Oh no! I disagree with Jeremy Bullmore!

No-one has ever written on advertising and communications as well as Jeremy Bullmore.  In fact, no-one has ever written a tenth as well.  Maybe not even a twentieth.  But when I read his latest piece in the Marketing Society’s excellent Market Leader magazine (available on 7-day free trial at www.warc.com) I found to my amazement that I disagreed with him.

In hazel-rather-than-brazil-nut shell, he argues that there’s nothing so new about the Internet because people have always “interacted” with communications.  He says that all good communicators in the history of the world have realised that half the job of communication takes place in the communicatee’s brain (yes, yes, your communicatee’s brain is saying there’s no such word, and you’re right).  The only difference, he says, is that this kind of “interactivity” has taken place in private, one to one, between, say, writer and reader, whereas on the Internet interaction happens visibly, publicly and often between many people.

OK, the great man is half-right.  It certainly is true that people “interact” with communication.  They don’t just receive it passively, except maybe old-style Procters commercials.  And clever communicators think of their work as a dialogue even when it’s taking place remotely, via the printed word or the television script.

But to say this kind of interaction is anything like what’s happening on the Internet seems to me, well, frankly, a bit daft.  When we say that people are “interacting” with communications on the internet, what we mean, increasingly, is that they’re taking complete control of the proceedings.   Look at Wikipedia.  Or at My Second Life.  Or YouTube.  Consider that in the top 20 google listings for Ryanair, nearly half are sites consisting of negative comments from consumers, or the media, or both.  Search “natwest” and “complaints” and you’ll get over 54,000 listings, including serious players like financevictims.co.uk and grumbletext.co.uk in the first ten.

People say the Internet is like a High Street, and up to a point it is, but the trouble is that it’s lots of other things too – one of which is the corporate PR day from hell.  Every day.

What the Internet really does is to democratise everything.  It’s the Formula One, supercharged, foot-to-the-floor acceleration of the democratising process that technology has been driving for 20 years. 

It started with some craft skills.  Advertising artwork?  Once you needed a ten-year training, not to mention a trade union card.  Now you need a £500 Mac.  Recording music?  Once you needed musicians, a studio and an engineer who could twiddle 200 buttons while splicing recording tape with his teeth.  Now, a £400 home studio has several times the power of the machinery in Abbey Road Studio 1 when the Beatles recorded Revolution and When I’m 64, to choose two pertinently-named tracks.  I could go on:  they even say that those who’ve spent enough time on Microsoft Flight Simulator might make a decent fist of landing a Boeing 737 in one of those Airplane-like “Oh my God, they both ate the fish!” scenarios. 

I have my doubts about that, but I have very little doubt that the publicness of the interaction that happens on the Internet will make it more and more and more different from any other kind of interactiveness that’s happened anywhere else ever.  All sorts of interactions that were previously thought completely impossible will become commonplace.

Even idiots from financial agencies slagging off that brilliant Mr Bullmore.

How Magners iced not-so-Strongbow

I suspect The Marketing Society’s member database thinks I work for a drinks company.  I get invitations to endless events, seminars and case histories about booze brands of one sort or another, but never even a half-day workshop on anything to do with financial services.  For obvious reasons, i have no intention of pointing out the mistake.

The first drink-related invitation of 2007 is to a case history on the extraordinary success of Magners in the on-trade cider market.  In the space of about three years, it’s gone from nowhere to overwhelming brand leadership, and at the same time increased the value of the category by about 100%.

I shall be interested to hear Magners’ own marketing director’s explanation of this sparkling performance, but when it comes down to it I don’t really care because I’ve already drawn my own conclusions.

I think it’s been a combination of three things. First and least important, it’s a pretty good drink. Second, they went for it big-time from the outset, concentrating their resources, focusing on the on-trade and spending a great deal of money to establish a major presence quickly. 

And third and most important of all, there was the ice.  The ice is what makes people think again about it – what makes it not Strongbow, and not Dry Blackthorn, and not any of those other brands which we all decided long ago are Not For Us.  The ice helps with the drinking experience – actually, it makes it kind of cold – but much more importantly it is the focal point of the brand’s differentiation.

I’m sure that there are serious cider boffins who feel nothing but contempt towards the ice.  Very likely, when Magners launched, the product development people at Bulmers laughed disparagingly into their authentically-warm pints.

They’re not laughing now.  They’re in too much of a panic, rushing about launching their own cider-on-the-rocks contenders.  Before they become cider-makers-on-the-rocks.

As you may have suspected, there is an analogy with financial services that’s about to make an appearance.  Magners, it seems to me, is exactly the sort of product development story that most financial services companies don’t do.

First, very, very few would ever hit a product launch as hard as Magners hit this one. Can you name a financial services product (product, I emphasise, not brand) that has sustained an advertising budget of over £10 million a year for its first three years?

But second, and again more importantly, the ice thing.  If the traditional cider-making product development wonks turned up their tastebuds at this sort of gimmickry, then the traditional FS product development wonks are ten times more conservative.  There is of course no limit to the number of technical bells and whistles that many will introduce to tickle the fancies of brokers and advisers.  But silly gimmicks designed to appeal to the end consumer, well, honestly.

Quite often, this terrible traditionalism is dressed up as concern for the consumer.  When Virgin Direct launched a simple critical illness product that only insured against cancer, the old school got very red in the face and angrly brandished actuarial tables showing the risk in failing to cover other serious illnesses.  And just this week, Legal & General have launched a simple, direct life product offering something the traditionalists are usually in favour of – Family Income Benefit – only to trigger another bout of table-brandishing because there are some exclusions.

