Don’t worry – I don’t know who you are, or where you live

This blog – and indeed the two websites to which it’s linked, Tangible Financial and Lucian Camp Consulting – share a most unusual characteristic:  none of them is linked to any metrics or analytics that tell us anything about who’s visiting, or what they do when they get here.

Why not?  Well, not for any good reason really.  It’s just Cobbler’s Children again.  That, and I suppose maybe just a little bit of not wanting to know – I’m happy enough making jokes about “both my readers,” but I suppose that if I knew there really were only two,  I might seriously lose the will to live, or at least keep this going.

Still.  In much the same way that before too long some kind of cable is bound to be put in place to connect the French roadside camera network to the UK roadside camera network so that I won’t be able to going bombing past French cameras a une vitesse formidable, I don’t suppose that you’ll be able to carry on visiting this blog indefinitely without getting follow-up calls from enthusiastic business development people, especially if your email address ends “” or “” or something similar.

But don’t worry - I’ll let you know as and when your cloak of invisibility is penetrated by cunning Google software.  For the time being, not a soul knows you’re here.

Some, but not all, risk profiling processes. What a stupid idea.

(This headline was changed the day after it was written, in response to a comment rightly pointing out the failure of the previous version to distinguish between good and not-so-good processes.) 

As any fule kno, one of the central elements of any kind of financial planing process is the bit whch claims to measure people’s attitude towards risk.  In most cases, this is the single most important influence on the investment strategy that is recommended for them:  timid, risk-averse mouse = barrowload of fixed income, brave, risk-embracing lion = bucketful of emerging markets.

But honestly, it seems to me that these so-called risk profiling questionnaires tell us next to nothing – or in fact, to be more accurate, tell us so many things all mixed up together that it’s impossible to disentangle them and figure out what any of the answers actually mean.

What a lot of them really measure, it seems to me, is actually people’s levels of optimism about the outlook for the markets at the time they answer the questions.  If I complete one at a time when I’m feeling bullish, I may appear to be quite a major risk monster:  in fact I’m not at all, but what I actually feel is that just at the moment some quite high risks are likely to pay off.  (The reverse is also true:  just at the moment my answers are likely to appear paranoically risk-averse, not because I really am but just because few, if any, investment risks look worth taking just now.) 

I suppose really good financial planning processes a) take account of many more factors than this, and b) also include a stage in which the planner can argue with the customer and make the case that for one reason or another the customer’s attitude to risk is not appropriate for his or her circumstances or goals.  

But all the same, it worries me that in today’s increasingly tool-based approach to financial planning, one of the most important tools seems fairly clearly unfit for purpose – a crude and blunt instrument when something much sharper and more delicate is needed.

I wonder whether it’s a single unsatisfactory exception, or whether typical current financial planning toolboxes are stuffed with ineffective or inappropriate tools.�

“On behalf of my fellow turkeys everywhere, I cast this vote in favour of….

…Christmas, obviously.”

Ever since I first got involved in the wild and wacky world of financial services marketing communications way back in 1985, probably the single greatest contributor to the financial wellbeing of my agencies, my colleagues and myself has been the creation of campaigns promoting individual investment funds – almost always, needless to say, investment funds offering a track record of excellent performance.  I’ve helped promote dozens, if not hundreds – and helped the fund managers involved to spend tens, if not hundreds of millions of pounds in the process.  (Only a small proportion of this, I should add, has found its way to my agencies, otherwise I’d be long gone.)

All this being so, it feels like one of my braver (or sillier) decisions to choose this moment to say that I think the time for campaigns like these has now passed.

The case for saying so is simple.  Fund managers have pretty much given up targeting campaigns of  this sort towards the end investor – the end investor just isn’t interested.  That means we’re talking about campaigns addressing IFAs.  And in these days of financial planning, portfolio management, asset allocation, wrap platforms with investment tools and all the rest of it, we seem to have passed the point where we should still be encouraging IFAs to act in their historical role as hot-fund-tippers, encouraging greed-driven punters to fill their boots with tasty little numbers that can point to top-decile records over x, y and z years.

For a start, almost all the records over x, y and z years are overwhelmingly discouraging.  But that’s not really the point.  The huge downside of this kind of puntification – waiting till a fund has a long record of good performance before punting it – is that it’s almost always wrong.  The moment has passed.  The time to recommend the fund was three years ago, when the record was far too thin to advertise.

