Level playing field, but few goals scored

In the run-up to the implementation of GDPR at the end of this week, heaven knows how many organisations are having to contact their customer and prospect lists asking thnem to opt in to continue to receive their communications – certainly hundreds, probably thousands, possibly tens of thousands.

To be honest, I don’t understand the rules of the GDPR game well enough to understand some of the differences in message content.  Why can some organisations just send me dull and passive emails telling me they’ve updated their privacy policy, while others vigorously urge me to click on a button to remain opted in and others still seem to need me to fill in lengthy questionnaires?  I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t care.  I’m creative, me.  Suits and/or planners explain these ramifications in the brief.

But what I do know is that, looking at the hundred-or-so emails that I’ve received over the last few weeks, the quality runs the gamut, as Dorothy Parker nearly said, from pitiful to mediocre.  I don’t think I’ve received a single communication that really did anything positive or good for my relationship with the brand.  And I’ve received a great many which, when they caught me in two minds about whether to opt in or not, filled me with such negativity that I decided not to.

Much of what’s worst about many of the messages are the headings.  I can’t decide which was the most hopeless from a shortlist including one which said only “General” and another which said “GDPR Survey Link.”   (I’m pretty sure, though, that in third place was “GDPR updates to DIBOR emails,” not aided by the fact that I haven’t the faintest idea who or what DIBOR is.)

Most aren’t quite that bad, but they’re not a lot better.  I’d say that only one rung higher up the ladder of effective communication are the ones where, as so often in our industry, stupid useless “creatives” think their job is to do something with words which makes the message incomprehensible rather than actually helping to tell the story.  A retailer called Thyme kicks off “Thyme to opt in.”  The Gatwick Express says “Final call before boarding.”  Given the crisis that generally surrounds email open rates these days, it’s very hard to believe that this kind of opacity is the way forward.

Next there are a few odd men out (and in the case of the first of these I use the word “men” advisedly, since it’s from male moustache-growing charity the Movember Foundation).  Plainly defeated by the whole thing, their email begins “We have to say goodbye soon,” which is strange because the whole point of the communication is that we don’t have to.   And online retailer Hush comes on to me with the line “A love letter from Hush,” which I have to say since I can remember nothing about ever doing business with them is love of a sadly unrequired kind.

Amidst these exceptions and anomalies, the large majority adopt a consistent approach with a headline about staying or keeping in touch, and a short piece of explanatory copy.  This is fairly sensible, although maybe a little short of “what’s in it for me?”, so you might imagine  all is well with this lot:  but not so, because there turns out to be a wide range of things that can go wrong during and indeed after the opt-in process.  Lengthy and complicated questionnaires, forms that don’t work, pre-populated forms pre-populated with the wrong information, processes that take you to websites you had no interest in – a significant proportion of emailers (up to half, I’d say) offer experiences bad enough to put us right off the idea of remaining in contact.

And then of course it hardly seems fair to mention it, but there is the whole tricky business of offering some kind of distinctive brand experience, intended to play some part even if only a small one in shaping our perceptions of difference.  Do you know, in all honesty I don’t think I’ve received any of those.

And one more thing:  although the GDPR timetable has been entirely clear for months, it does all seem to have turned into the most monumental stampede to hit Friday’s deadline.  The first email I received was on Wednesday 9th May, and all the others have been jostling for attention in a period of a little over a fortnight.

It’s true that it’s in the interest of both providers and consumers alike to clean up the database from time to time.  There’s little point in maintaining records of millions of people who have no further interest in what you have to offer.

But the depressing thing about these last couple of weeks is that in quite a few cases, I did have an interest, if perhaps a slightly less-than-red-hot one.  It was only irritation at the uselessness of the message that made me pretend I didn’t.

What FS marketers really think about their brands

Encouraged by the almost Kardashian-like number of views of my last blog, discussing research on how FS marketers define marketing, I thought I’d try another research-based topic.  And like last time, the research content is a brief summary of findings from a study among senior financial services marketing people, commissioned for my forthcoming book No Small Change, co-written with Anthony Thomson and published early next month.

