We need to talk about abusive brands

I’ve insured my car with the same firm for about 6 years. Today I got my latest renewal notice, and saw that for the first time the premium – which has been heading north for some time now – had crossed the £1,000 line. This seemed to call for a visit to comparethemarket.com, and in five minutes I’d saved about 45%. No doubt if I’m stupid enough to stay with the new firm for 6 years, their premiums will move steadily upwards and eventually I’ll go back to comparethemarket.com and save another 45%. (It’s not completely impossible that the firm offering me a thumping great discount will be the one I’ve just left.)

The thing is, how on earth do those of us who believe in the value and importance of brands cope with a world in which this kind of customer abuse is commonplace?

I’m not particularly singling out direct insurers. Their bad habits are largely confined to pricing. In other parts of financial services, it’s not hard to find a much broader range of much more villainous behaviour. The banks, of course, stand in a class of their own. Dealing with your bank these days is a bit like attending a pickpockets’ convention: if you drop your guard for a second, there’ll be hands sliding unobtrusively into every pocket and sliding out with your phone, keys, credit cards, cash, half-eaten muesli bar, pocket pack of tissues.

The thing is, you don’t have to think about all this too hard to realise that it makes a complete and ridiculous mockery of everything we do. On the basis of a ton of customer research and a lot of creative brainstorming, an agency comes up with a Big Idea for NatWest. NatWest, it decides, will stand for “Helpful Banking.” Check on MoneySavingExpert.com, and you’ll find that mainly, it stands for the most rapacious approach of any bank during the great PPI rip-off, having charged premiums for this useless insurance of over £3,000 on a £10,000 loan. Against this black-and-white evidence of criminal greed, “Helpful Banking” and all the song and dance that go with it count for much less than a fart in a hurricane.

As it happens, the motor insurer with whom I’ve just parted company isn’t a famous or heavily-advertised brand. But it could just as well have been. It could have been Direct Line, contradicting their strapline “A good deal better.” Or MORE TH>N, showing that when they say they give you more they don’t mean it in a good way. Or LV, whose strapline I Love Cheaper Car Insurance actually provides their loyal customers with a compelling reason to take their business elsewhere. Or… well, I’ve made my point.

A very senior insurance marketing man of my acquaintance says he regrets all this as much as I do. The trouble is, he says, ripping off the existing customers who are too stupid or passive to look around more frequently generates an enormous proportion of his company’s profits. (In the same way, banks made far more out of PPI than they did from providing the loans.)

Well, if you’re happy to make your money like that, good luck to you. But why then squander a chunk of the money you’ve made on brand communications that no-one is going to believe?

The financial services industry has had ample opportunity over the last few years to reconsider its role as the Millwall of the consumer economy – no-one likes them, and they really don’t care. After careful consideration, the majority of large firms have decided that they’re fine with that, and they’ll carry on cheating and conning their customers – especially the stupidly-loyal ones – at every possible opportunity.

For as long as that’s so, those of us responsible for these organisations’ brand management would be smart to remind ourselves every now and then of the utter hopelessness of our task.

More pink mist than red

When I saw the title of the latest in the CII’s series of “thinkpieces,” the red mist did begin to rise. It’s called, snappily, “Breaking The Downward Spiral: Why Improving Financial Capability Is Important To Our Industry,” (http://www.knowledge.cii.co.uk/?fname=journal_2010_02_newsandcomment.pdf) and my loyal reader will immediately understand my gathering ire. I am notoriously unreceptive to laments from people in financial services to the effect that everything would be so much easier and better if only our consumers weren’t so rubbish.

Behind the relatively innocuous expression “improving financial capability,” there usually lies an arrogant and unachievable desire to raise consumers’ financial understanding to within spitting distance of the average in-house actuary or accountant, so that at last we can have a sensible conversation with these ghastly people about what they need, what we have to offer and what they should be doing about it all.

