Egg sunny side down

There was a black Range Rover, G reg, that sat in my street festooned with handwritten For Sale notices for what must have been a good two years.  During that time it got steadily tattier and tattier, and the price specified in the notices got lower and lower, and in the end it disappeared.  I can’t actually tell you whether anyone bought it, or whether it finished up at the dump:  it must have been a close-run thing.

The Pru’s “alternative” financial services brand, Egg, didn’t spend quite so long displaying the hand-written For Sale signs, and the price didn’t get anything like as low – Citibank have just paid well over £500 million for it, although the Pru have still been left looking pretty silly because that’s roughly half their own valuation of just over a year ago, when they paid about £180 million to buy out a minority stake.

Still, it’s a sad day.  For one thing, it’s difficult to believe that those corporate types at Citibank will really get the Egg thing:  they’ve bought the customers, the technology and the products, but I very much doubt if they have much interest in the brand.  And for another, it does feel a bit like a tipping point (oh God, I’ve used that phrase for the second time in two days) for the whole alternative financial services thing. 

Brand, marketing and communications-wise, Egg did lots of things right, but it still couldn’t succeed as a business.  Now it’s gone, you can’t help fearing that First Direct, MORE TH>N, Smile, Cahoot and a bunch of others warmly received not so long ago by brand and marketing types like me won’t be far behind.

Apparently, some boffins are saying the earth’s getting warmer.

Just kidding.   Of course I’ve noticed this climate change thing.  It’s just that, writing this blog during two or three months of unparallelled media frenzy on the subject, I haven’t actually mentioned it till now.

While mopping up fashionable phrases and concepts which I’ve ignored in this blog so far, I might add the term “tipping point” to the list.  Because if ever there was a tipping point as far as climate change is concerned, the announcement by Stuart Rose of Marks & Spencer that his company will be carbon-neutral by whenever it is (2010? 2012?) was it.

Mark my words.  If M&S is going to do it, we’re all going to have to do it.  Well, probably all except Tesco, who, on their past form, will come up with some completely different and much less onerous set of measures and then demonstrate how they’re triumphantly meeting them.

(Talking of Tesco and their attitude towards social responsibility, in my part of north London the drivers of the lorries resupplying the huge numbers of Tesco Metros and Tesco Expresses seem to have decided that the zigzag lines either side of pedestrian crossings mean “specially reserved parking for Tesco lorries.”   This may seem mildly amusing, until the inevitable day when an unsighted motorist takes out half a dozen schoolkids on a crossing.  “Every little helps” my arse, as they say.  But we digress.)

Where were we?  Ah, yes, M&S and global warming.  I don’t suppose I know much about the financial services industry’s carbon footprint, but I suspect it’s pretty large and leaves quite deep indentations on the ground, a bit like those dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

The media frenzy will die down.  It always does, simply because it can’t stay at eleven on the dial for ever.  It may even go right back down to zero, like bird flu. (Whatever happened to bird flu?  A year or so ago we were at eleven on the dial, with this lethal scourge working its way towards us at a rate of about 50 miles a day, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the unforgettable Swarm;  then an infected bird was found in Scotland;  and then the balloon burst, the story evaporated overnight, and we haven’t heard a word about it since.)

But even after the media frenzy has died down, I do think there are going to be some real and lasting changes in behaviour and not just at Marks & Spencer.  Buy in some ecological ink and plenty of recycled paper, chaps:  your customers are going to want to read what you’re doing about this.

Another year of encouraging progress. Or No. 15, for short

One of the afternoon’s tasks has been to write my annual Chairman’s Statement, and although I don’t think I’m allowed to say anything about what’s in it, I think I am allowed to mention a past experience it brought to mind.

A long time ago I used to write quite a few companies’ financial results advertisements – ads that appear mainly in the FT, and report briefly to the investment community on how the companies have been doing.  “Another year of encouraging progress” was pretty much the default headline.  There were plenty of more specific variations: “Strong performance in difficult market conditions,” “Poised for further growth” (which of course is code for “heavy losses”), “A year of consolidation (which of course is code for “heavy losses”) and so on.

There would then be a table of financial results, which was what the investment community really wanted to have a look at, and some accompanying narrative, often in three or four bullet points, which would put a bit of flesh on the bones.  The narrative would explain, say, that the UK core business had done well, but that times had been tough in the US and disposals were now planned there:  looking to the future, raw materials prices were rising sharply but the company had effective cost control programmes in place and looked forward to the next business year with confidence.  And so on.