The large majority of respondents worked for firms with at least some D2C distribution, so I suppose it’s no big surprise that 93% of them said that a strong consumer brand is important for their business.  (Just over half of these thought that it was not just important, but increasingly important.)

But after than, the findings were a lot more surprising – and not in a good way.  Only just a shade over a half, for example, thought that their own organisations actually had a strong consumer brand.  A third thought that their direct competitors’ brands were generally stronger than their own.   And when it came to “real” differentiation, the majority thought that their organisations were either “dependent on communications activity” to appear different from their competitors, or “not really different at all.”

Just to reality-check responses to that first question, we also asked respondents whether they believed that strong end-consumer brands are generally important for success in financial services.  95% said they were, and no-one said they were not at all important.

You have to say, on behalf of the financial services marketing community, that these findings are a bit of a worry.  Here is a business asset which is generally accepted to fall within the remit of marketers, and agreed by between 93% and 95% of respondents to be important for success – but where somewhere around 50% of respondents believe that their own firm’s brands are weak, and/or that competitors are stronger, and/or that their firms don’t actually possess the degree of differentiation that provides a platform for brand-building.

I don’t think that in this blog I have much to add to that last paragraph (unlike in the book, where as I recall we bang on about it at some length).  The only thing I do have to say is that of course, at a purely personal level, the picture painted by these findings makes me wonderfully, blissfully happy.  It looks like there’ll be loads of work for financial services brand consultants like me for many years to come.

Apparently no-one in FS knows what marketing is. Not even marketers.

As the countdown continues to the launch of my financial services marketing book No Small Change, co-written with leading challenger banker and old friend Anthony Thomson, it’s time for these blogs to start working harder to build up a frenzy of pre-launch excitement.  Hence this effort, which previews some of the book’s findings from the research we carried out among senior financial services marketing people.

This isn’t the place for detailed facts and figures, but, long story short, one of our key question areas was to do with the activities which respondents thought did, and indeed did not, fall within the remit of marketing.  To do so, our questions were built around the good old tried-and-tested “Seven Ps”, the list made up of Product, Price, Promotion, People, Place, Process and the slightly incongruous Physical Evidence (a list I now know so well that I can write down all seven without hesitation or need to check Wikipedia for the one I’ve forgotten).  How many of these areas should come under the control of marketers, we asked.  And in your business at the moment, how many currently do?

Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that there was one area of very-near-unanimous agreement.  Almost everyone agreed that Promotion should come under the control of marketers (although you can’t help wondering about the one or two respondents who thought it shouldn’t).

But the other two headline findings are less pleasing.  First, there was an extraordinary and extreme divergence of views on the other six areas.   Some felt sure that marketers should control them all.  Some thought that marketers had no business controlling any of them.  Some thought marketers should control some, but not others, Some thought they should control others, but not some.  You get the picture.

And second, almost everyone thought that in their own firms currently, marketers had a lot less overall control of these areas than they should.

What do we conclude from all this?  First, that marketers themselves are still unclear and disunited on the extent of their remit.  Should marketers control, or at least have influence over, everything that touches the customer?  Or is their job only to promote propositions developed by others?

And if we’re unclear, it’s hardly surprising if a) others are unclear too, and b)  in the absence of any visible boundaries they feel free to park their tanks across as much of our lawn as possible, leaving us only with the corner called “promotion.”

It would be interesting to replicate the research outside financial services.  Anthony and I can both remember working for FMCG client companies where the centrality of marketing was universally recognised three decades ago, and I’m sure that any further change since then has only been in one direction.

But here in FS there’s still a long way to go – and that’s as true for us marketers ourselves as it is for our colleagues in other parts pf the business. And that – to sum up the whole story in a well-known and painful phrase – is why, even today, in so many firms we’re still known as “the colouring-in department.”

Is it just me, or is this stuff really meaningless?

You’d think that if there was one thing that young, innovative, disruptive fintechs might be good at (better, at least, than their stuffy, legacy-bound predecessors), it would be communicating.  But you’d be wrong.  Most of them write in an abstract, conceptual, intangible way that I find absolutely impossible to understand.