And while we’re wasting time and money on supporting the dwindling number of IFAs still playing this naive and pointless game, there are far more important things which we’re not doing - most obviously, of course, building our corporate credentials and giving the overarching, sustainable reasons to have confidence in our firm and find room for our distinctive approach.

In fact, it seems so clear to me now that the time for fund-punting has passed that I’m amazed that we didn’t all give it up years ago.    The only thing that gives me pause for thought is that if past experience is anything to go by, an opportunity to pitch for this sort of account comes along every few months or so:  assuming the next one is more or less imminent, I wonder if I’ll stick to my un-turkeylike view.

How would you use your last drops of credibility?

At an investment conference today.  Some good, interesting presentations, but as usual these days a baffling preponderance of the “just-a-blip” tendency, who insist that the poor performance of stock markets in the last couple of years is indeed just a blip, hence the name obviously, and that normal service and strong year-on-year growth will be resumed very shortly.

One speaker, a senior director of a very large fund management firm, was such a passionate just-a-blipper that he vigorously encouraged all of us to pile immediately back into the market at its current low levels, and to do everything we can to persuade our friends and families to fill their boots too.

In the panel discussion at the end of the conference, I said that I thought he was a brave man.  “I hope you’re right about normal service being resumed,” I said.  “With the poor performance, and especially with the volatility, of the last ten, twenty, even thirty years, the consumer credibility of the stock market as the best solution to our long term investment needs is just about shot.  We’re running on empty, right down to the last few drops.  If your normal service isn’t resumed – or even if it is, but is then followed two, three or four years later with another terrifying plunge – then I think it’s game over.  Consumers will never, ever believe us – or believe in us – again when we talk about the case for long term investment.”

The senior director paled slightly at this.  I wonder if he’ll encourage people back into equities quite so passionately in his next conference presentation.   

Sorry those last four blogs were so long…

If this was every copywriter’s favourite aphorism, the headline would end:  “…I didn’t have time to make them shorter.”  But it isn’t, and it doesn’t.  I haven’t been incredibly busy these last few days, and certainly I could have found the time to chop large lumps out of those recent blogs if I’d wanted to.   

So I’ve no excuse for their daunting length, except that they seemed to need to be that long to say what I wanted to say.  But I’ll try to lighten up and do some shorter, soundbitier stuff for a while now.  Provided, of course, that I can find the time.

Valuable old theory unearthed from corner of memory

Dealing as we do with a world of ideas, abstractions and intangibles, we don’t often get to enjoy the pleasure of rediscovering some real and physical object that we’d lost or forgotten.  A dusty old cassette tape of an 80s radio campaign featuring French and Saunders before they were famous, or a dog-eared hard copy of the work we showed in our winning pitch to Budweiser back in, well, whenever, are the only kinds of artefacts likely to resurface from bottoms of drawers and backs of cupboards.

In our heads, though, it’s another matter.  There’s loads of stuff in there.  Most of it is useless rubbish.  (For example, I remember going a million years ago to see an obscure Midlands blues band called The Steve Gibbons Band, and making a mental note that the eponymous Mr Gibbons was a personable chap and would make a good lead character for a lager campaign I was working on at the time:  since he must now be aged about two million, even if he is still a personable chap I suspect his “brand fit” is now better with stairlifts and electric scooters.)  But occasionally, something that’s still useful re-emerges.

Take, for example, the theory of branding developed by the global planning team of my former employers, DMB&B (now no longer a global agency, and subsumed for some years first within Leo Burnett and then within Publicis).

One of the unwritten rules of being a global agency is that you have to develop some sort of proprietary theory about the way brands work.  And I must say, having perused a fair few of these over the years, I think DMB&B’s still stands up better than most.

Its main appeal is its delightful simplicity, at least at a headline level.  Basically, it argues that there are only three kinds of brands, and if you want your brand to succeed you need to understand your three options and focus on being whichever one you’re best equipped to be.

Before I tell you what the three kinds are, I must just point out that quite frankly no matter what they are, three is the optimal number of them.  If there were only one or two kinds, it wouldn’t really be a theory at all:  three is the minimum number possible.  But with any more than three, the theory becomes too complicated and difficult to remember.  Can you immediately remember the names of the seven dwarfs?  Or the five cats in Top Cat?  Exactly.