Anyway, the thing is, as I wrote more of these ads, I gradually realised that altogether they actually communicated a very limited number of messages. Effectively, they drew from a pool of a dozen or so headline thoughts, and maybe two or three times as many copy points.  And they were targeting an extremely knowledgeable and understanding City audience who could absorb this sort of stuff very easily.

So easily, it occurred to me, that perhaps these quite large, complex and expensive ads could be replaced by very small ads carrying a simple system of codes.  Perhaps, for example, “Another year of encouraging progress” could simply be communicated by the number 11.  Maybe “Strong performance in difficult market conditions” could be a number 7. Then the bullet point messages could be communicated by letters, so that, say, a small ad reading 5akpw would be understood to mean “Poised for growth:  severe margin pressure in the UK retail sector, but signs of a recovery in Australia and New Zealand;  pre-tax losses largely resulting from the costs of a major restructuring programme, and a new chief exec now on board to take over from that silly old sod who got us into this mess.”  5akp, for example, would obviously deliver much the same message without the new chief exec.

Obviously all the advertisers would have to agree upon a list of the codes and distribute the code book among the target audience, but it would be well worth the effort.  The ads could become about 80% smaller, with the cost coming down from around £30k per insertion to around £5k.

To be honest, the moment for this sort of initiative has passed.  There’s much less of this sort of advertising these days.  In fact, if I’m really honest, my codes idea wasn’t really the progress that this particular advertising sector needed:  the progress it really needed was to stop wasting money on these stupid and pointless ads altogether.

But thinking again about all this while writing my statement this afternoon, I wondered if I’d come up with the right solution to the wrong problem.  In financial services, there are so many sectors with hugely formulaic advertising – rate-driven loan ads, credit cards’ 0% balance transfer messages (always with an asterisk and details of handling charges), motor insurers substantiating implausible savings with research studies that just about satisfy the FSA.  Surely all of these could be replaced by codes even simpler than those that I imagined all those years ago?  Yes, it’s still true that advertisers would have to agree on the codes and publish the codebook – but in these high-spending sectors, the financial benefits of doing so would be huge.

And you might complain that once the codes were in place, the ads would all look the same.  But then again, they do already. 

The camel now standing at platform 18

Just back from a conference in Paris.  Flew out on Wednesday night, the usual nightmare, nearly four hours late, got to the hotel about 1 in the morning.  Not a trace of sympathy from any of my fellow-delegates – just wide-eyed amazement at the fact that I’d chosen to fly rather than go on Eurostar.  Really, they couldn’t have been more amazed if I’d said that I’d travelled by ox-cart or camel.

When the even-higher-speed Eurostar kicks in, some time in the Autumn, I can’t believe there’ll be anyone living or working in London stupid enough to choose to fly to Paris, or indeed Brussels.  Except maybe me. 

 

A moment of revelation (not religious)

Actually, to do with how you win new business.  Anyone who’s read Christopher Booker on the subject (link to a good review: http://www.powells.com/review/2005_02_06.html) knows that there are only seven plots in storytelling (actually, I think that some years later he revised the number upwards to nine). 

In a moment of revelation, nowhere near Damascus but not too far, I guess, from the Syrian fish and chip shop in Camden, I suddenly realise that there’s a roughly similar number of strategies available to present in new business pitches - and that the secret of success lies in figuring out which one is most appropriate in each case.

Why is this discovery important?  Well, mainly because it’s how you win.  But also – maybe it’s the same point in different words – because it stops you wasting time worrying about stuff that makes you more likely to lose.

Most of all, it stops you wasting time on worrying about being original.  There may be one pitch in ten where this matters. The other nine, it’s a non-issue.

Let me give you an example, from the retail funds market.  A few years ago, in the depths of the 2002 crash, we won a pitch for the ISIS account.  Market conditions were so bad that this probably was the one time in ten when you had to do something different.  We did a very cards-on-the-table, tell-it-like-it-is, no-more-bull-market-hype thing built around the strapline “ThIS IS reality” (note how ISIS’s name is cleverly hidden in the line…)

The launch poster had a sceptical consumer saying “Overpromising and underdelivering – isn’t that what investments are all about?”, which was the kind of thought that didn’t just capture the zeitgeist but banged it up in solitary confinement, put it on a diet of bread and water and threw away the key.