Here’s the copy from a full-page ad for a fintech called Finastra in a Times supplement today.  The headline says:  “OPEN for banking with unlimited potential,” and although I don’t suppose Bill Bernbach or David Abbott would have signed it off I can live with it, provided the copy goes on to tell me what this “unlimited potential” might look like.

In fact, however, it says:

“Today, banks of all sizes are being held back by outdated legacy systems and increasing regulations.  But customers want innovation more than ever.  It’s time for financial software to change.  Finastra brings you a dynamic, open platform that will unlock the full potential of financial institutions.  It’s time to open up to realize banking’s full potential.”

I can’t tell you how little I can make out of that paragraph.  There’s only one bit I understand, and I completely disagree with it:  I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence that banks’ customers “want innovation more than ever.”  Beyond that, I know this is something about software, but I have not the faintest idea what.

I suppose you could argue that I’m not in the target audience, which, as far as I can tell, is people in banks (or maybe in financial institutions).  But I’m not that far from the target audience.  And anyway, my strong feeling is not that this is written in a specialised language that only makes sense to a small and specialised group:  my strong feeling is that it’s vacuous nonsense that can’t possibly make sense to anybody.

In the unlikely event that anyone from, or connected with Finastra reads this blog, then I apologise to them.  It’s nothing personal.  In this sector, I’m afraid there are plenty of other ads and comms of one sort or another which I could just as well have chosen.

When it comes to the quality of copywriting at least, Pete Townsend was on the money:  “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” indeed.  Now there was a young, innovative disruptor that I could make sense of.

German’s iguana. Nags a geranium. Seaman arguing.

Don’t worry, the pressure hasn’t got to me.  These – as you may have spotted, in which case well done you – are all anagrams of the same bunch of letters, and the bunch of letters in question are the ones that make up the name of the anagram-generating software that I want to tell you about, the wonderful Anagram Genius.  (Actually, if you add the letters of “wonderful”, you get all sorts of completely different anagrams – “awful and green ignoramus” or “swagger of mundane urinal”, to name but two.)

The really interesting thing about Anagram Genius is how often it comes up with forms of words which seem somehow spookily relevant to the subject at hand.  By way of example, if you offer it the words “Financial Conduct Authority” it comes back with options including.”uncanny if dictatorial touch” and “out-of-hand lunatic intricacy”, both of which fit its financial promotions rules extraordinarily well.  (“Financial promotions rules” gives us “minor professional lunatic”, but I’d better stop there before I get carried away.)

Anagram Genius used to be free, and there is still a free trial version which will give you a taste of it, but after that it’s about twenty quid.  I have no axe to grind or commercial interest of any sort when I say that I don’t think you can get much more entertainment from a Bobby Moore.

Actually, a good analogy just came to mind for this TSB business

My mother’s garden suffers from something called Honey Fungus.  This is a vicious and deadly fungus which lurks indestructibly under the ground – and bursts out, quite unpredictably, every now and then, to destroy some innocent and innocuous plant, shrub or tree.  There’s nothing to be done.  No matter how carefully my mother has tended the plant, shrub or tree, the honey fungus can kill it in a matter of days.

In this analogy, obviously, the plant, shrub or tree is a carefully-nurtured brand;  my mother is the marketing team responsible for the careful nurturing;  and the honey fungus is an IT meltdown like the one TSB is currently suffering.

Like all analogies, it breaks down if you push it too far.  I think honey fungus is always fatal, but TSB will live to fight another day.  But it wouldn’t work half as well if the fungus wasn’t deadly.

“Challenger bank” TSB may be a bit less challenging for a while

It would be unkind to make too much of this, but Sod’s Law is currently afflicting TSB with a vengeance.  It was only about three months ago that the bank pugnaciously announced a year of intense challenge to the lazy and complacent “Big Five” High Street Banks – a challenge kicked off with a punchy new animated TV commercial depicting the Big Five as sleeping fat cats and TSB as a lively little squirrel running rings around them.  “Break free and go somewhere better,” the voice-over exhorted us.