Anyway, DMB&B’s three species of brand, as best as I can remember, were:

1.  Power Brands:  brands that stand for performance that is objectively superior in some important way to their competitors.

2. Affinity Brands:  brands that understand you and the way you live, and fit comfortably into your world.

3.  Icon Brands:  brands which, on the contrary, offer you an entry into a world which is in some way aspirational and different from your own.

At the time – here the theory rather shows its age – Procter & Gamble was seen as the arch-proponent of Power Brands, investing huge amounts of R&D money into product enhancements that paid off in commercials featuring dazzlingly white garments held up to sun-drenched windows by awe-struck housewives.  Unilever, by contrast, was seen to favour the Affinity route, making Persil commercials in which reasonably credible if unusually pimple-free teenagers badgered their mums to help them find their favourite clubbing garments.  And – unfashionably to modern eyes – Marlboro was held up as a good example of an Icon Brand, offering you access to the outdoorsy, American-Westy, real-manly, full-flavoured world of the Marlboro Cowboy, back in the days before he died of lung cancer.

Nothing is ever quite as simple as we’d ideally like, and beneath this simple three-point headline there lurked a bit of complication:  in particular, the theory accepts that brands can successfully combine more than one of the three types, and in varying proportions – although in the strongest brands one of the three will always dominate.

(In practice this usually means that Power brands will express a bit of Affinity or Icon in order to provide a bit more right-brain appeal, while Affinity and Icon brands will often stir in a spoonful of Power in order to offer something to the left side of consumers’ brains.)

Still, that’s about it – once you’ve got your head round that, you’ve got it.  And I must say, the theory still seems to work, on a post-rationalisation basis at least, for pretty much any brand I can throw at it – including, of course, brands in the financial services market, although there aren’t an awful lot taking the Icon option.  Let’s just spot the chosen option for the first dozen brands that come into my mind:

All retail investment funds brands: all Power Brands, or wannabe Power Brands.  Not an ounce of Affinity or Icon among any of them.

The big banks:

Barclays:  Changes direction often, but currently with its new idea that sounds like Every Little Helps but isn’t, definitely Affinity.

NatWest:  with its dreadful new Helpful Banking thing, also definitely Affinity.

Lloyds TSB:  For The Journey, also Affinity.  (Do you notice a pattern emerging here?)

HSBC:  The World’s Local Bank, also Affinity but with quite a strong flava of Power in all that globalness

Standard Life:  don’t really do I Like Standard Life any more, but when they did definitely Affinity.

Scottish Widows:  oddly enough, Icon, in a weird kind of way.

Most direct insurers and price comparison sites:  Power, sometimes with a touch of Affinity.

MORE TH>N when we used to do it:  Affinity

Compare The  A tricky one.  The literal-minded might say Icon, because Aleksandr certainly invites us into a world other than our own.   But actually he’s just kidding, and the humour fits very well in our own worlds – so, actually, Affinity.

The analysis also works equally well – and perhaps more constructively – when it comes to analysing what’s gone wrong with brands that have lost their way.

For example, all those desperate investment brands that now look so lost and hopeless are clearly Power brands that have lost all their power.  Like detergents that make clothes dirtier, or headache tablets that make you feel worse, they’re utterly unable to achieve the only thing they ever said was important, and are reduced to pathetic and impotent silence.  By contrast, one of the few retail investment brands that took an Affinity route, our own children’s savings brand Jump, is entirely unaffected by market movements and goes from strength to strength.

Elsewhere in the market, American Express seems to me an Icon brand that stopped understanding, and investing in, its iconicity.  (??)  When I use an Amex card, I want to feel that I’m Carey Grant, waiting in a Monte Carlo cocktail bar for Princess Grace to pull up right outside in her Mercedes 300SL gullwing.  Now, I just feel I’m me buying a couple of pints in a Victoria boozer and collecting a meaningless cashback.

And apologies for returning to MORE TH>N again, especially since everything I say on the subject is inevitably laden with baskets-full of the sourest of grapes, but it really is one of the few brands where, ever since the demise of Lucky at least, I really find it quite impossible to tell which of the three routes, or which combination, it’s actually trying to adopt.  You know those funny little commercials with the 70s soul songs?  Hardly iconic;  not powerful;  and do many of us really feel any sense of affinity with them? 

