“We are not so different, you and I.” Or are we?

It’s amazing how much dialogue from commercials, You Tube posts, TV programmes and movies my kids can quote verbatim.  They’re both completely solid on a huge range of material from the Lombard Direct loans advertising (“Want a low-cost loan at your convenience?”), to pretty much all of Dodgeball and Anchorman, to whole episodes of Flight of the Conchords and The IT Crowd, to large chunks, if not the whole, of the Fast And The Furious films.

One small bit of the latter which even I can do is the crucial scene in Fast And The Furious Tokyo Drift where the Japanese villain addresses the American hero:  “We are not so different, you and I.  Except … I know where I berong.  Do you know where you berong?”

Real-life events trigger this little speech in my brain surprisingly often, the most recent occasion being a Financial Services Forum event last week addressing the subject of brand tracking.  At the beginning, I asked the audience – about 60 or 70 people, mostly in fairly senior marketing roles at smaller or mid-sized financial services companies – how many of them thought that their companies were truly brand-centric, and had an appreciation at all levels that the central business challenge they face is the need to add value to their brand or brands.

Literally only one or two hands went up, so I went on to make the obvious comparison with firms in other parts of the consumer economy.  Cutting my advertising teeth as I did many years ago on a zero-sum-game combination of Mars confectionery and Colgate toothpaste, I grew up accepting the unchallenged assumption that building brand value was the primary purpose of consumer-facing companies.   And yet, thirty-odd years later, only a single-figure percentage of financial services companies shares the same view.

This is one of those blogs that ends in a question.  Are we in fact so different, you and I?  Are Mars and Procters right to see business primarily in terms of brand management, and financial services companies wrong not to do so?  Or are there in fact sufficiently substantial differences between the two that those in each group are right to see things the way they do?

I must admit, I can’t see what those sufficiently substantial differences might be.  Of course I can see that financial services companies have to deal with a whole lot of issues that other consumer-facing companies don’t, and indeed vice versa – but I can’t see anything substantial enough to result in a different primary aim.

Interested in anyone’s thoughts on this.  You know how to reach me.  Or, in Tokyo Drift-speak, where I berong.

Aargh, customer experience is now officially the Next Big Thing

I think it might have been in this very blog a few years ago that I pointed out what then seemed to me a pretty definitive example of the concept of inverse correlation:  the relationship between the number of people employed in what big financial institutions were then starting to call “insight” departments, and the amount of insight which these institutions actually manifested in their activities.

At one point I think I was told that one big organisation, Aviva, employed an insight team of over 200:  needless to say, at that time, their activities showed no trace of insight at all.

Insight has now gone rather out of fashion:  I haven’t heard anyone use the horrible related work “insighter”, for example, for years now.  But while insight is out, Customer Experience (or CX for short) is in.  It almost seems as if everyone I know is now a CX expert, or maybe just a CXpert.  That being so, the law of inverse correlation says that customer experience will be heading rapidly towards an all-time low, and so it turns out.

I know, for example, that one industry hungry for CXperts’ services at the moment is the utilities industry.  (I don’t suppose I could resist a derisive curl of the lip as I write this, except that I’ve never been sure how to do lip-curling.)  The utilities industry!  Even by the standards of financial services, the utilities industry is a nightmare, with a deep-seated commitment to treating customers like something unpleasant on the sole of its collective shoe.  It’s frightening to think how much worse things can get now the experts are flooding in.

Even organisations which you think might be quite good at customer service are now going downhill fast, presumably as a result of hiring far too many experts.  After our Virgin home TV and broadband went down simultaneously last week, Judy spent hours on each successive day on hold waiting to be put through to an Indian call centre, who would tell her preposterous lies about what was going on just to get her off the phone, so that soon afterwards she could call again only to spend hours on hold waiting to be put through to an Indian call centre, who would tell her preposterous lies again.

