Good heavens, I seem to have been ahead of the curve

I have in front of me a quote from a very trendy branding expert called Mark Earls.  He says:  “We talk of the relationships consumers have with our brands as if they were primary, but the data points to things being otherwise.  Consumers’ most valuable relationships are not with brands but with other consumers.”

Depending a bit on what he means by this, the expression “no shit, Sherlock” does rather come to mind. If he simply means that on the whole people care more about each other than they do about brands, I don’t really think his comment adds much to the sum total of human wisdom.

(I can’t actually check what he meant, because, oddly, if you google his words you find hundreds and hundreds of people quoting them, but no trace at all of the original source. It makes you wonder if this Earls cat ever actually said them, or whether some blogger or journalist just made it up because it suited their argument, a bit like the way I made up quotes from Wuthering Heights in my English A Level.)

Anyway, assuming that he didn’t just mean that people’s relationships with each other are more important than their relationships with floor-cleaners and yellow fats, what else might he have meant?

This is where my ahead-of-the-curveness might come in. It’s at least three years ago, maybe a bit more, that I first proposed the idea that the strongest and best relationships between people and financial services brands were likely to be triangular relationships, bringing individual customers together not only with the brand, but also – mainly thanks to the Internet – with other individual customers.

In those days we described this sort of thing as being to do with “online communities,” but these days we talk about “social media.” Actually, I don’t think that either phrase is much good, but if anything “social media” is the worse. Still, that doesn’t really matter.

As I recall, I started developing this line of thought as the result of a real-life event – when Judy’s parents started to become too old and frail to continue to live independently, and it was necessary to start investigating what would be involved in their moving into sheltered accommodation. Taken as a whole, this turned out to be by far the greatest single upheaval in their whole lives, and one that raised literally dozens of questions and issues – many undoubtedly financial, but others to do with all sorts of different aspects of their lives.

As we, they and other members of the family struggled to get our heads round it all, I kept thinking that all over the country there must be thousands of other families who had been through all the same issues, or were currently doing so, or were about to. And yet none of us was in touch with each other, and we were all individually going through the same complex and difficult learning process without being able to benefit in any way from the experience and learning of others.

I would have been delighted to have been in touch with others – to learn from those whose experience was ahead of ours, and to share learning with those running behind us. And who would have been better to facilitate that contact than a financial services provider with products and services relevant to the needs? It would have been an invaluable role for a financial institution to play – a perfect example of Mr Earls’ alleged observation that “consumers’ most valuable relationships are not with brands, but with other consumers.”

I wandered around the industry preaching this message for some while. (I concentrated particularly on the mutual part of the industry, because I thought all this online community/social media stuff could offer a whole new 21st-century lease of life to the concept of mutuality.) My preaching was received with reasonable enthusiasm, but, as far as I know, led to little or no real action. Some organisations cited practical difficulties, and many spoke of regulatory obstacles (I have absolutely no idea why the FSA should want to discourage people from helping each other, but as far as consumers are concerned the FSA is incapable of seeing a stick without getting hold of the wrong end of it).

After a while I got a bit tired of all this, and started preaching about other things. But I’m quite excited to find that a bunch of new branding specialists are now thinking and preaching along very similar lines.

It’ll be interesting to see how they get on. And, of course, incredibly irritating if they do better with it all than I did.

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