Anyway.  Enough of this.  To be honest, I have uncomfortably mixed feelings writing about this elderly DMB&B brand analysis approach.  Is it pleasingly simple and sensible, or foolishly naive and simplistic? 

Maybe a bit of both.  But on the upside, you’ve just read a lengthy piece about brands without coming across a single tiresome modern buzzword like “heuristic,” “semiotic”, “algorythm”, “co-creation” or “experiential.”  And none the worse for that, the old luddite in me says.     �

What’s that saying about “Those who do not learn from history…”?

Actually, I know what it is, because I just googled it.  It was George Santayana, apparently, who said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

In our world of marketing and branding, a tremendous amount of this doomy repetition goes on.  Old greyhairs like me spend most of our time watching with weary amusement as teams of black, brown and blondehairs grapple with the same issues that we grappled with a generation, or, God help us, even two generations ago.

(The reason we see so much of this in our industry, I think, is that what we do is so much more of an art than a science.  In science, there’s this more or less permanent and indestructible body of knowledge, which means that young beginners don’t have to rediscover how blood circulates or why apples fall downwards.  In our world, no such body of knowledge exists, so everything has to be retested and relearned every few years.)

One of the age-old chestnuts that seems to have been taken out of the chestnut store, so to speak, and put back onto the charcoal brazier is that old thing about differentiation.

When I was a young brownhair (well, let’s be honest, when I had hair) Rosser Reeves’s theory of the USP represented the state of this particular art.  For every brand, a Proposition had to be found that was both Unique and Selling.  And although everyone got bored of Rosser and his TLA, the importance of differentiation as a fundamental goal, or requirement, of successful brand-building remains accepted as about the closest that we get to an article of faith to this day.

It’s a belief that has proved remarkably resilient when you consider how regularly and how frequently new waves of brand strategy radicals have turned up and pointed out that this whole differentiation thing is largely nonsense. 

The first of these to come to my notice were specialists in the kinds of packaged goods markets that Rosser Reeves was thinking about, and they used Heineken’s “Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach” campaign as their principal exhibit.  Quite rightly, they pointed out that “refreshment” is a generic category benefit (arguably the generic category benefit) in the lager market.  To the differentiation-denyers, the success of the campaign proved that the whole way of thinking built around the USP made no sense.

Among the majority, though, the belief in the need for differentiation survived this attack, and has survived many more attacks ever since.  It’s still today particularly strongly-held in financial services, and as I write this I’m pausing to imagine all those groups of sad and angry people sitting in proposition workshops in windowless meeting rooms on a perfect spring day, desperately trying to find some kind of aspect of the product they’re planning to launch which can be said in some relevant and interesting way to make it different from its innumerable competitors.

Meanwhile, yet another attack on the whole idea of differentiation has recently been launched, and this one is unusual in that the leading protagonists include two marketing gurus who are at least as old as I am.  In an article in the Marketing Society’s excellent Market Leader publication, Professors Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan give voice to an anxiety that perhaps this differentiation thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Using the car market as an example, they  say:

“Volvo is a textbook well-differentiated brand.  Ask a convention of dentists in Sydney about their association with it:  most will say ‘safety’…. Volvo is indeed a valuable brand – but Toyota is a much more valuable brand despite being far less clearly differentiated.  Dentists in Sydney will certainly know Toyota, and associate it with quality and reliability.  But if you ask them how it differs from Honda, they’ll struggle…  Toyota has created a valuable differentiated brand based largely on superior delivery of the generic category benefits that matter most to consumers, not on unique features or benefits.”

Two questions arise from the Profs’ interesting article:  are they right, and, whether they’re right or not, will their anti-differentiation insurgency be any more succcessful than any of the other uprisings of the last 30 years or more?

I think they’re about half-right, or maybe a third.  It astounds me that anyone can still think that a Rosser Reeves-style “hard” quantifiable USP is the best, or the only, way to build a brand with strong competitive advantage.  You only have to look at pretty much any market you care to choose to realise that the leading brands just don’t work in that way.