Hopefully I don’t need to dwell too long on the point that this foolish nonsense is the exact opposite of how good marketing and customer engagement works. Good marketing and customer engagement means talking to people on their terms, not yours. The game is not about teaching customers your language. It is about learning theirs.

This is such an absolutely fundamental point that I can’t believe it’s still necessary to keep making it at all, even if only briefly. It’s a point which has been taken on, to a greater or sometimes lesser extent, by those in every single other market segment that provides consumers with things that they don’t understand, from mobile phones and computers to blu-ray players to diesel-engined cars to serotonin reuptake inhibitors, but there are still loads of people in financial services who just cannot get their heads round it.

On closer examination, though, the author of this new thinkpiece isn’t among them. Actually, AVIVA protection marketer Liz Coyle delivers a more rounded argument, calling for a bit too much education for my liking but also recognising the role that simpler products, and the new Money Advice service, have to play in dealing with consumers at their current level of expertise and engagement.

A bit like a submarine captain suddenly realising that the temptingly large and close target filling the screen of his periscope is in fact friend and not foe, I’ve had to stand down from action stations and take my finger off the Fire button. Frustrating. But if the piece had said what I thought it was going to say, I’d have blown it out of the water. No question.

Distinctly unrefreshed

As I said a couple of blogs ago, I’m trying quite hard to steer clear of things-were-much-better-in-my-young-day fogeyism.

However.

The (fairly) new Heineken TV campaign, introducing the strapline “Open Your World,” is stupid and embarrassing. But the concomitant outdoor, now running, showing just a bottle and the strapline, really must represent the most egregious waste of advertising money since either money or advertising were invented, whichever was the earlier.

I really cannot detect any trace of any possible relationship between the words and the experience of drinking a beer. Open Your World how? If we credit the form of words with some meaning – in itself an extremely dubious proposition – I guess it can only be that we should open ourselves to new experiences, be open-minded, adopt a bring-it-on approach to life. But how does this connect at any level to having a Heinie? I like Heineken, especially in bottles. When I’m abroad and not feeling like experimenting with a local brew, I’m always pleased to see a good old Heineken in the bar fridge. But nothing could be less to do with opening my world. It’s actually to do with keeping it closed.

The fogeyism, of course, comes pouring in when we compare this vacuous nonsense with the great golden era of “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach,” a campaign which, like the music of the Beatles, is well-known even to people who weren’t born when it was in its heyday. If that campaign was the Mt Everest of modern advertising, then this new one is the Mariana Trench.

One of the great discoveries of “refreshes the parts…” was that in lager, as actually in many other categories, consumers really do decide to “drink the advertising.”

I would like to think that with this desperate new effort, Heineken will discover that they can equally well decide not to.

“Wolf!”

For ages and ages now, there has been a lot of wolf-crying about the possibility of a big non-traditional provider launching some kind of new online financial service that puts the existing industry to shame (and for that matter to flight).

One of the most frequently mentioned is Google. Time after time, the wolf-criers tell us that the boys from Mountain View, CA are about to come down from their mountain and tear us all to pieces. And time after time, they don’t.

It’s American, and at this first stage just a few days after launch it deals only with fairly basic cash and savings products, but nevertheless you should check this out: https://www.google.com/advisor/home.

“Wolf!””

Typography whatever. Has gone wrong?

There’s an outdoor campaign running for the mobile network 3 at the moment.  The proposition is that you can download as much data as you like within your monthly charge, and the idea is in the phrase “all-you-can-eat data.”

As analogies go, that’s a pretty good one. Or at least, in one of the executions it is. In the other, the phrase appears as the headline, and it’s set as:
ALL YOU CAN
EAT DATA.

This is hopeless. The meaning of the phrase is completely lost. With that word-break,the headline sounds like some digital-era Marie Antoinette encouraging us all to dine on bits and bytes. The problem is obvious.

Except that it isn’t, or at least it isn’t to any of the people – agency-side, client-side, creatives, Maccers, suits, whatever – responsible for signing the ad off. Didn’t anyone realise that a) this is a terrible line-break, and b) when it’s used adjectivally, the phrase “all-you-can-eat” really needs the hyphens?

