When push comes to shove, whose side are you on?

At a dinner last week, a well-known financial journalist gave a talk.  His theme, more or less, was “The things the financial services industry does that really get on the tits of my readers.”

As you can imagine, it was a longish talk.  We listened attentively, until, towards the end, his 17th or 19th or 27th point was about travel insurance.  His older readers, he told us, were upset about the cost, which could be very high indeed – often so high that it effectively left them unable to travel abroad.

At this point, one of us listeners could remain silent no longer. “For goodness sake,” he expostulated.  “It costs them more for the simple and obvious reason that they’re worse risks.  What do they expect?  That’s how insurance works!”

Of course he was right (or at least mostly right – isn’t insurance at least partly to do with pooling risk so it’s affordable for everyone?).  But all the same, he’d missed the point.  The point of the talk was to bring home to us the real, human, often very emotional consequences of the decisions we make on perfectly robust but rational and not very human criteria.  What the journalist was trying to get across was how miserable it is to be, say, 70 and effectively unable to risk travelling abroad because you had a heart attack or breast cancer 20 years ago.

Actuarily, my interrupting friend was 100% right to do so.  But at another and much more important level, he was 100% wrong.

Product placement from hell

On the news, you see a fleet of jihadists’ vehicles, flying black flags and carrying flatbed-mounted weapons, heading into or maybe out of some terrible place in the middle East or North Africa.  What very well-known brand name do you associate with what you’re seeing?

I’ll give you a clue:  it’s written extremely prominently, in black capital letters, on the tailgates of the vehicles.  Got it yet?  It is of course TOYOTA.  Very occasionally it’s NISSAN.  But I’d say that Toyota has a 95% market share of the jihadi transportation market.

If product placement matters at all – if there is any kind of perceptual halo created in our minds from the context in which we see brands in the real world – then this has to be bad news.

Not entirely bad news, I suppose.  There are some positives to be taken from the fact that the vehicles operate reliably in what are usually pretty challenging conditions and, I suspect, without being serviced at regular intervals.  But on the whole, you’d think that being the vehicle brand of choice for global terrorism would be more of a hindrance than a help.

All of which seems to raise two interesting questions.  First, is the whole business of product placement complete rubbish?  Does it in fact make absolutely no difference at all who’s seen to be using your brand?  And second, if it’s not complete rubbish and does make some difference, why isn’t Toyota trying a bit harder to do something about it?  Presumably there are dealers around the middle East supplying these vehicles:  are the chiefs at Toyota really happy to see the hands they finish up in?

I appreciate that on the list of Issues Arising from jihad this one comes towards the bottom.  But I still think it’s worth mentioning.

 

 

Plea from the colouring-in department

W e make jokes about it, but of course the reality is that all of us involved in any way in marketing and communications in financial services – whether in internal or external roles – hate the way that the accountants, actuaries and pretty much everyone else in positions of real authority describe us as the “colouring-in department.”

Of course we’re kind of used to it, but every now and then we see or hear something that reminds us just how much we hate it.  A case in point being the profile of Apple’s recently-appointed vice-president of retail and online stores, Angela Ahrendts, in today’s Observer.

Her job, working closely with head of design Sir Jonathan Ive, is to drive Apple further upmarket, making the brand even more successful, even more profitable and even more able to charge premium prices for products that some competitors sell in far smaller quantities for a quarter of Apple’s prices, or even less.

One of the great things about the Apple success story – perhaps the same is true of most huge business success stories – is that you can read more or less whatever you want into it.  Success has in fact depended on getting a whole bunch of things right, and, at least in recent years, not too many wrong.  Highlighting any one ingredient of the recipe doesn’t really make sense:  the success is in the combination.

Still, that said, I don’t think anyone would deny that one of the main ingredients has been a commitment to brilliant, outstanding, miles-ahead-of-the-pack design, closely followed by (and closely related to) equally brilliant communication.

In fact, as far as I can remember, it was the great communication that came first.  People still talk about Ridley Scott’s 1984 commercial, aired for the first and I think only time in the centre break of the 1984 Super Bowl, back in the days when Apple computers were beige-coloured boxes just like everyone else’s.  The idea of tech as desirable objects – things that it’s a pleasure to touch, use and own – came later, I’d say perhaps first with the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad and at the same time but in a slightly more muted way the Mac.

But in any event, I bet that the people responsible for design and communication at Apple aren’t known as the colouring-in department..

Which raises what to me, as a working-life-long colourer-in, is still the most important and most baffling question in UK retail financial services:  why isn’t there a single organisation which has made any serious attempt to differentiate itself, and to build brand equity, by a roughly-equivalent effort to achieve consistent, across-the-board excellence in design and communication?

