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:Â 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.Â Japanese cars.Â Italian shoes.Â French wine.Â American jeans.Â 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:Â for some reason, even though I’m writing this at breakfast time, my thoughts turn to Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies.Â
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.Â German cars, Italian cars, French cars and American cars are all credible, in a way that Greek cars or Austrian cars aren’t.Â But German-ness, Italian-ness, French-ness and American-nessÂ each carries large quantities of heavy and I suspect largely unchangeable baggage (in cars, presumably in the boot).Â In many ways, the whole business of positioning the brand starts with recognisingÂ the implications of its provenance, and then deciding what to do about it.Â Mercedes, for example, takes German-ness on board, goes with the flowÂ and decides to be more German than the Germans.Â Audi takes German-ness on board and decides to be the least German of the Germans.Â Porsche takes German-ness on board,Â adds inÂ 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.Â And so on.
The financial services industry, bothÂ retail and wholesale, is generally a lot more vague about all this.Â Â One or two provenance issues are widely recognised.Â 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 constantÂ review within Lloyds TSB and Scottish LifeÂ looks like it could be the last man standing.Â
Beyond this, well, obviously everyone in the business knows SwitzerlandÂ stands forÂ 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.Â As a punter, the first thing I notice about Deutsche Bank is not that, according to its global strapline, its people shareÂ a “passion to perform.”Â 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.Â Yet oddly enough, if you look at the home page of their website – http://www.db.com/index_e.htmÂ – one word that does not appear is the word “Germany.”
A few other institutions wear their provenance hearts equally prominently on their sleeves.Â Bank of America comes to mind (again not mentioning the word “America”, except in its name, onÂ its home page).Â So does Zurich.Â Â At a more parochial level, so do our esteemed clients at Liverpool Victoria, although the confusions of this whole area start becoming apparent whenÂ you realise they’re based in Bournemouth.Â
Many more institutions with much less explicit provenance are nevertheless very strongly associated with places of origin in our minds.Â We all know that Fidelity, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs are American.Â Most people know that Banco Santander (but not Abbey) is Spanish, and that Credit Agricole and BNP Paribas are French.Â
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.Â (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:Â 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.Â They are of course entirely free to duck the issue altogether.Â But in some cases, i wonder whether highlighting their provenance might all the same give them more focus and distinctiveness.Â Anyone who knows AXA, for example, knows that in fact it is quintessentially French.Â UBS is very Swiss.Â And so on.
I think I’ve said enough.Â Differentiation, more than anything, is the brand-defining problem that has plagued the financial services industry.Â For many businesses, provenance provides a credible, available and sustainable way of achieving it.Â 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.Â Could aÂ New York-based financial institution have adopted American Airlines’ James Gandolfini campaign?Â Could an Australian asset manager say “Where the bloody hell are you?”Â Could an Italian bank have ownedÂ the “Italy” campaign adopted by their national beer, Peroni?Â Â Well, yes to all of the above, in my opinion,Â except for the trifling matter that theÂ non-financial brands got there first.
I think I’ve mde my point.Â Well, actually, if you read the piece in The Times, you’ll find those boiler-room rogues in Buenos Aires made it for me.Â