But are Barwise and Meehan right to say that simply delivering category benefits better than others is the most effective alternative?  I don’t think so.  For one thing, although this isn’t really the point I want to emphasise, I think their analysis of Toyota’s brand strategy is completely wrong:  I think that because Toyota’s product range is bigger and more diverse than Volvo’s, they aim to achieve a more complex interplay between their corporate brand and their product brands – for example, Toyota reliability underpins the ruggedness of the Land Cruiser, and the economy and practicality of the Yaris, and the urban street cred (allegedly) of the Rav4, in very different ways, whereas a Volvo is a Volvo is pretty much a Volvo. 

But that’s not where I want to go with this.  The approach I want to advocate – and amazingly enough, for all that’s been said and written about brands and differentiation I don’t think it’s been advocated very often –  is one in which you start by identifying a benefit, or possibly benefits, which are meaningful an credible to consumers but absolutely don’t have to be unique or different, and use them as the jumping-off point for a rounded brand presentation which engages with consumers as a result of its perceived personality, or values, or both.    

This is a rather long and clunky way of describing hundreds of successful brands’ strategies, from many of the Mars confectionery brands promoted by Rosser Reeves during his time at the Ted Bates agency, through to Heineken and indeed both Volvo and Toyota’s car brands.  It doesn’t matter in the slightest how many other chocolate bars have coconut in them.  In being ‘the taste of paradise,’ Bounty used its coconutiness as a starting-point for a brand strategy that offered a moment of hedonistic escapism that consumers wanted a piece of.  It was famously said of Heineken that consumers “drank the advertising” – refreshment was a jumping-off point for a strategy about wit and entertainment.  Even Volvo’s ‘safety’ message was more complicated than it looked:  in its heyday, when David Abbott was writing the ads, briefs about safety were turning into ads that worked as fanfares in celebration of the pride and self-righteousness of the British middle class, an intelligent, reasonable, level-headed, unmanipulable class sensible enough to reject all fripperies, flummeries, fun and fantasy in favour of dull, boxy cars with side impact bars and roll cages.

Closer to home, when we did the TV advertising for the direct insurance brand MORE TH>N, featuring good old Lucky the dog, the voice-overs were full of good, solid, sales messages about motor no-claims bonuses and household cover for garden ornaments.  Hardly anyone noticed these, but it didn’t matter.  What these relevant and credible (albeit boring and generic) messages gave us were jumping-off points for executions in which Lucky let off the handbrake of a car and knocked over the family barbecue.  And that was OK, because the real reason you chose MORE TH>N was not that you wanted garden ornament cover, but that you liked Lucky. 

All this is not to say that propositions, for brands and in advertising, are unimportant.  They’re important for two reasons – first because, as I’ve said, they provide starting-points from which to build the more importan dimensions, but also because in a curious way consumers are reassured to find some sort of proposition there, and a bit fretful and dismissive if they can’t see any sign of one. There’s no intrinsc value in the idea that a pint of Guinness is worth waitin two minutes for – it’s a dull and unengaging point – but it provides a starting point for some of the brand’s startling and highly engaging TV commercials, and a reason which consumers can understand for what they see happening. 

No, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that propositions are unimportant,  bu I do think that they are very much less important than most brand or comms development processes seem to think they are.  Huge numbers of people spend huge amounts of time and money in gruelling and usually fruitless searches for compelling and sustainably differentiated propositions, while the “tone of voice” or “brand personality” boxes in the briefing template take five minutes to complete, without any research, debate or discussion.

Personally, my own interest threshold has probably swung too far in the opposite direction.  I couldn’t care less what the proposition is, provided only that it sounds reasonably plausible, relevant to the target market, communicable and likely to act as a jumping-off point for the brand personality I’m trying to achieve.  With this attitude, I admit that I can be a bit of a liability in the dreaded propositions workshop.  But I remain doggedly convinced that whatever the views of Rosser Reeves, Patrick Barwise, Sean Meehan and the large majority of people in our industry who share their obsession with propositions, I have a more important contribution to make in due course. 


Me + this trust thing = dog + juicy bone

I just can’t let it go.  In fact, if you could search the whole nearly-three-years’-worth of this blog, I suspect that the word “trust” would appear more often than almost any other.  (The exceptions, of course, pre-eminently including the words “I” and “me”.)