After three days of this, she experienced a breakthrough.  The key point, which may be useful information for any other Virgin cable subscribers out there, is that the Indian call centre doesn’t work weekends, so after three days of complete inactivity she spoke to a very nice and sensible bloke who said the whole customer service operation had collapsed into complete chaos, no-one knew what anyone else was doing, the Indian call centre was completely useless and he’d try to get someone round on Monday.  Which he did, so after 5 days the fault, caused by some botched hardware upgrades undertaken by Virgin themselves, was finally fixed.)

This bloke clearly hadn’t been through CX training.  He displayed a completely uncorporate tendency to be himself, to be helpful, to be honest and to solve the problem at the first attempt.  If Judy had carried on dealing with the heavily CXed Indian call centre, I’m sure we’d still have no service a week later.  Or even a month or a year later.

As always when I try to draw conclusions from these rather cynical and negative pieces, I don’t know whether to tilt towards cock-up or conspiracy.  I remember writing a blog, again a few years ago, which was actually about a lovely, charming, intelligent woman of my acquaintance who was head of corporate comms at a big investment bank during the meltdown.  The question I was asking, thinking about her own motives and her bosses’, was whether they all knew that she and her team were just veneer, covering up all the horrible shoddiness below the surface, or whether they actually believed any of the ludicrous brand story about integrity and client-centricity that they’d had written for them by one of London’s very most expensive consultancies.

The same question arises here.  As their payroll and their outsource budget swell with an ever-increasing number of CXperts, do Virgin know that their service is beyond terrible?  Are the CX people just window-dressing so that there’s something to say on the subject in the annual report?  Or, up at the higher levels of corporate command, where people have no idea what’s going on because their subordinates don’t dare tell them the truth, is there a happy certainty that the firm is striding successfully forward, giving customers more and more great experiences with every passing day?

This time, I know how to answer this question.  A friend and former colleague runs a highly-successful customer experience agency.  Inevitably, therefore, his client list includes many of the most tragi-comically inept customer service organisations in the country (although, I should say, not actually Virgin).  I’ll ask him.  He’ll know.


Seems like everything matters. Matter matters. Or do I mean matters matter?

As far as I can remember, it was the Skipton Building Society who started it.  Six or seven years ago, before the Crash and everything, they launched an advertising campaign – a very boring and smug one, as I recall – with the strapline “Mutual Matters.”

There’s quite a lot of punniness wrapped up in these two words, obvs, what with the Skipton being a mutual and all.  But, one way or another, I have to say that it doesn’t really quite work in all the ways it’s meant to work, does it.  On the one hand it should sort of be “mutuality matters,” but then again it sort of shouldn’t.  Anyway, as I say, as far as I can remember it was the plucky little Skipton that first latched onto the “matters” thing.

But not the last – not by a mile.  Next, I think, it was Legal & General, who must have launched their ill-fated “Everyday Matters” organising idea about four or five years ago now.  I say “ill-fated” because L&G simply cannot muster any real high-level belief in this sort of thing, so the line has lived in a strange twilight world ever since it was developed, never actually achieving the prominence required to have any real meaning or value but never quite being laid peacefully to rest either.  (That said, over its troubled lifetime it did at least get to underpin one absolutely brilliant creative execution, the Brand Book that I praised to the skies in my blog of Oct 4th 2011.)

It’s a measure of how badly L&G failed to take possession of their own idea that a couple of years later their biggest and probably most direct rival Aviva came along and just stole it, or at least 75% of it, with their own organising idea “Little Things Matter.”  This isn’t quite as punny as the Skipton or L&G versions, but as a result it’s less ambiguous, which is probably a good thing.  L&G have always struggled to explain whether they mean that “every day matters” (in other words every day is important) or that they deal with “everyday matters” (in other words, things that aren’t very important) or indeed both.  Anyway, Aviva haven’t spent any money to take any ownership of the line either.

And now, stone the crows, would you adam and eve it, knock me darn wiv a fevver, what’s the very latest, it’s only banking behemoth Lloyds turning up in the small and crowded “matter” corner of the organising idea landscape with their new strapline “Moments That Matter.”