To me, this kind of rectitude is a bit hard to take from the product development community that has given us Purchase Protection Insurance, low-cost endowments, guaranteed with-profits, split-caps, precipice bonds and all the other mis-shapes and misfires that the professionals have inflicted on us. 

But leaving all that aside, the real point about the Magners story is that it provides another piece of  evidence to support my long-held view that product development in most markets is far too important to be left to product development people.

If you’d like to read more about this theory, you’ll find a piece I wrote for our estimable and multiple-award-winning newsletter, The Invisible Brand, at http://www.cchmping.com/invisibleBrand/invisible_13_seat_coverings_cupholders.php.

If you’d like to move on from the theory and start talking about what the story of Magners and the ice might mean for your business, then lucian.camp@cchmping.com would be very pleased to hear from you. 

Special Pleading #2: “If Only We Had Better Consumers”

Back at work after the ten-day Christmas marathon, and I must say that during a period of heavy consumption of more or less all categories of goods and services the financial world has been conspicuous by its absence. 

True, NatWest has launched a much more hard-nosed version of its “Another Way” campaign, set in the back-office political maelstrom of a big bank with the inevitable consequence that it seems a lot less like Another Way and much more like Very Much The Same Way As Barclays (and Very Much The Same Execution As Nationwide Only Not As Good). 

And my good friend and former colleague Ben Rhodes, now in charge of Mastercard’s advertising, came up with a very sweet charity film involving those alpacas or chinchillas or whatever they are, demonstrating that when you want a bit of genuine emotion you’re oddly much better off with a cast of weird-looking and unexpressive animals than with a cast of real people and a storyline involving a bunch of rather sentimental airport reunions.

Otherwise, I’ve seen very little of financial services, but I have seen a great deal of consumers.  And, what’s more, consumers doing what they’re supposed to do – namely, consuming.

In financial services, it’s pretty much universally believed that we suffer from the unique uselessness of consumers.  Consumers simply haven’t got the faintest idea how to engage with financial services.  In fact, they’re so hopeless at dealing with them that the FSA has even come up with a special jargon expression to put the crapness of consumers into politically-acceptable terms.  Consumers aren’t crap, they suffer from an “information assymetry,” which is a polite way of saying that as far as knowledge and understanding are concerned the industry holds all the aces and actually the kings and queens too, while all 40 million UK adult consumers can scarcely muster a two of clubs between them.

This “information assemetry” is of course profoundly “disempowering” for consumers, who don’t have the faintest idea what to do most of the time, sit trembling like rabbits in headlights and occasionally embark upon wild bursts of bizarre and deeply inappropriate behaviour which they wouldn’t consider for one second if only they weren’t so totally out of their depths.

Serious consequences are seen to flow from the uselessness of consumers.  There is seen to be a long-term need for an immense and colosally expensive commitment to consumer education.  In the meantime, others are eager to introduce new sources of simple and general advice to paper over the cracks.  The FSA sees protecting consumers from their own incompetence as one of its most important purposes.  Manufacturers steer around consumers and focus their own sales and marketing efforts entirely on advisers, in much the same way that baby food companies steer around babies and head straight for parents. 

And everyone agrees that oh, my goodness, life would be so much easier and better if only consumers weren’t so completely, totally and uniquely hopeless when it comes to financial matters.

Which brings me to the point of my Christmas-season consumer observation programme. They aren’t.

Or to be exact, they’re not uniquely hopeless.  Because this is the special pleading, and like most special pleading it turns out to be much less special than it first looks.  The simple fact is, most consumers are hopeless with almost everything.

I could give you so many examples from my Christmas experiences.  My mum trying to use the Internet.  My son trying to assemble his new telescope (or, specifically, my son trying to assemble his new telescope without reading the instructions.)    My nephew trying to figure out how to steer his remote control car.  My sister-in-law hacking bits off the turkey at 8am on Christmas morning when she realised it was too big to fit in her oven.  My brother trying to set up his new recordable DVD. 

I could go on, but my point is simply that consumers are crap at virtually everything.  There is scarcely a product or service which all consumer use well.  Generally speaking, the bigger, more complicated and more expensive a thing becomes, the more useless consumers are with it.  They can more or less cope with packets of crisps and boxes of matches.  But computers, hi-fi. mobile phones, cars – you’ve got to be kidding.

The financial services industry’s belief that no-one else has similar issues with the crapness of consumers is highly damaging.  For one thing, it encourages the industry to take the view that its uniquely horrendous problems call for uniquely radical solutions – and particularly the idea of adding financial services to the national curriculum.   This just doesn’t make any sense.  In the hierarchy of lifeskills that are so important that they need to be taught in schools, I can’t see any reason why learning about financial services should rank any higher than learning about parenting, or about driving, or about building a career, or for that matter about cooking and working with computers and gardening.

And more generally and more insidiously, it maintains the industry’s still-unquestioned assumption that the real need is for a breed of new consumers who are capable of understanding these things better, when in fact the real need is obviously for a breed of straightforward, intuitive products and services than you don’t need to be a super-consumer to get your head round.

In short, I’m saying that the financial services industry doesn’t have uniquely rubbish consumers at all, it’s just really prone to endless bouts of special pleading. 

People are people.  They’re not particularly good, or bad, at financial matters, or anything much else. If we could start recognising that reality, and designing our products and our communications for people as they really are rather than still waiting for a long-distant nirvana where everyone understands pound cost averaging and terminal reverisonary bonuses, then we’d achieve much more than we’ll ever achieve sitting on our bums waiting for consumers to rise to our oh-so-elevated level.