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 Â£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 Â£3,000 on a Â£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.