So, leaving Skipton aside as a) a minnow and b) an ex-user of a “matter” idea, we now have three of the country’s leading financial institutions – L&G, Aviva and Lloyds – all currently using basically identical straplines featuring the same key word – Everyday Matters, Little Things Matter and Moments That Matter.

This is obviously quite funny, but In all honesty and seriousness I’d like to understand quite how it’s happened.  Were Aviva, and then subsequently Lloyds, simply unaware of the history here?  Or were they perfectly well aware but did they still decide that since no-one had spent enough money to achieve any real ownership of the line (or indeed word), the opportunity was still there for the taking?

I’d also quite like to know what’s going to happen next.  Will some more big financial institutions jump onto the “matters” bandwagon?  Barclays?  Pru?  Standard Life?  I’d say they might as well:  as far as I can see none of the existing users has built any awareness around their usage of the word.  (Clearly Lloyds are now spending a very great deal more money on trying to do so than either of the two life companies, but I have to say that in my view, their new campaign is so bland and generic that I foresee painfully slow progress.)

Anyway.  Enough already.  I can’t really say that any of this matters.  Although in a sense, I suppose, it all does.

Dare I identify the country’s most profitable niche market?

Writing this is going to take me through dangerous territory.  If I’m not careful I could a) offend several close family members, b) diss one of my most important and longest-standing clients, c) insult various unrelated readers and d) appear generally like a pompous twat.

I’d like to think that I can avoid all four of these dangers, but then again that may just be hubris and just what a pompous twat would think.

Consider three very successful consumer-facing businesses:

–  my good friends and clients at the leading wealth management business St. James’s Place;

–  the chain of extremely expensive steak restaurants, Gaucho;

–  the place where I spent last weekend in the company of my lovely family, Cotswold Water Park near Cirencester.

You probably have trouble with my instruction to “consider” these businesses, because you’re fairly unlikely to know all three of them – in fact, you may well not know any of them at all.  So I’ll just have to tell you what it is that I want you to know about them.

All three seem, at first glance, simply and straightforwardly to be targeting high net worth or even very high net worth individuals.  They all look posh.  The two that have obvious price tags are both seriously expensive – dinner for two at Gaucho can easily cost well over £300. And all to a greater or lesser extent use the language of wealth and exclusivity.

But actually, when you look at them more closely and think a bit harder, you’ll realise it’s not quite as simple and straightforward as that  Sure, most of the clients of each business have money.  (Some have a great deal, though others have rather less than you might imagine from the brand identities alone.)

But more than that, many – actually I suspect most – aren’t completely comfortable in the moneyed world to which they now have access.  They’re ill-at-ease on the premises of the most exclusive Swiss private banks.  They worry that they’ll blunder when choosing from the upper end of the wine list in a Michelin 2- or 3-star restaurant.  They like the idea of a second home, but nowhere too foreign or weird. .

The key point is that all three brands share a positioning:  they’re expensive but not intimidating.  St. James’s Place Partners are in fact extremely nice and approachable – and they’ll almost always visit you on your territory, rather than waft you into somewhere scary in the Square Mile.  Yo could say that Cotswold Water Park is a gated community of expensive second homes – but actually, it reminded me mainly of a bunch of oversized, architect-designed beach huts.  And Gaucho is just a steak-and-chips restaurant with a particularly brilliant solution to the wine-ordering problem:  in keeping with its Argentinian brand image, it offers only Argentinian wines which no-one feels embarrassed about not understanding.  There’s no shame in admitting to your date that while you’d have been perfectly at home with clarets and burgundies, all this south American stuff is a little way outside your comfort zone.  Darling.

These days, there are surprisingly many people out there who have the money but not the confidence that you might think goes with having the money – and that’s the market these brands are targeting.  And in all seriousness, I doubt whether there is a decently-sized target market offering the potential for better margins.

Yes, OK, I know what you’re thinking:  pompous twat.

Rare and pleasing opportunity to go ballistic

Not that I believe in any of this astrology stuff, you understand, but I am incredibly Libran.  On the one hand, on the other hand.  Yes but no but.  I’ve half a mind to … whatever.  Point me at an issue and I’ll immediately sprint right round it so I can see both sides.

