make sure that the fine words and pretty pictures in the brand guidelines document follow through into real behaviours on the part of real people all round the organisation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these busy and upbeat people are working in parts of the life industry, probably the least desperate part of retail financial services at the moment.  (A message to any agency person who’s had three consecutive breakfasts with representatives of the banking or investment industries recently:  you’re wasting your time and money, mate, they’re just cadging free meals.)  And there is talk that the storm clouds that have held their position over the banks for such a long time now are just starting to show signs of drifting to a new position above the insurance industry:  if so, my breakfast companions may be back in the lunch, elevenses, afternoon tea and close of play drinks market sooner than they currently expect.

Let’s hope not.  If that was to happen, I’m not sure which would be worse:  the business effects on the agency, or the dietary effects on my waistline. �

Financial services in the mass market: a brief moment of clarity

Before it all goes cloudy again, let me share a thought with you.  I’ve said loads of times that one of the very weirdest things about the financial services market (by which I means pretty much every major sector within retail finance except High Street banking and direct insurance) is that hardly anyone is remotely interested in selling products and services to the mass market – that is, to consumers on, a bit below or a bit above average incomes.

And I’ve also said loads of times that the reasons for this bizarre and as far as I can see unique state of affairs are clear, well-understood and compelling:  the commercial logic simply doesn’t stack up.  The cost of providing products and services to these consumers is too high, and the amount of money that can be creamed off from their modest financial resources in fees and commissions is too low.

But here’s the new bit, or new to me at any rate:  it may be that just now, all the elements in that commercial logic stand on the brink of change.  A combination of factors, including first and foremost the relentless advance of the internet in both power and consumer take-up, is driving down the cost of reaching into the mass market.  And if – as I think very likely – the change in the zeitgeist from ravenous greed to starey-eyed fear makes people think that perhaps, on second thoughts, a bit more by way of savings and investments and insurance and so forth might not be such a bad idea, then the revenue potential from dealing with mass market consumers might start increasing just at the point that the costs start to fall.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not imagining an overnight transformation here.  But it may be that the eerily-deserted mass market for financial advice, products and services will gradually become a bit more populated.

“Doing an Innocent”? No-one guilty of that here

At quite frequent intervals, I’m reminded how much the marketing community – as well as the target market – loves the Innocent brand.  This morning, for example, it comes third in a list of most-admired brands in a poll among marketers in Marketing magazine. 

I’m told, also, that if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Innocent guys get flattered a lot, and most sincerely, by their fellow fmcg marketers.  In much the same way that everyone working on financial advertising got sick to death of the Red Telephone brief (brand icon, link to the logo, hero of the advertising, works in all media) I gather that people working on fmcg brand development and packaging are now equally sick of the Innocent brief (attitude and authenticity, quirky copywriting, reflect clients’ “passion” for the product).  (See the blog about passion, below, for more on this.)

Anyway.  I don’t actually know if people working in fmcg get the Red Telephone brief, but speaking for ourselves at least I have to say that we haven’t yet received the Innocent brief.  No client or prospect beating a path to our door has yet wanted any truck with Innocent-style attitude, quirkiness or “passion.”

Considering how many financial brands these days do quite desperately want  a) to be different, and b) to engage much more than hitherto with consumers, I think this is a) surprising and b) a shame. 

When it comes to being different, every agency creative knows that the simplest and most effective trick in the book is to treat a product in market sector A as if it was a product in market sector Z:  treat a carpet cleaner like a hair conditioner, or a chocolate bar like a foreign holiday, or for that matter an investment fund like a fruit smoothie, and something interesting is almost bound to happen. 

And when it comes to engagement, quite frankly Innocent’s quirky and attitudy tone of voice is wasted on detailing of fruit drinks’ largely self-evident ingredients:  much better, and much more challenging, to tackle a grown-up subject like retirement planning or the need for life insurance.

So come on you financial marketers, can we start getting some Innocent briefs soon please?  Don’t be put off by the fact that they might look like a bit of a cliche to the more progressive thinkers in the fmcg world – after all, if you let a little thing like that deter you, there’d be no more than a handful of financial briefs at all.

Lack of longevity for Life Trust

Sad news.  I heard yesterday that Life Trust, the company specialising in financial services to help deal with the issues of increasing longevity, has closed its doors.

We had played a major role in creating Life Trust’s brand identity and marketing communications, working with the company since the very beginning.  Like everyone involved with the business, we’re asking ourselves what we could have done differently to help it succeed.

In the end, though, I think the truth is simply that Life Trust has been credit crunched.  When you’re introducing not just a new business, but also a new product concept, and even a whole new market sector that hasn’t been defined before, into a notoriously conservative industry, you need enormously deep pockets to overcome all your initial problems – lack of awareness, lack of understanding, lack of engagement, reluctance to innovate.  Life Trust jumped several of the hurdles it faced, but ultimately didn’t have the resources to complete the course.

I’m very sorry to see them go.  From our point of view, they were an excellent client, and I’m sure all the individuals involved will go on to great things.  From the industry’s point of view, I’m certain that their thinking was genuinely important and the gap they aimed to fill was a big and real one:  I don’t think it reflects well on all concerned that it didn’t gain more acceptance. �

Damn, my crystal ball has gone all cloudy

It’s obvious that the whole world of financial services is changing.  It’s obvious that all sorts of things – products, services, institutions – that we’ve taken for granted for many years have completely evaporated.  It’s obvious that the great pendulum which controls the climate in our industry has swung over the last 18 months or so the whole way from Greed to Fear – in fact, from Ravenously Greedy to Totally Terrified.

But getting from high-level abstractions like these down to a clear and detailed picture of what the new financial world is going to be like – now, that’s the hard part.  Is it simply that risk is out and certainty is in?  I think it must be a bit more complicated than that:  although the greed/fear dichotomy is by far the most powerful driver of people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour, it’s not the only one.

And anyway, as we all know, it makes no sense to talk about the consumer financial market as a whole.  What are the differences between segments, and perhaps particularly between the affluent and the rest of us?  A vox pop on TV last night brought to life a point that I’ve tried to make on several occasions.  The speaker was a far-from-affluent person on the verge of retirement who for some reason was heavily exposed to RBS shares, now almost worthless:  Sir Fred Goodwin, she said, may well have lost a lot more money than she had, but he still has £16 million left while she has next to nothing. 

Sorry, I’m rambling.  I wouldn’t mind some help with this, if you feel like making a contribution.  In a subsequent blog entry, or newspaper article, or agency mailshot, or whatever, I want to write a piece called something like “20 Ways That The Future Of Financial Services Will Be Different From The Past,” or maybe a snappier version of the same thought if I can come up with one.  At the moment, I only have 12 or 13 ways, and quite a few of them are probably too obvious to be worth saying.  Anyone else’s crystal balls working better than mine?