“Generic.” Is it just a synonym for “ineffective”?

Well, if so, not often.  I wouldn’t use the word “generic” to criticise those useless warm-air dryers in loos, or the investment capabilities of most active fund managers, or Mark Lawrenson’s Premiership predictions column on the BBC website, or indeed the brakes on the Aston which have become extremely scary in the last few weeks.  In all of these cases, “ineffective” is the word to choose.

But for an awful lot of people, “generic” is undoubtedly a word of criticism when it comes to advertising campaigns.  Whenever anyone tries to get a “generic” campaign off the ground, they’ll invariably take flak for tackling such a hopeless task.  In financial services, it happened to Daniel Godfrey when he launched his generic investment trusts “ITs” campaign a decade ago.  And it’s happening to Tom Baigrie now as he tries to get funding for his generic campaign to promote life assurance.

So what’s the true story of generic campaigns?  Are they invariably ineffective?  Or sometimes?  Or indeed never?  And if some work well and some don’t, what accounts for the differences?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I have a theory about this.  Here it comes:  generic campaigns can work well when there is a well-developed marketplace in which consumers understand what it’s all about – what the product or service is, what it’s for, how to buy it.  They work much less well when there isn’t a well-developed marketplace, and consumers lack understanding of some, or indeed all, of the basics.

Years ago, I used to work on Interflora.  This was a very successful generic campaign.  Most consumers understood that it was a way of sending flowers to people, accessible via (almost) any florist.  When you ran advertising reminding them about this, and giving them reasons to do it, they rushed off to florists in droves.  The same, I suspect, can be said of generic foods campaigns, like that rather odd beef and lamb advertising and campaigns from rather longer ago encouraging us to drink more milk and eat more eggs and cheese.

Vice versa, with Daniel’s investment trust campaign, hardly anyone had any sense at all of what an investment trust was, or where you could buy one, or how they differed from any other kind of investment.  They responded to the TV campaign with unrivalled depths of indifference.  It’s true that by pooling resources, the industry was able to raise a budget far greater than any one firm could have contemplated, but nevertheless the money was completely wasted.

On this spectrum, where is Tom’s campaign?  About half-way.  People do understand what life assurance is, but it’s not a marketplace they feel close to, or knowledgeable about.  The truth is, there’s a good reason for that: most firms that could provide it have shown little or no interest in doing so, at least as far as mass-market consumers are concerned, for many years. 

If providers choose to stump up the seven-figure budget that Tom is looking for, my very strong suspicion is that they’ll do so because they’ll think of it as a cheaper and easier way to establish a foothold in this market than going to all the trouble and expense of designing, maintaining and promoting their own individual proposition.  If so, I have disappointing news for them:  it may be cheaper and easier, but it’s also a whole lot worse.

Why I’ll never own a Mercedes

Just about exactly 25 years ago, on a cold and wet autumn day, a very tall, scruffy, slightly overweight young man went into the large and glamorous showroom of North London’s leading Mercedes Benz dealer, Alan Day, on the Finchley Road.

There were no other customers in the showroom, and the salesmen were all at their desks in their offices.  The young man had the place to himself, and he wandered around for ten minutes or so, paying particular attention to the faster and more expensive models.

Eventually the sales manager emerged from his office and came to speak to the young man.  The sales manager said:  “Come on lad, the rain’s slackened off now.  Off you go, you’ve spent long enough in here.”

A few days later, the scruffy young man, who had just been appointed creative director of what was then one of London’s most successful advertising agencies, used the car allowance provided by his new employers to buy an Audi quattro turbo.  Since then, he has owned three more Audis, three Jags, a BMW, a Volvo and an Aston. 

But anyone in the business of delivering service to customers should take note – and make sure never to forget – that ever since then and for the rest of his car-buying days,  the young man (now not so young, not so scruffy and much more overweight) will never, ever, come hell or high water, for a single micro-second ever contemplate the purchase of a shiny new Mercedes Benz.