Sure, there are plenty of organisations which do a few bits of it pretty well.  There’s the odd excellent visual identity, a few great advertising campaigns, one or two decent websites (although really not very many), some lively stuff on social media.  But it is simply impossible to name an organisation which maintains a truly excellent standard across all of the above, and indeed across everything else besides.

Can you name a single institution, for example, which is doing a really great job in the area of consumer education and explanation?  Take an obvious area like pensions,. where pretty much everyone is making some kind of effort to explain all the recent changes.  Have you seen anything really good?  I saw a documentary the other day about the British Transport Film Unit, actually part of the communications arm of the rail industry.  People involved in making their films included directors of the calibre of John Schlesinger and poets like WH Auden and John Betjeman.  Is anyone hiring talents like these to explain how UFPLS works?

It’s partly a question of improving the way we do things we’re already doing, but it’s also a question of doing things we haven’t dreamed of yet.  I would love to see what some brilliant people and a big budget could do to build an financial services analogue of the Apple Store – not just a silly new-style branch with some brightly-coloured sofas and no bandit screens, but a real extravaganza designed to inspire and excite.

The kind of top-to-bottom commitment I’m talking about would be very expensive.  Everything I’m talking about could be done much cheaper, and indeed is currently done much cheaper by every brand in the market.

But I don’t really think cost is the issue.  The issue is culture, and the way the industry is still led by people who simply do not get what I’m saying here, or what countless other colourers-in have said on countless other occasions.

I must say that the challenge of trying to build a substantial FS brand which would differentiate itself at least in large part by a 360-degree commitment to brilliance in design and communication is one of the few big ideas that I can still get really excited about.

So much so that if there are any businesses out there which would like to get me involved in a such a project,  then quite seriously I’d be happy to work on it for half my usual rate.

Feel free to make contact with a comment on this blog.  But I don’t think I’ll be bothering to check back all that often.

Sorry Mark, you’re not contrarian – you’re just wrong.

I love Mark Polson.  I love the name of his business (inexplicably, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, The Lang Cat.)  I love the way he writes.  I love the range and depth of his enthusiasms, although I can’t say I always share his taste in the music he shows such passion for.  And I love the way I can rely upon him to be even more contrarian than I ever am – to make me, by contrast, boringly mainstream.

But.

Occasionally, very occasionally, Mark goes a teeny bit too far with the contrarian thing.  His determination to be different, not just to zig when others zag but to zeg, zug and even maybe zoog or zoig, drives him to say some things which are jolly silly.  And the way he’s decided to love the term “robo-advice” is a classic example.

Mark says he loves the term “robo-advice” basically because everyone else in the industry hates it.  Anything so hated by the industry has to have some good things going for it, he figures.

But Mark is missing the point.  And he’s missing the point in a worrying way that makes me wonder if maybe he’s been part of this crazy financial industry for a bit too long.  It doesn’t matter what people in the industry think of the term.  It matters what real people – people not in the industry – think of the term.   And what they think is all bad – they think it’s silly, confusing, a tiny bit scary and definitely of no interest or relevance to them.  Which is absolutely right as far as the form of words is concerned, but absolutely wrong in terms of what the words are trying so hopelessly to describe.

You might guess that the brunt of my ire would be focused on the “robo” bit, with its stupid 50s science-fiction overtones, its connotations of clockwork-powered tinplate toys.  Actually no.  “Robo” is bad, but actually “advice” is worse.  Because to consumers, robo-advice services aren’t advice services at all.  You don’t come away having received “advice.”  You come away having made an investment.  Robo-advice services are in the business of providing investment advice in the same way that restaurants are in the business of providing food advice – which is to say, from the consumer’s perspective, not at all.  While you’re deciding what to order, you may ask the waiter whether the T-bone is better than the sirloin.  But when you leave, you don’t leave thinking that you’ve had some good steak advice.  You leave thinking you’ve had a meal.

Robo-advice is like that, except that I suppose the waiter would need to be a clockwork tinplate toy.  Advice may be a small part of the service.  But the big part is investments.  And, by the way, once you’ve had your advice and made your investment, you may be a customer of the service for many years without ever taking any more advice ever again – for 10, 20, 30 years or even more, it’s just an online investment service,  But according to Mark Polson it’s a great and clever thing that it’s called “robo-advice.”

In my book, gratuitous language abuse is pretty much the worst thing that we in the financial services industry can do to our customers.  It’s the surest way to confuse, alienate and alarm them, to make sure that they keep right on wanting to have as little as possible to do with us and the bewildering nonsense that spouts endlessly out of our mouths.  You’d think that in recent years we’ve already done so many stupid and alienating things with the word ”advice” that it would be hard to come up with yet another one, but somehow we seem to have managed it.

All of which, I hope, explains why, much as I love Mark Polson, I really, honestly and seriously hate what he’s saying about this.