One of the things I promised myself when I started (and restarted) this blog is that I’d try really hard to stay well away from “things were very different in my day” pieces. Today I think I’ve broken.
That promise?

The last thing you thought you’d see here: praise.

You don’t meet a lot of great clients.  You meet quite a lot of good ones, and to be honest quite a lot of not-so-good ones.  But the great ones come along in fingers-of-one-hand volumes.

I loved working for Raoul Pinnell at NatWest. It wasn’t just his spooky resemblance to John Major. It was more the way that he ran a big, complicated roster of agencies with alarming potential for ferrets-in-sack behaviour. In fact we were pussycats, not ferrets, as far as I can recall, mainly because Raoul and his team played so obviously straight and fair with us and so obviously wanted us all to do well that we wanted to do the same with and for them.

I suppose that if I’ve had a client-side mentor in my agency career, it was probably the extraordinary Barry Silverman during his time as Head of Marketing at the Co-operative Wholesale Society. Apart from introducing me to all sorts of pleasures of the table (Barry was a walking definition of the phrase “bon viveur,” although after lunch quite often walking with some difficulty), he also introduced me to more or less all the important ideas I’ve ever understood about communicating with consumers.

And then third in this short shortlist is another big man, as Barry was – Mike Tildesley, now in charge of RBS’s insurance brands but when I worked for him running the brand, marketing and comms teams at MORE TH>N. I don’t think Mike knew as much as Raoul or Barry about the technicalities of his subject, but what he knew masses about was leading and directing teams. For all his protestations of fearsome overwork, Mike didn’t really work very hard at all. But that couldn’t have mattered less. What he did, said and decided made a difference, and left us to take whatever it was forward knowing exactly what he wanted, and so what we were supposed to be doing next. As a result – on the whole – we did very good work, surprisingly quickly, and surprisingly efficiently. And we enjoyed ourselves.

To this short list I should now add two more names. Neither is a professional marketeer, and throughout the time I’ve been working with them the proportion of their time spent dealing with marketing and brand issues has been a vanishingly small. But somehow, they managed to turn a brand development project which could easily have been a complete nightmare into a positive and mostly enjoyable experience.

The nightmare-inducing elements were many – a huge, ever-changing and ever-expanding cast of characters involved, strategic change and uncertainty from beginning to very near the end, an important but largely absentee parent organisation with the authority to derail every significant decision, a new post-merger management team trying to find ways of working together …. I could go on.

The fact that in the event the project went well and reached a pretty solid outcome, and that all the people involved stayed friends and enjoyed most (well, maybe that should be “a good deal” of it) reflects brilliantly well on the commitment, tact, common sense, energy and decency of the two people in charge – Trevor Matthews, CEO, and his right-hand man Jamie Gatoff, at what is now Friends Life.

My respect and grateful thanks to them both.

Welcome to my new one-man Harry Must Go movement

Everyone loves Harry Redknapp. Everyone except me, that is. Personally, I’m crushingly disappointed by how far, and how fast, we’ve gone backwards from this time last year. In the Premier League, we’ve picked up a hatful fewer points, and scored a hatful fewer goals. And, over the season, we’ve lost at home to Wigan and drawn at home with West Ham, West Brom, Blackpool and Sunderland, and conceded four not only to Real Madrid and Inter Milan but also to Arsenal, Fulham and Bolton.

As a result, we’ll finish sixth this season compared to fourth last season, and we won’t qualify for either of the European competitions. And all this despite the fact that on paper our squad is a) stronger than last year’s, and b) arguably both bigger and better than almost all the teams finishing above us.

But none of that explains why I don’t love Harry Redknapp.

The reason I don’t love Harry Redknapp is that he doesn’t seem to have noticed any of this. In countless end-of-season TV interviews, he professes himself absolutely delighted with the way the season has gone. It’s been a great season, he says, in which we’ve played great football and been a pleasure to watch.