Excellent.  But.

A few years later – for reasons that, with considerable understatement, I think we can say reflect more negatively on the client than on the agency – we found ourselves repitching for the account.  There had been a merger, and the brand was now F&C, not ISIS.  The markets were more bullish.  It was time for a more positive message.

We built a campaign around another cracking strapline – “Expect Great Things.”  We lost.  They liked the line – I can tell they did because to this day, F&C ads display a disconnected and irrelevant travesty of this line, “Expect Excellence”, bunged in pointlessly down at the bottom among the health warnings.  But this time, they didn’t want an original idea.  In fact, they bought an idea with the brand F&C cleverly hidden in the word “F&CT”.  This is a good idea – so good, in fact, that we’d very happily used it five years earlier in our work for Alex Lawrie Factors.

See what I mean about originality?  But we’re only half way there.  The big investment pitch of 2006 was M&G, and I must say I can hardly think of a brand I’d rather work for.  We lost.  This week, we see the winning agency’s new advertising.  Strapline:  “No promises.  Just great expectations.”  First ad’s headline:  “Surely it’s better to overdeliver than overpromise?”  The headline from our first ISIS poster, with the strapline from our F&C pitch.

For the avoidance of doubt, I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not making any suggestion at all of any plagiarism here (except that stupid “Expect Excellence” strapline, which was certainly a rewrite of “Expect Great Things”).  Nor am I saying that any of the clients in my story made the “wrong” choice, either of strategy, of creative or indeed of agency.

What I am saying is that on two of the three occasions, we tried far too hard and worried far too much about doing something different and original, when in fact the real skill was to recognise which existing (unoriginal) strategy and idea fitted the situation best.

This task, obviously, isn’t completely straightforward.  Even when you’ve worked out what the seven strategies are (or is it nine?) you still start with an 84% chance (or 89% chance) of getting it wrong. A number of skills are required – in particular listening skills, so often agency people’s achilles ear – to whittle down those odds.

Still, I’m sure I’m right about this.  Now all I need is your help to pin down the seven (or nine) approaches.

How scarey is this thought for you?

They say that if you could choose which single piece of paper would tell you the most about someone’s life, you’d choose their weekly supermarket till receipt.

Probably true.  But here’s one that would run it close:  a print-out of the words they’ve written into their mobile phones’ personal dictionaries. 

 

Has MBNA taken over the world?

To be perfectly honest, er, well, the thing is, um, not to beat around the bush, quite frankly, I’ve run up a largish balance on one of my credit cards.  Yes, OK, make that a large balance.  So even with an initial 2% charge, a balance transfer to a nice new card with a year or so interest-free sounds like a good idea.

Those nice people at uSwitch sent me an email listing the six best balance transfer deals on the market at the moment .  A variety of providers – I can’t remember them all – including Virgin, Abbey and Citibank.  But looking at all six of them more closely, I find that all six are actually offering white-labelled MBNA cards.

It’s awesome.  It seems like they’re running the whole market now.  But does it matter?  Well, to me it does.  Fairly sensibly, when you come to think about it, MBNA won’t accept balance transfers from other MBNA cards.  And guess what brand of card I’ve run up that large(ish) balance on. 

I think I may know which 50%.

You know, of course you do – famous quote, Lord Leverhulme, 50% of all the money I spend on advertising is wasted but I don’t know which 50%.

OK, it doesn’t account for the whole 50%, but if it was still possible to make contact with the estimable Lord I think I’d tell him that a fair chunk of the wasted 50% is spent on brand advertising for brands that were doing perfectly well without it.

One of the bigger and trickier issues for advertising to think about is what kind of contribution it has to make to brand development once you get beyond brands that come in jars, packs and boxes.

You can’t help thinking that the contribution of advertising is often extremely marginal.  Consider Amazon, eBay, most of Virgin, Ryanair, lastminute.com.  Some of these brands have advertised fairly heavily, some not at all.  But with all of them, you have a strong feeling that they’ve built their brands – and their awareness – very much more through their day-to-day activities and a great deal of canny PR than they have through advertising.

There are plenty of other names I could add to the list, but the one I’m thinking about today is easyJet.  After a painful and protracted pitch process, easyJet appointed their first-ever grown-up agency (my memory is going, but I think it was Ogilvy) a while ago, and we’re starting to see the fruits of their labours.