OK, OK, that last piece was “conceptually true”

Pretty much everything I said about the guitarist Les Paul in the previous entry is untrue.  What’s worse, almost all the account I gave of my old friend Ian Otway talking about Les Paul is untrue too.  Ian did say that it’s funny how the Les Paul-the-guitar brand became so much bigger than the Les Paul-the-guitarist brand.  But he didn’t say anything about old Les being a redneck, or a country player, or a hippy-hating right-winger – for the simple reason that Les was none of these things.

In fact, Ian tells me in an email this morning, Les was a jazzer from Wisconsin, a northern US state, who was delighted when his instrument was taken up by rockers in large numbers, and who took great pleasure in playing with quite a few of them.

I certainly owe Ian and Les (RIP) an apology for misrepresenting them so badly.  But, reprehensibly, I refuse to feel too bad about it – and that’s where the idea of “conceptual truth” comes in.  You see, I wasn’t trying to write a biography of Les Paul, or even to give an account of Otters’ in-pub conversation:  I just wanted to make a point about how people can lose control of their personal brands, and Les was a tangible example intended to bring a bit of colour and texture to the idea.

If I’d tried, I expect I could have thought of an example that would have been factually true as well as conceptually true.  Perhaps I should have done – but the truth is that when it comes to colour and texture, conceptual truths work just as well as the factual variety.  The uncompetitive nature of the Scottish premier football league is confirmed by the fact that only two clubs – Rangers and Celtic – have won it in the last 27 years.  Harold Wilson was so sure he was a victim of an MI6 conspiracy that he slept with a pistol under his pillow.   The emperor penguin can withstand temperatures within 20 degrees of absolute zero.  None of these facts is true.  But Rangers and Celtic do dominate Scottish football, Harold Wilson did believe he was the target of an MI6 conspiracy and Antarctica is very, very cold.   And even if Les was completely cool about it, you can lose control of your personal brand in ways that can be quite upsetting.

“Conceptual truths” help to communicate all of these ideas, and thousands and thousands of others.  I use them all the time.  Next time you think you see one in this blog, ping me a comments to say so.  I’ll send you a handsome prize in recognition of your perspicacity.  Or there again, perhaps I won’t really.   

Les Paul, W.O Bentley, Forrest Mars … and Ian Otway

They all have something in common, although even if you can get the link between the first three I fear you may struggle with the fourth.

Les, W.O. and Forrest all became brands.  Les, who died very recently at a fine old age, turned into what I reckon must be the world’s second-most-famous electric guitar, one place behind the Fender Stratocaster;  W.O., of course, gave his name to the vehicles which are now the Premiership footballer’s wheels du choix;  and Forrest started his family’s gigantic confectionery, food and foodservice business by launching the eponymous chocolate bar that (all together now) helps you work, rest and play.

Nothing very unusual about giving your name to a brand – thousands if not millions of small businesses carry their founders’ names.  But what’s more unusual is giving your name to a brand that a) becomes much more famous than you ever were, b) long outlives you and c) comes to stand for values that are dramatically and even perhaps painfully different from your own.

This was the observation made in the pub yesterday evening by my old friend, former colleague and brilliant art director Ian Otway (ah, right, that’s where he fits in).  Otters thought that Les, a twangy old country picker from somewhere deep in the Confederacy, was very likely appalled (or apPauled) to see his beloved instrument, developed single-mindedly for the playing of God’s own country and western music, adopted and abused by the hairiest, loudest, druggiest, least righteous guitar players all over this wicked world and far, far beyond the old slave states.  W.O. and Forrest, by contrast, would generally be reasonably happy with the brands they gave their names to:  Bentleys are still big, brawnyand speedy, although compared to the titled and double-barrelled young men who piloted those big 8-litre cars around the track at Le Mans in the late twenties and early thirties the Darrens, Jermaines and Lees at the wheel today might be a bit less to his liking.  And Forrest, an ascetic and austere food scientist who believed deeply in the nutritional value of chocolate, would have adored the “work, rest and play” campaign but detested the misjudged appeal to hedonism summed up in the Mars Bar’s short-lived “pleasure you can’t measure” strapline.

As I say, there’s nothing very new in the idea of people turning into brands.  There’s a particularly pure and intriguing example in the publishing world, where best-selling authors – Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming – with huge consumer franchises and everything going for them except regrettably premature dates of death have enjoyed odd but lengthy afterlives by means of a long series of books written by others but still carrying their names.