Three months on, the fear now is that it’ll be TSB customers infuriated by their inability to access their accounts after a disastrous IT upgrade who’ll be doing the breaking free.  And “somewhere better” could mean almost anywhere.

As I say, churlish to make too much of this, and important to remember it could happen to anyone (and indeed has happened to several of those fat-cat competitors in the past).  But I think it is worth briefly pondering the implications of this kind of melt-down for marketers generally, and especially for those responsible for brand management.

Ad industry trade paper Campaign reported on January 22nd that “Five years after its re-establishment by competition authorities, TSB is planning to underline its challenger brand status with a year-long marketing drive encouraging consumers to end [their current] banking relationships.”  I suspect this “year-long marketing drive” may now have returned to its garage.

You’d think that when we’re failing, we’d want to learn from success

It seems, though, that you’d be wrong.  At a conference yesterday, several of the sessions focused on the state of play in digital investments.  It was clear that the game has moved on.  That initial surge of enthusiasm which greeted the arrival of god-knows-how-many new more-or-less-mass-market online services has now morphed into growing anxiety about the difficulty (and cost) of acquiring worthwhile numbers of more-or-less-mass-market customers.

My regular reader will know that this comes as no surprise at all to me.  Almost all new businesses go through a customer acquisition crisis, and I’ve always thought that online investing businesses are likely to suffer more than most:  in addition to all the usual problems, they have one great big additional one, namely a widespread lack of consumer appetite for the whole idea.

But what did come as a surprise at yesterday’s event was the amount of fairly desperate and highly tentative casting-about for any kind of solution to the crisis.  What on earth is to be done, people asked.  No idea, others answered.

I couldn’t help thinking that this kind of exchange reflected a really extraordinary level of obtuseness among those involved.  Over exactly the same period that this wave of new services has been launching and failing, elsewhere we’ve seen by far and away the most spectacular success of all time in the field of online investing, but we’re bizarrely reluctant to learn the clear and obvious lessons from it.

This is of course the area of auto-enrolled workplace pensions, where something like nine million new customer accounts have been opened over the last few years and opt-out rates have remained well below 10%.  This is a figure which compares stupendously well with the 0.1% or so of consumers who’ve opted in to other new investment propositions over the same period.

There is pretty clearly one big reason why no-one has tried to learn anything much from the triumph of auto enrolment, and the clue is of course in the name:  since the auto enrolment mechanism isn’t available to investment providers outside the field of workplace pensions, it’s assumed that they’re playing a whole different (and much harder) ballgame and there’s no point in comparing the two.

It’s certainly true that the auto-enrolment principle makes a huge difference, and results without it will be on a different level.  But quite frankly, even if they were 99% worse, they’d still be better than they are at the moment. And anyway, a few moments’ thought makes it clear that the success of auto enrolled pensions also depends at least in part on other characteristics which are perfectly transferable.  Three of these stand out:

  1. Most important, the principle of a default investment option which means that people absolutely don’t need to engage with the whole business of investing or investment decision-making to get a satisfactory outcome.  (As I’ve said many times, this is a completely and fundamentally different approach from your typical online process with its daunting attitude-to-risk questionnaire and range of risk-rated funds.)
  2. The adoption, at least for those involved from the start, of what behavioural economics guru Richard Thaler calls the “pay more tomorrow” principle, beginning with a painlessly-minimal level of contributions and escalating gradually over several years.
  3. The “lock-away” mechanism,” obviously generic to pension pots which aren’t accessible until age 55 but in fact popular with consumers who don’t want to be tempted to access any of their long-term savings (and also obviously appropriate for investments which are described as being intended for the medium to long term.)

In addition, it’s worth saying that in fact some organisations – particularly banks – could if they chose get reasonably close to the principle of auto-enrolment anyway.  One of the few genuinely innovative propositions on the market, Moneybox, shows the way with its “rounding up” mechanism, rounding all your credit card expenditures up to the nearest pound and investing the amount greater than the cost of each item.  Moneybox doesn’t have the money to make this idea famous, and I doubt if one in a hundred consumers has heard of it:  also, the odd 20-something pence overpayment on a coffee or a sandwich probably seems too small to be worth bothering with.  But if you could round up, say, all payments above £30 from your current account to the nearest £10, you’d really get somewhere.