Not from Block E, row 13, seat 117 we haven’t. It’s been frustrating and infuriating beyond all measure watching the talent and creativity of our brilliant midfield undermined time and again by our preposterous goalkeeper, our slow and square defence and our universally goal-shy strike-force. And if there’s one thing even more infuriating and frustrating than all that, it’s hearing the manager say that he’s delighted with it all.

To succeed at the very highest level, I now feel sure that Harry has exactly the same failing as another good Spurs manager, Martin Jol, just three years ago: he’s too nice, too easily satisfied, not hungry enough, not bothered enough. Both of these eminently decent blokes build teams in their own image: likeable, entertaining, talented and always bound to lose out to teams that want it more.

There’s no single formula to instil that hunger. Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Roberto Mancini and the rest of them make demands on their teams in different ways. But none of them would ever say they were even remotely delighted with a season in which their teams went backwards as rapidly as we’ve done this season, and that’s why I’m founding my Harry-must-go movement.

And finally, of course, there’s an analogy between football and real life, as there always is. Why do I feel quite so strongly about this? Why does it bother me quite so much? Well, we’re talking about a team that I’ve been following for a few days over 50 years now, of course. But also, in one of the gloomier corners of my mind, I suppose it’s true to say that I can’t help thinking of a certain individual not unadjacent to myself as the Harry Redknapp of financial marketing.

What was it that Rabbie Burns said?

At a conference this morning, a bloke from a little brand/marketing/comms consultancy rather naughtily used his speaking slot to pitch his agency to the gathered throng.

I thought two main things:

1. This is silly, superficial nonsense which I’m sure nobody’s buying.

2. It’s almost exactly the same as my Lucian Camp Consulting pitch.

Hmm. I think the Bard of Ayrshire’s comment was in fact: “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us To see oursel’s as others see us.” It can be an uncomfortable giftie to be gie’n, I’d say.

The girls in the swimsuits are back on Camden Road

Loads of them. Mostly very skimpy swimsuits too, I notice. And hanging around in the bus stops.

They are of course posters, I think mainly from H&M, and personally I find they brighten up the wait for the 29 quite a bit. Not so, though, I’m told, in areas like Tower Hamlets and Newham, with large Islamic populations: here the posters are greeted with outrage and, in the middle of the night, large splashes of black paint.

This has caused some minor debate and discussion around the whole subject of multiculturalism, but to me it suggests poorly targeted media buying.

I can see on Google that hijabs, niqabs and burqas are available from a wide range of retailers both specialist and generalist, not including H&M but, slightly to my surprise, very much including Amazon. Surely it would be better all round if ads for these garments – or maybe the bathing version of one of them, the burkini, recently modelled so distinctively by Nigella Lawson – were on view in the bus stops of the Mile End Road.

Why do we hate the Swiftcover advertising so much?

We like irreverence in advertising.  We like campaigns that are different.  We like campaigns with clear and simple messages.  We like silliness (and Iggy Pop interacting with a mini-me Iggy Pop is certainly silly).  We like Iggy Pop, or at least people of my generation do.

So why do we hate the Swiftcover advertising so much?I suppose first and foremost, we hate it because it isn’t funny, or more specifically it isn’t anything like as funny as it thinks it is.

And secondly we hate it because we actually have a rather complicated relationship with Iggy Pop.  We kind of love him, but we’re kind of frightened of him too.  And, crucially, we think he’s so out there on the authenticity scale that this sanitised version doesn’t actually have anything to do with the real Iggy Pop at all – it’s just a debt-hammered 60-something has-been trying to get the IRS off his backBut it’s still odd.  If I described the campaign to people who’d never seen it, they’d think it sounded brilliant, and it absolutely isn’t brilliant at all.

For all I know the campaign may work well for Swiftcover, but I feel sure that they and their agency are disappointed by our complete refusal to enjoy it.  Nothing harder or more unpredictable than trying to be funny.