But the Les Paul example does highlight a danger, especially for those who, like Les, live into an advanced old age, that the brand may develop in ways that you find most disagreeable.  If he was on a decent royalty, he may have been happy enough – seeing the cash, perhaps, as a tax on the ungodly.  If not, every TV clip of drug-addled hippies thrashing away at the instrument that bore his name must have been a torment to him.�

Introducing the life industry’s equivalents of watermelon, pistachio and Italian Toffee

North Londoners – specifically fellow-Camdenites - have got this:  watermelon, pistachio and Italian Toffee were the new flavours on offer this summer at Camden’s finest ice-cream parlour, Marine Ices on Haverstock Hill.

To get a taste of some new flavours (should that be “flavas” these days?) in the life industry, I had to go farther afield – all the way to St Paul de Vence, in fact, for a top-class three-day conference organised by The Financial Services Forum.

The equivalent of watermelon was the determination of the product providers present, unique in my experience, to risk the disapproval of the intermediaries and take a fresh look at the opportunities in the direct-to-consumer (D2C) market.  Difficult to say whether this was driven more by offensive or defensive considerations - maybe more the latter, with RDR seemingly leading inexorably to a scary new world in which providers can’t turn the intermediated sales flow on and off by use of the indemnity commission tap.  But pretty much without exception, every product provider present had some sort of interest in dealing directly with consumers.  And that represents a great big change compared to the thinking over, say, the last 25 years, and needless to say a great big opportunity for firms like mine.

Where Marine Ices has pistachio, the life industry (or more precisely the long-term savings industry) has something equally new, but less appetising:  a rapidly-increasing level of doubt that we really have anything much to offer mass-market consumers.  Gradually, a theme which I’ve hammered away at many times in this blog seems to be coming through:  that the level of risk we’re expecting people to take with their retirement savings is so unreasonable and inappropriate that it’s actually embarrassing to try to make a case to them.  It’s not just the investment risk, although that birthdate lottery is unacceptable enough in itself:  it’s also longevity risk, and interest rate risk, both reflected in the price of the annuities we expect them to buy.  We’ve known for years, of course, that with the possible exception of the High Street banks there’s no suitable distribution infrastructure to reach the mass market with life industry savings products:  the new idea is that even if we could reach them (which we probably can’t), we probably shouldn’t.

And then finally where Marine Ices has Italian Toffee, we have the unforgettable Life Companies Probably Have About Three Years To Reinvent Themselves Before Platforms And Fund Managers Completely Replace Them In The Long Term Savings Market And They Go Into Terminal Decline.  Actually, apart from the fact that you wouldn’t fancy ordering a scoop of a flavour with a name like that from an ice-cream seller in Camden, I also have to come clean and admit that it isn’t completely new – we’ve been discussing this sort of idea at countless conferences for several years, especially when Ned Cazalet is there to depress us all with the unsustainability of life companies’ business models.  But the urgency of it – the three years idea – is new, and seemed surprisingly likely to lead to companies actually trying to do some stuff to give themselves some kind of future.  Well, either that or give up and sell out to Clive Cowdery.

In fact, throughout the conference, Clive was undoubtedly the proverbial elephant in the room, except that a) unlike the proverbial elephant his name came up time and time again, and b) the 2009-model slimline Clive certainly couldn’t be described in such terms.

Paul Bradshaw – perhaps the only person in the industry you’d back in a mental arm-wrestling competition with Clive – said that as far as he could see, Resolution’s Friends Provident deal could only reflect a huge and humiliating vote of no confidence in Friends’ management.  And since in fact Friends’ CEO is the very highly-regarded Trevor Matthews, the vote of no confidence shouldn’t be seen as anything personal, but rather as a vote of no confidence in the management of the sector as a whole.

To put it another way, if the City will back Clive to make a better job of running a life company even when it’s already being run by Trevor, then no life company is safe – and that, I must say, is very much how it felt in St Paul de Vence. 

No such problems at Marine Ices, where the Italian family which owns the business seem to have managed to update the entire fleet of Ferraris that are often parked outside during the summer months.  Maybe there’s something to be said for running businesses where the only “embedded value” you need to worry about is the Flake stuck into the ice cream.