Tucked away in that last paragraph, you’ll have noted a point about the need to spend money to make new services famous.  This, again, is a challenge, and a cost, that auto-enrolled pensions providers haven’t faced, and is another reason why I’m not saying that the auto-enrolment success story can simply be transferred wholesale into the digital non-pension sector.

But a great deal of it can, and I’m sure it has the potential to help providers achieve very much better results than they’re achieving at the moment.   I simply don’t understand why they’re so reluctant to look at it, or to learn from it.

The adperson’s take on “Don’t think of an elephant”

You know that old idea that as soon as someone says “Don’t think of an elephant,” there’s one thing you just can’t stop thinking of.  (Clue:  large, grey, big floppy ears if African, trunk.)

I discovered the adperson’s equivalent many years ago, and to share it with you I have to admit that back in those days I worked (a bit, and among many other things) on advertising for cigarettes. The adperson’s equivalent of “Don’t think of an elephant” was something called the CAP code – I think it stood for Code of Advertising Practice, so it doubled up on the word “code” a bit like the longhand version of the Dutch financial firm ING Group is in fact International Nederlanden Group Group.

The CAP code laid down all the things you weren’t allowed to do in cigarette advertising.  For example, you couldn’t claim that smoking a particular brand made you more successful, or cooler, or more attractive to the opposite sex, or indeed to your own sex.  No adperson in their right mind would want to do anything so ludicrously implausible and crass.  If anyone did, consumers would have mocked the brand to oblivion.  We all knew this.  And yet somehow…

Somehow, the very existence of the code and its many prohibitions meant that we all spent 99% of our time and energy trying to find ways to get round it.  We were obsessed with finding ways to hint, or to imply, on just to enable consumers to conclude, that such-and-such a brand did indeed make smokers more successful or cooler or more attractive or all the rest of it.  It was ridiculous, and our clients’ compliance people nearly always made sure our stupid ideas could never appear.  But, “Don’t think of an elephant” – we couldn’t help ourselves.

The equivalent in financial services is a little bit more complicated – you might say a bit more conceptual.  We’re not allowed to say anything definite about the future performance of investments (except guaranteed investments, obvs, which are a whole different ballgame).

Of course it’s fine that we’re not allowed to, because in our rational minds we don’t want to.  We fully understand that nothing definite can be said.  The whole thing about investments is that their outcomes are uncertain.  And yet somehow, the existence of the rules ensures that we spend 99% of our time and energy trying to find ways to get round them.   We’re obsessed with finding ways to hint, or to imply, on just to enable consumers to conclude, that such-and-such an investment is sure to deliver them an excellent return.  If we could, we’d put a number on it. It’s ridiculous, and our clients’ compliance people nearly always make sure our stupid ideas could never appear.  But, “Don’t think of an elephant” – we just can’t help ourselves.

Don’t worry, I haven’t taken all the good bits out

The book (No Small Change, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson) continues to inch its way towards publication (on May 31st), but this last week has seen unusually eventful inching.

It would be churlish to comment in any way other than positively on the role of our delightful publishing team at Wiley, so I’ll politely suggest that the reason no-one there had actually read it until a week or two ago was their complete confidence in its excellence.

However, when someone there did eventually read it, I hope they found it excellent but I know they found it a bit troubling from a legal point of view, with particular regard to a) quite a large number of possible libels, and b) a rather smaller number of possible breaches of copyright.  At the 57th minute of the 11th hour Roger the lawyer was given the manuscript to read, and at the 58th minute he came back with eleven pages of closely-typed areas of concern.

At the 59th minute I sat down to work through them all, and owing to the lack of available minutes there wasn’t much opportunity for negotiation, just an opportunity for JFDI.  A couple of good bits did have to go.  But I’m here to reassure you that there are still quite a few good bits left.  And if you buy a copy, I can share some of the deletions on a one-to-one basis.