Which is fine – that’s just the way I am.  But every now and then, it makes a nice change to find some kind of issue or occurrence where there is only the one side – where no matter how carefully you examine it, there is no other possible perspective.

Many years ago back in the days when I used to have a parking space in a mews behind my agency, my car was completely blocked in for three or four days by the car of a man staying in a flat next to the parking area.  Every day I rang on the doorbell, but there was no reply.  Finally, on I think the fourth day, the bloke answered.  I politely asked him if he’d mind moving his car.  “I’ll do it in a bit,” he said, making to close the door.  Instant red mist.  No other side to the story. I was totally right, he was totally wrong.  I’d waited four days, and now he was closing the door in my face.  Except he wasn’t.  I reached through the closing door and grabbed him by the neck of his shirt.  I think I may have lifted him off the ground.  “You’ll do it now,” I said.

I remember this story partly because it was so out of character – I’m really not the shirt-grabbing type – but also because it was so lovely to find myself in such a simple, straightforward, one-dimensional situation.  The other guy’s position was completely untenable.  He was 100% in the wrong.  Even a Libran like me couldn’t see a second option.

All of which is by way of preamble to the workings of the regular procurement process currently being operated by a very large financial institution and utterly bewildering a number of people I know in firms that are currently being put through it.

The people running the process are, I strongly suspect, malevolent and vindictive enough to punish anyone obviously associated with a critical piece like this, so I’d better not give any clues to the identity of the financial institution or any of the suppliers involved.

But without giving any clues to anything, I can say that the single stupidest thing about this asinine rigmarole is the way that it puts the institution’s one-man-band suppliers through the same tendering process as it puts GE or IBM.  There are pages of questions on facilities for the disabled, ethnicity policy, corporate and social responsibility, dispute resolution procedure;  there’s a great big case study required about how you would organise your team to deal with a conflict of interest;  there are pages on your digital security standards.  All of which may possibly make sense if you are indeed GE or IBM.  But if your office is in fact your spare bedroom and you have no other staff and no intention of ever hiring any, pages and pages of this stuff are just wasted paper.  And, by the way, the answer “n/a” is not acceptable.

I simply do not know how people responsible for this nonsense can possibly look themselves in the eye.  Do they have no shame?    What they’re doing is worthless and futile, just generating further waste and redundant work that makes the world a slightly worse and unhappier place.

I wonder if they wear shirts and stand near doorways.  If so, they’d better hope I don’t ever get too close.


Somewhat less-than-Total Recall

OK, OK, there are plenty of excuses.  There was very little consumer-facing advertising in the months immediately before the survey.  The definition of “active investors” is questionable, and quite a few respondents really aren’t very engaged in the investment world.  Of the advertising which did appear in the period, little if any was mainly intended to build awareness.

Still, the fact is that in answer to the question on spontaneous advertising awareness in the July wave of Consensus Research’s excellent Investment Funds Survey, only one investment brand managed a score of over 3%,  (That one brand was Fidelity, with a score of 8%.)

Three-per-centers include investment giants like Aberdeen, Invesco Perpetual, Jupiter and Investec, along with some more broadly-based financial services giants such as Standard Life, Aviva and Lloyds TSB.

Trailing even further behind, with scores of 1% and 0% respectively, were two of the biggest investment firms in the world, J.P.Morgan and BlackRock – BlackRock, incidentally, having also been by far the highest spender on consumer facing advertising over the last couple of years.

In research of this kind, there’s almost always a “familiarity effect,” by which respondents put forward the names of the brands of which they’re most aware, whether they’ve actually seen any advertising recently or not.  (A very high proportion of consumers, for example, will always  say they’ve recently seen advertising for Coca-Cola, just because they think it’s likely that they have.)  You can argue that the question doesn’t actually measure awareness of recent advertising at all – the familiarity effect means it’s really measuring brands’ broader levels of fame.