Crisis, what crisis? Oh, that crisis

Planning a conference speech for next week, I’ve been looking for examples of current FS campaigns that have clearly been created with the current economic climate in mind.

To my surprise, it’s very difficult to think of any.  OK, a few long-running campaigns which predated the crisis have been detoxed – Halifax staff are physically supporting their customers rather than prancing around in their beachwear, and NatWest now allegedly offers Helpful Banking rather than Another Way.  And back at the peak of the crisis, about a year ago, there was a brief flurry of “open letters” from various credit-crunched banks in the newspapers, which is the kind of thing organisations do when they think the situation they’re in demands some kind of communication, but not the fripperies and frivolities of advertising.

But apart from this, I found it impossible to think of any significant campaign which in any explicit way at all connects with the climate of fear and distrust that we’re living through.  Well, maybe just one – those ING Direct posters about how it’s good to be a sheep, which I wrote about a few months ago.

There are two possible explanations for this.  The first is that maybe all of us in financial marketing are still living in a bubble, still doggedly refusing to understand how completely our world has changed.  This is the kind of folly that could get me going on a full-throttle rant.

But before I light my blue touch-paper (what the hell is touch-paper?) I should consider the second possibility – that in fact there are quite a few climate-sensitive financial campaigns out there, but either my fading eyes have failed to see them or my fading brain has failed to remember them.  Just while I’m poised on the launch-pad, could you remind me if there’s anything I’ve overlooked or forgotten?

Feeling young and relaxed again today, thank goodness

People in my line of work never feel anything for very long – we surf the zeitgeist at high speed, getting drenched by emotional reactions whenever a wave breaks but clambering quickly back up on the board again in search of more new experiences.  Although the idea of me on a surfboard is particularly ludicrous.

Anyway, yesterday’s existential crisis has been overcome by a combination of three factors:

1)  A good night’s sleep;

2)  England’s exhilarating 5-1 demolition of Croatia, and particularly the fine performance of the mighty Spurs’ Aaron Lennon;

3)  Much more importantly, an email received from Daniel’s brother (didn’t Elton John write a song about him?) saying that Daniel is a notorious idiot when it comes to advertising and the KitKat ad is indeed hopeless, providing entertainment, if at all, only in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way.

Crisis over.  Phew.  Just as well I’m not a hysterical luvvie with fragile self-esteem.  Unless of course – now here’s today’s emotionally-unsettling thought – perhaps I am….

Suddenly, I’m feeling very old. And very anxious.

It’s a good thing you can’t see me as I write this.  There’s no mirror in this room, thankfully, so I can’t be certain, but I strongly suspect you’d find me greyer, wrinklier, balder, tremblier than I was when I woke up this morning.  And it’s no better beneath the surface:  you’d find me more unsure, wracked with doubt, dithery, judgement shot to pieces.

And all because of a teenager called Daniel who I’ve never even met.

Daniel is the son of an old friend and former client who I saw earlier today.  He (the old friend and former client, not Daniel) is an occasional reader of this blog.  And, as such, he had a little story he wanted to share with me.

“We were in the car the other day,” he told me.  “To be exact, we were on the way back from the Slovenia game, going round the Hangar Lane Gyratory System.  Now Dan is not usually a keen observer of advertising, but as we gyrated, something caught his eye.  ‘That’s great, Dad,’ he said to me. ‘Really good.  Best ad I’ve seen for ages.  Cool or what.  My chunky just got funky.  Love it.  Respect to whoever thought of it.’  Just thought you ought to know – seeing as how his opinion’s a little bit different from yours.”

Just a bit.  If you didn’t see my rant the other day about the KitKat Caramel poster that so tickled young Dan’s fancy, a little downward scrolling will reveal it in all its middle-aged fury.

The worst of it is, the main thrust of my tirade wasn’t that it’s way off-beam for old blokes like me.    My main thrust was that it’s way off-beam for young blokes like Dan.  Which, apparently, it isn’t.  On this evidence, it’s very precisely on-beam.

Since the essence of my job – and, actually, the one bit I always thought I was really good at – is being able to decide what will, and what won’t, work for our clients’ target markets, I’m sure you can understand why Dan’s comments have made me feel very old and anxious. 