I’ve got to say, as fruits go, they’re on the sour and unripe-looking side.  Take the 48-sheet posters that are up now (I might try to insert a pic later).  There’s an odd-looking black splodge up in the upper left area with a caption that says “fish fingers.”  Then there’s a cut-out orange silhouette of some children playing on a beach with a caption that says something like “fresh fish.”  And pretty large down in the bottom right there are some prices for flights to Faro.

It’s really difficult to see the point of all this – well, all this except the cost of the flights.  Is the poster as a whole making any serious attempt to change consumer attitudes or behaviour?  I think most people know it’s nice to have holidays.  Is it delivering any kind of proposition about easyJet beyond the one thing everyone knows, which is that they have low fares?  I don’t think so.  Does the advertising in itself offer the consumer any reward, or emotion, or association of some positive kind with the advertiser?  Well, not for this consumer it doesn’t.

So to sum up, in what way is this advertising any better than the home-made price-driven advertising that has so successfully helped build the easyJet brand over the last ten years or so?  Well, actually, in no way whatsoever.

Pointless to criticise this one rather feeble campaign any more.  But what’s interesting about it – and about some of the equally-lame campaigns for brands like those I mentioned above – is that they highlight the increasingly wide divergence in thinking about how brands are built between ad agency people (who think that running big-ticket advertising is more or less synonymous with brand-building) and everyone else (who think that once you get beyond classic agency FMCG territory, advertising has very often got very little indeed to do with brand building, and ad agencies even less).

Obviously there are exceptions.  Advertising can help bridge dangerous gaps that can open up between perception and reality, as M&S have recently been demonstrating.  It can add to, or amplify, a brand’s emotional dimension, as BA have shown us over the years.  And it can gently reinforce all the perceptions we build up in our minds from other touch-points, as Waitrose does.

This is all useful and important work.  And it’s far too early to write off the contribution that Ogilvy can make to the easyJet brand just on the basis of a couple of duff posters. But I don’t think Lord Leverhulme would have enjoyed picking up the tab for them. 

Try this delicious glass of Belgian whisky….

You’ll enjoy the piece in The Times this morning by a bloke who spent a month selling worthless stocks over the phone from a “boiler room” operation based in Buenos Aires –http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,7-2540528,00.html.

One thing I noticed was that in the scripts used by the author and his colleagues, they told punters that they were calling from a brokerage in Frankfurt, Germany rather than Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Here, I thought, is something fairly unusual:  a financial services business that understands the importance of provenance.

Provenance is something that’s fundamentally important in most markets, and provides the basis for brand positionings in many.  Japanese cars.  Italian shoes.  French wine.  American jeans.  In each case, the provenance says something both about the authenticity of the brand, and about its particular values.

It’s not just a question of national provenance. Regional and in some cases extremely local provenance can be just as important:  for some reason, even though I’m writing this at breakfast time, my thoughts turn to Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies. 

In many markets, there is only one credible provenance – if my pork pie isn’t from Melton Mowbray or indeed my whisky from Scotland (despite the efforts of Suntory in Japan) I’m not interested.

More often, there’s a range of possibilities, each credible but each bringing extremely different associations.  German cars, Italian cars, French cars and American cars are all credible, in a way that Greek cars or Austrian cars aren’t.  But German-ness, Italian-ness, French-ness and American-ness each carries large quantities of heavy and I suspect largely unchangeable baggage (in cars, presumably in the boot).  In many ways, the whole business of positioning the brand starts with recognising the implications of its provenance, and then deciding what to do about it.  Mercedes, for example, takes German-ness on board, goes with the flow and decides to be more German than the Germans.  Audi takes German-ness on board and decides to be the least German of the Germans.  Porsche takes German-ness on board, adds in several kilos of sports-car flair and brio, and emerges with the sexy, high-performance sports cars that won’t misbehave when stuck in London traffic jams.  And so on.

The financial services industry, both retail and wholesale, is generally a lot more vague about all this.  One or two provenance issues are widely recognised.  In the life industry for example, the largely-positive associations of the prefix “Scottish” are understood, although that being so it’s curious to note that Scottish Amicable has gone, Scottish Mutual and Scottish Provident are more dead than alive, Scottish Equitable is on the way out, Scottish Widows seems to be under constant review within Lloyds TSB and Scottish Life looks like it could be the last man standing. 

