I was talking to a friend who runs a large, non-British asset management company – for the purposes of this blog let’s say it’s French, although it isn’t. She was quizzing me about perceptions of her firm’s brand in the UK retail market, where they aren’t well known. I said that in the absence of anything more specific, we (or at least I) default to the national stereotype: I naturally assume that as a French firm, it’ll be intense, arsy, unreliable and deeply xenophobic. (Also, maybe the staff wear Breton sweaters and strings of onions round their necks.) (No, not really.)
She was astonished. “My business isn’t French like that at all!” she said. “On my management board there are two Brits, an American, a Swede, a Japanese and someone I think might originally be Thai. Nine-tenths of our funds under management come from outside France and are invested outside France. Our business language is English. And I never, ever wear my Breton sweater to the office.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “Big institutional clients who know you well at a personal level may understand all of that. But to me as a retail punter, I see a French name and my head fills with French stereotypes. You can work on changing them, if you want, but it’s foolish to ignore or deny them.”
To be honest, I was surprised she was surprised. In many, if not most, international markets, perceived country of origin says loads of things about individual brands. The right provenance is hugely positive: Scotch whisky, German cars, French cheese. The wrong provenance is intriguing at best and massively unhelpful at worst: French whisky, Scottish cars, German cheese.
Of course early on, before the implications of national origin have set in stone, there’ll often be a range of options available. I summarised my perceptions of the French a few paragraphs back as “stylish, intense, arsy, unreliable and deeply xenophobic.” Most, although not all, of these could provide a basis for a fairly interesting investment brand (even arsiness, if we’re looking to take a contrarian stance), but a couple of them less so (difficult to see much advantage in perceived unreliablity).
And then of course there are other facets of Frenchness which may not make my top five, but are certainly there in my mind and available for emphasis and development. The French have a far stronger and prouder intellectual tradition than us Brits, for example – reflected, I always think, in those dour Gallimard paperbacks which come in the plain white covers and are bound in such a way that you have to cut open the edges of most of the pages before you can read them. How about an investment brand which reflects that kind of Gallic asceticism?
But the key point is that although there are plenty of brand positioning options available, if they’re going to work then they’re going to have to go with the grain of the stereotypes that are already in our minds. If brand-builders try to ignore or deny them, the results will be comical and entirely counterproductive – as when Air France, for example, launched a campaign about the warmth and tenderness of their in-flight service. Absolutely ridiculous. The French have no concept of warm service. Tell me that Air France offers the best wines, or the chicest uniforms, or even the flight crew most likely to have read Sartre, and I’ll believe you. Tell me that they care, and – not least as a Brit – all I will experience is what I think is known in the trade as extreme cognitive dissonance.
I could go on, but I’m aware that I’m treading a fine line between interesting brand development theory and barely-concealed xenophobia – a criticism which, of course, I made of the French a few minutes ago.
So I’ll leave it there – and end simply by saying that if those responsible for brand-building in asset management (and actually in many other parts of financial services) are looking for that certain something extra, they may just find that a soupcon of country-of- origin will provide that all-important je ne sais quoi.