OMG indeed, as the poster’s headline puts it.  OM bloody G. 

What pensions have in common with War & Peace

They say that every great story – even one as lengthy as War & Peace – can be summarised in three words:  situation, complication, resolution.  Whenever I make this point, I always think the interests of rhyme and symmetry would be better served if the word was “resolation,” not “resolution,” but there you are, it isn’t, and it’s still a solid point even if a little displeasing to the ear.

When it comes to people’s long-term retirement planning, here’s the situation:  what they really want to do is to fund a comfortable 30-year retirement by making painlessly small contributions over a 35-year working life, and the only way that this circle can possibly be squared is by making investments with the potential for high returns – and, therefore, also, for high risks.

Here’s the complication:  the expression “high risk,” on closer examination, actually means “high probability that things will go horribly wrong.”   And what that means is that for many people – millions? tens of millions? – the experience of their later years won’t involve agreeable Mediterranean cruises in the company of other oldies to enjoy the wonders of Venice and Epidaurus.  It’ll involve slaving away in B&Q for as long as they’ll have you, and then living on catfood.

(Speaking as someone whose pension fund fell in value by just about exactly 50% in the year of my Selected Retirement Date, this possibility is a bit too real for my liking.   Actually, I had no intention whatsoever of retiring, so I’m fine.  But if, say, I’d been ten years older, and in a job where retirement at 65 was compulsory, then the B&Q/Whiskas scenario would have become all too real all too quickly.)_

And the resolution?  Well, for many years, Western societies like ours provided a happy ending, or a fairly happy ending, by sparing most individuals from this fate by pooling risk, in schemes underwritten by the State, or by employers, or both.  But now, just at a time when the fate looms larger than ever, we’ve chosen to move at breakneck speed to tear down these structures, and dump the full burden of the risk on individuals’ shoulders.

So now, for the many, many people who’ll turn out not to be lucky with the risks they run, the only available resolution is the B&Q/Whiskas option.  And to me, that’s a storyline as cruel and pitiless as anything in any great Russian novel – with the significant difference that it’s real, it’s here, it’s now and it could very likely include me.  And, for that matter, you. 

Not flattered, just cross

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but flattered is not what I’m feeling.

Here’s the story.  For several years, we’ve been running brilliant, multiple-award-winning, highly-successful ads for the children’s savings scheme Jump, based on the Witan investment trust.  Here’s a link to some of the work:  http://www.tangible-financial.co.uk/work/client/4.  (Click on the left and right arrows to see it.)

Over the same period, Witan’s much bigger rival, F&C, has been running a wide variety of different, but universally horrible, ads for its equivalent product.  Very recently, they’ve launched a new and characteristically horrible campaign – but the funny thing is, it’s unmistakeably a wonderfully incompetent and fourth-rate rip-off of our Jump work.  To prove the point I’ve had to take a crash course in uploading images, and hopefully I’m about to insert them here.

 First F&C ad

F&C ad 2

 I mean, honestly, they’re exactly what you’d get if you asked people who can’t write or design and who’ve never actually met any children to imitate our campaign.

You may be surprised that such extraordinarily blatant plagiarism goes on.  But the truth is, there’s no law against it – the only real reasons not to copy other people’s campaigns are boring old things like professional pride and decency.  And as far as those kinds of qualities are concerned, my expectations from F&C are not high.  Their marketing director, as I think I’ve told you before, is the chap I introduced to F&C, which was then a client, when he was out of work:  when they offered him the job, my reward for making the introduction was to find ourselves facing an immediate repitch for the business, which we promptly lost to the agency he had worked with at his previous firm before he had been made redundant.  Several years later, I still think of this as the shabbiest behaviour I’ve personally experienced in 30 years in this business, although I appreciate that may simply mean I’ve led a sheltered life.

Anyway, thanks to my particular leisure interests, I’ve just enjoyed a largish measure of revenge for all this.  F&C are the shirt sponsors for the Birmingham City football team.  Last week they came to White Hart Lane, home of the mighty Spurs, and we won, 2-1, with the winner coming with the last kick of the match in the fifth minute of stoppage time.  They really hurt, those last-minute defeats.