On the upside, at least on this occasion I’m offering you some new thoughts on the subject, not just recycling that “As far as I’m concerned, trust in this country received its mortal wound, along with 60,000 soldiers in the British Army, on the first day of the First Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916” soapbox stuff that you’ve heard from me a million times already.

My theme today is that when we talk about consumers’ “trust” in financial services, we’re actually wrapping up about four or five different kinds of trust within that one single word – and on closer examination there are significant differences in the current status of each kind. 

Let’s count my “four or five different kinds.”

The first is the base level  – the fundamental expectation that by engaging with the industry we won’t lose all our money. This is a kind of trust that has certainly taken a battering recently, initially during the first Northern Rock panic and subsequently during the collapse of Iceland’s banks.  But on the whole it has survived, thanks ultimately not to the industry itself but to the Government:  currently at least, people still believe that our Government, and others around the world, simply will not countenance a catastrophic failure of the financial system.

At the next level, there is functional trust – the belief that the industry’s core services will more or less work for us as we expect.  We will be able to get cash from ATMs, always or nearly always.  Cheques will clear.  When we buy insurance policies over the phone or internet, cover will be provided and we’ll receive documents that prove it.  If we invest in an ISA, we won’t be pursued by grasping taxmen claiming that the structure is wrong and tax exemption is not available.  On the whole, this level of trust still largely exists, and hasn’t been much affected by recent crises:  in fact, I’d argue that over time, it’s a kind of trust that is threatened more by ATM and internet fraud than by the credit crunch and the recession.  

My third level of trust is to do with the industry’s ability to deal effectively and efficiently with our individual needs.  It can enable everyone to get cash from an ATM, but if I want to transfer some money from one account to another will I be able to get through to the call centre, will my request be understood and will the money turn up where I want it a short while later?  It can make it reasonably easy for anyone to buy home insurance on the Internet, but what will happen when squirrels eat my electrical wiring and I need to make a claim?  Despite the claims to the contrary in Aviva’s silly new advertising campaign, I think our trust in the industry’s ability to deal with us as individuals has been declining steadily and inexorably for many years, and continues to do so.  We know the call centre won’t reply for 20 minutes, won’t understand what we want and won’t do what they said.  We know that the insurance company makes it a hundred times easier for us to pay our premiums than receive payment for our claims.  And we glumly accept that for all the personalisation power of modern data management, and most of all of the internet, every year in every way it goes on getting a little bit worse. 

Then there’s the fourth level – the one that I and I suspect many others often talk about, think about and worry about to the exclusion of all the others, the extent to which we can trust the industry to act in our best interests, to do the right thing, to treat its customers fairly (now where have I heard that phrase before?). 

We’ve all seen the research that shows customers’ trust in this whole huge area is quite high – one of the few visible consequences of TCF so far is that every large organisation now has a quant survey claiming that 85% of its customers feel that they’re treated fairly.  And do you know what, I completely, totally and utterly don’t believe a word (or, being quant, I should probably say a number) of it.  I think that consumers strongly feel – or, put it another way, definitively know – that given a few bits of wood, some nails and a hammer, the immediate and overwhelming response of most firms in the industry is to box them all up like proverbial kippers.  And that if they haven’t actually noticed any attempts to cheat, con, steal from or otherwise defraud them personally, it’s only because either a) they’re stupendously unobservant or b) they haven’t got enough money to be worth stealing. 

Again, this wearying despair has little to do with recent events, although some people rightly suspect that organisations trying to wring every drop of profitability out of their retail customers are likely to sink even lower in the near future if they can.  (It’s also, incidentally, the kind of distrust from which we’re most likely to exempt mutual organisations – insurance companies, friendly societies, building societies – on the grounds that without shareholders they don’t apparently have a compelling motive for this sort of thing, although judging from some of the behaviours of some of them recently you can’t help concluding that the fact they don’t need to is far from a guarantee that they won’t.)

And then finally there’s the fifth level, that in its cheating, stealing, unreliable, evasive way at least it’s an industry that knows what it’s doing, and can be trusted to maintain its hugely important role as a big, successful, profitable part of the modern British economy – as an employer of millions of people, a provider of dividends to millions of shareholders, a payer of billions of pounds in business taxes, a magnet drawing foreign talent, business and investment to this country, and all the rest of it.  