No such effect seems to be working here.  If anything, it seems to be an inverse effect, whereby the bigger a global investment brand the less likely consumers are to think they’ve seen recent advertising.

I must say, for those of us involved in creating campaigns for these and other investment firms over the years, figures like these don’t give us much to be proud of.


If Hotpoint did financial

Channel-hopping during half-time in the Champions’ League games yesterday evening, I found Anne Robinson’s curiously-immobile fizzog looking out at me.  She was doing her consumerist Watchdog thing, and the story she was telling was not a pretty one.

Hotpoint, it seems, have been building several models of dishwasher that have a nasty habit of bursting into flames.  For six months Hotpoint knew about this but chose to do nothing.  Then, eventually, they implemented the standard (and I think statutory) product recall procedure, which involves running a smallish black-and-white ad in three different national papers and writing to any customers whose addresses you happen to have.

All this happened last year, and as a result it seems that about 20% of the owners of these inflammable machines have responded and had them fixed.  The remaining 80% – according to the programme, several hundred thousand people – are pretty much literally still accidents waiting to happen.

The programme was in fact using this Hotpoint story as an example of product recall stories generally.  Whether you have a car with brakes that tend to fail or a jar of jam that may contain glass fragments,  your chances of actually noticing a product recall campaign and doing something about it are typically about 15 – 20%.  It’s all a bit of a fiasco really – a token effort that makes very little difference.

Apart from making me check our dishwasher (no problem, it’s a Bosch) this unsatisfactory state of affairs triggered two thoughts in my mind.

First, I couldn’t help wondering whether it makes sense that the providers of, say, underperforming endowments or unexpectedly volatile funds should be under so much more of an obligation than anyone else when it comes to product recall campaigns. In financial services, after all, we usually contact and compensate the huge majority of our mistreated customers, not just 15 or 20 per cent – and doing so can cost many millions, or even billions, of pounds.   (This is not to say that financial services providers should be under any less of an obligation – rather that surely firms providing products that can threaten life and limb should be under more.)

But then second, since it was still a few minutes till the games re-started, I allowed myself to stray into a quick ponder on the nature of good and evil.  If I’d been a Hotpoint executive during those six months that I knew our machines could be lethal, would I have been happy that we’d decided to do nothing about it for as long as possible?  If I worked for one of th Big Pharma companies, would I happily take on the marketing for an extremely profitable drug that seemed to cause troubling side-effects?  If I worked for a Big Food company, how would I feel about marketing ready meals that contained many times more sugar than anyone could reasonably imagine?

The players were coming back onto the pitches, so it was time to come up with answers, not more questions.  For most of us, I decided, it all comes down to Stanley Milgram (see blog on 7th Feb):  his famous experiment, now partially but not completely discredited, says that most perfectly ordinary people will do horrible things if they think that’s what they need to do to please their superiors.

In consumer-facing businesses, despite the innumerable examples such as those I’ve mentioned here, it would be too cynical to say that we’re grimly determined to rip the customer off at every possible opportunity, and to take every single short-cut we can think of even when we know it means risking people’s lives.

But I don’t think it would be too cynical to say that if we’ve been given sales or other financial targets, and if our job security or pay rise or bonus or share options depend on hitting them, then when push comes to shove most of us are willing to decide that meeting the target is the priority, even if that does mean killing a few customers.

As I’ve said before in this blog, I don’t think the financial industry is any worse in this respect than any other, and in fact our capacity to do serious harm is a good deal less than many.  An underperforming endowment is bad, but it’s not as bad as a Ford car with a fuel tank so badly positioned that, as Ford executives knew perfectly well, it was likely to turn the car into a fireball in even low-impact collisions.

What we are, I think is much more closely regulated than any other consumer-facing industry – and much more obligated to offer recompense when our failings are found out.  If that system of regulation is still far from perfect, and if it misses some really big and important stuff and pounces much too enthusiastically on some utterly trivial and incidental stuff, I’m still in no doubt that having it is much better than not having it.

But best of all, of course, would be not needing it.