Beyond this, well, obviously everyone in the business knows Switzerland stands for for a cocktail of wealth, security and discretion, but I can’t think of many other examples that are widely recognised.

In fact, though, as far as consumers are concerned, I strongly suspect that provenance is just as important in financial services as it is in cars, pork pies and anything else.  As a punter, the first thing I notice about Deutsche Bank is not that, according to its global strapline, its people share a “passion to perform.”  The first thing, and indeed the second, and indeed the third, fourth and fifth things, is that it seems to be based in a country a few hundred miles to the east of here, black red and yellow flag, capital city Berlin, fondness for sausages and beer, where Mercedes come from, always beat us at football except the famous 5-1 and the even more famous 4-2, I think you know the country I’m talking about here.  Yet oddly enough, if you look at the home page of their website – http://www.db.com/index_e.htm – one word that does not appear is the word “Germany.”

A few other institutions wear their provenance hearts equally prominently on their sleeves.  Bank of America comes to mind (again not mentioning the word “America”, except in its name, on its home page).  So does Zurich.  At a more parochial level, so do our esteemed clients at Liverpool Victoria, although the confusions of this whole area start becoming apparent when you realise they’re based in Bournemouth. 

Many more institutions with much less explicit provenance are nevertheless very strongly associated with places of origin in our minds.  We all know that Fidelity, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs are American.  Most people know that Banco Santander (but not Abbey) is Spanish, and that Credit Agricole and BNP Paribas are French. 

In the way that these brands are positioned outside their home markets, though, I can’t see any sign that any of them goes with, or against, the grain of their national provenance, or indeed really pays any attention to the issue at all.  (This is a bit unfair in the case of Fidelity, an organisation which I know has always worried about how to deal with its American-ness:  but I’d still say that the issue is unresolved with them, for all the time and effort they’ve spent on it.)

Then of course there is the last and biggest group, of organisations without any clues to their provenance in their names, and without any perceptions of provenance in our minds.  They are of course entirely free to duck the issue altogether.  But in some cases, i wonder whether highlighting their provenance might all the same give them more focus and distinctiveness.  Anyone who knows AXA, for example, knows that in fact it is quintessentially French.  UBS is very Swiss.  And so on.

I think I’ve said enough.  Differentiation, more than anything, is the brand-defining problem that has plagued the financial services industry.  For many businesses, provenance provides a credible, available and sustainable way of achieving it.  I can’t see any reason why it should be a harder or riskier card to play in financial services than it is in many other markets.  Could a New York-based financial institution have adopted American Airlines’ James Gandolfini campaign?  Could an Australian asset manager say “Where the bloody hell are you?” Could an Italian bank have owned the “Italy” campaign adopted by their national beer, Peroni?  Well, yes to all of the above, in my opinion, except for the trifling matter that the non-financial brands got there first.

I think I’ve mde my point.  Well, actually, if you read the piece in The Times, you’ll find those boiler-room rogues in Buenos Aires made it for me. 

Have you seen the bargains in the sale at NatWest? Thought not.

Recently, high street financial institutions seem to have noticed that quite a few of their neighbours in the retail trade have sales at this time of year.  Several banks and building societies – with NatWest and HSBC probably the biggest players – are now having their own.

It’s interesting, though, how rubbish they are at it.  For one thing, the whole look and feel of financial institutions’ sales is tattier and grottier than any major retailer’s – right down there at the Mr Byrite/99p Store/Amy’s Hardware level.  And for another thing, the deals are so not exciting.  Slivers of cost shaved off bank account and insurance charges, fractions of APRs deducted from loan rates:  if that’s a SPECTACULAR UNREPEATABLE WINTER SALE SPECIAL then I’m Father Christmas.

Pretty much every financial institution on the high street has experienced a moment of revelation at some point in the last few years, realising in wide-eyed wonderment that when all’s said and done what they actually are is a kind of retailer.  Many have decided to start behaving more like retailers. A number have hired people with retailing backgrounds.  Most have started studying exactly what retailers get up to.

But in exactly the same way that an awful lot of retailers have found that it’s harder than it looks to make a good job of financial services, you have to say that just at the moment an awful lot of financial services providers are making it clear that it’s a lot harder than it looks to do retailing.