Leaving aside for the moment the reality that the industry has in any case been doing all it can in recent years to reduce this national role as a pillar of the economy by offshoring jobs as fast as it can and dodging billions of pounds in business taxes through complex and semi-legal schemes involving overseas tax havens, this slightly weird and abstract kind of trust is the one that has, quite obviously, been annihilated in the last couple of years. 

In real terms, I’m still not absolutely sure how much difference it makes to consumers in their daily dealings with financial institutions:  does it really matter if people who used to think they were being cheated by omniscient masters of the universe now think they’re being cheated by incompetent buffoons?  This is why I suspect – but would love to see the research evidence – that at a day-to-day service delivery level, consumers’ brand perceptions have changed less over the last couple of years than you would have expected.

But be that as it may, my point in this blog is that I reckon there are at least five different dimensions to consumers’ trust in financial services, and the good news is that only one of them has been massively damaged by the industry’s dui anni horribili.

The bad news, though, is that two of the others have been damaged almost as badly by other behaviours of the industry over a much longer period, while a third has been wrecked by the industry and rebuilt only by the intervention of the Government – leaving only one of the five being successfully preserved by the industry itself. 

Which brings me, finally, back to a point familiar to those who’ve waded through my previous rants on the subject.  As a whole, the financial services industry has been running down its stock of consumer trust for years.  To do so, it’s adopted the simplest and most effective approach you could imagine:  seizing a greater and greater proportion of the opportunities to behave in an unmistakeably untrustworthy way.

Why has it done this?  We don’t really know.  We’re in classic cock-up vs conspiracy territory, and I’d guess it’s about half and half – 50% of senior managers cynically figuring that they’d rather erode the trust and bank the profits, and the other 50% simply not realising, for one reason or another, the inevitable consequences of their business decisions and priorities.

But whatever the motivations, this track record of previous crimes and misdemeanours casts an interesting light on the calamities of the last couple of years.  Nothing fundamentally new or different has been happening.  It’s just a bigger, badder version of what’s been going on for years. 

There’s nothing like an exciting and involving headline

(Old joke:  “…and that was nothing like an exciting and involving headline”).

Still, compared to the kind of headlines you see in print advertising these days, you’d have to admit it stands up pretty well.  Apologies in advance if this isn’t the most exciting or indeed involving of posts, but I thought I would share the entire headline contents of a magazine I received this morning with you, just to emphasise the point.

The magazine is something called Real Business, which is a kind of new-economy/SME version of Management Today – in other words, it has a nice clear target market of thrusting young entrepreneurs, mostly I guess hurting like hell and not thrusting quite as much as hitherto in the current climate.

Fortunately, another consequence of the current climate is that the magazine is now notably thinner than it was and carrying a lot less advertising, so the forthcoming comprehensive review is less gruelling than it would have been a year or two ago. 

ProPlus tablets ready?  Here, in order, come the headlines.

Cisco Systems:  It creates understanding, where once there were walls.  (Boring and irrelevant.  Don’t get it.)

Virgin Atlantic:  We’re not saying we’re the best Premium Economy in the world, but we’re certainly in the Top 1.  (Not really interesting, but probably the best ad here because it’s a big, confident-looking DPS that connects to an excellent TV commercial.)

Toyota:  The new Avensis with Toyota Optimal Drive.  (Hope the copywriter didn’t get paid too much for that one.)

Lloyds Development Capital: Together we are more energised.  (On our long-term prospect list, so therefore clearly a brilliant brief and strategy from the client, let down by less than optimal or energised execution from the current agency.)

Royal Mail: Satisfied customers can grow your business. (No, really? You’re kidding!)

HMRC: Do you make payments to HMRC using CHAPS, Bacs or online banking? (Another less-than-overstretched copywriter.)

Blackberry: A curious businessman asks: (A busy reader turns the page.)

Epson: Job done. (Not if the job was to engage the reader’s attention, it isn’t.)

Intellectual Property Office: Your ideas – find the value within. (Curiously Yoda-esque sentence structure, but I suppose in its dull and obvious way it’s a message that creates some engagement.)

O2: Simplicity for business. (Generic and vacuous tedium for business readers.)

Security Industry Authority: Does Your Security Contractor Measure Up? (Honestly, I think the agencies involved spend less time on this stuf that I do on my blog posts.)

Carbon Trust: Desperate times call for sensible measures. (First ad to recognise that there’s a bit of a crisis on at the moment, so half a mark for that – but still a boring useless way of recognising the fact, so half a mark only.)

Renault: The New Renault Megane Coupe. It’s time to change. (God, honestly, I can hardly be bothered to go on making comments about this stuff.)

Vodafone: Cut the cost of calling landlines. (This just isn’t an ad, it’s the proposition from the brief.)

Small Business Awards: Are you a business success story? (And this is the proposition from the brief turned into a question.)

British Library: You’ve got an idea. We’ll help you turn it into a business. (And this is the proposition from the brief turned into two sentences.)

Konica Minolta: Improve your game dramatically. (Brief demanded pic of big-ticket sponsorship, Ronaldinho. Copywriter spent 4 seconds looking for a connection with photocopiers, found the most obvious and cliched option and went down the pub.  To be fair, not really worth putting much more time and effort into such a stupid and diversionary requirement:  see my earlier blog on the fatuous use of another star footballer, Chelsea’s Joe Cole, in some other stupid underbranded IT/electronics campaign.)

UK Trade & Investment: Want to maintain your competitive edge? We can help you stay ahead of the game. (Boring, boring, boring. Honestly, guys, in a publication like this where every single word of editorial is, supposedly at least, about “maintaining competitive edge,” table-stakes propositions like this just aren’t enough to engage without some originality in the delivery.)

Cisco Systems (again): It brings people together to see eye to eye without them travelling from place to place. (Still boring and irrelevant. Still don’t get it.)

And finally, Samsung: Everything in one touch. (See all previous comments. You just have to try harder than this.)

One final point about all this useless rubbish: when I started on this post, I was worried it wouldn’t work because most of the headlines wouldn’t make any sense without the visuals. In fact, only the Ronaldinho visual required explanation: in none of the other ads did the visual and headline combine to create the communication, so the headlines made perfectly good sense on their own. Headlines and visuals working together being one of the basic characteristics of about 80% of all good press advertising, this is yet another important respect in which this work has simply lost the plot. 

A year or so ago, I reported in this blog on the tragic death of national newspaper advertising. But I said that while I could no longer see any trace of creativity, originality and compelling insight in the papers, print advertising was still alive and reasonably well in a range of lifestyle and specialist magazines.

You shouldn’t assess the state of play in a huge category like that on the strength (or rather weakness) of a single copy of Real Business. But a year later, if you were to make such a simplistic judgement, you’d say print advertising as we used to know and appreciate it has turned up its toes in that environment too.

Is the world changing faster than your thinking?

Almost certainly, I’d say.  The world is changing so fast, and in so many different ways, that we need to re-think and re-assess absolutely everything that we’re doing – and, what’s more, we need to do so more and more often.  I doubt if once a year is often enough – but I doubt if many of us even manage that.

Let me give you an example.  I spoke to a happy senior client the other day.  His firm had just sent out its annual statement mailing to all its investment customers. In a situation where the average customer’s investment was down around 30% the covering letter had been tricky to write, but the client was delighted with the final draft.  Its cards-on-the-table tone had been well received, he told me – several customers had called or emailed to say how much they appreciated it.  Now, thank goodness, this time-consuming and difficult task could be set aside until next year.

A good effort?  Well, half-good.  Crafting the letter was certainly the right thing to do.  But there’s something more fundamental that needs challenging.  Of course we have to give customers an annual statement, and of course it must be carefully positioned.  But given how the world has changed, does it really make sense for an investment provider’s primary set-piece item of customer communication to be built around a statement that delivers the intensely depressing news that they’re worth about a third less than they were 12 months ago? 

I’d suggest that the concept of the statement mailing as the centrepiece of a customer communications programme makes sense in a bull market, but much less sense in the kind of market we’re seeing today, and expecting tomorrow.  We need to rethink the customer communications entirely, putting the statement into a context along with other activities so that – no matter how carefully the letter is written – it doesn’t land on the doormat once a year like a large and unwelcome bucket of very cold water.

So while our client may have handled this year’s mailing as well as possible, it can’t be right simply to put the whole subject of customer communications on ice until next year’s comes around.  That’s just a way to guarantee that the world will change faster than his organisation’s thinking.  In fact, it already has.