I hope my co-author won’t be too upset by this

Today, I’ve been working on the brief (yes, honestly, very brief) remarks that my co-author Anthony Thomson and I will be making at the various events coming up over the next week or two to mark the publication of our book.  (You remember, it’s about financial services marketing, it’s called No Small Change and it’s available now for advance orders on Amazon.)

I found myself thinking about how AT and I will come across as a double-act, and which existing and well-known combination people will find us most like.  Will they see in us the suavity, cool and charm of Butch and Sundance?   The talent and competitiveness of Lennon and McCartney?  The humour and rapport of Eric and Ernie?

Then I got it.  It was none of these.  Two grumpy blokes, well past the first flush of youth, sitting on the sidelines and taking pleasure in a stream of rude and irreverent remarks:  to any Muppets fan, we can only be Waldorf and Statler.

 

Level playing field, but few goals scored

In the run-up to the implementation of GDPR at the end of this week, heaven knows how many organisations are frantically emailing their customer and prospect lists asking them to opt in to continue to receive their communications – certainly hundreds, probably thousands, possibly tens of thousands.  It’s a level playing field, or almost – give or take the odd regulatory quirk, everyone has to say the same things and deliver the same call to action (“opt in if you want to keep on hearing from us”).  So how’s everyone getting on?

Before I answer that, a word on those regulatory quirks,  To be honest, I don’t understand the rules of the GDPR game well enough to understand the reasons for the differences I’m noticing in message content.  Why can some organisations just send me dull, passive and seemingly completely pointless emails telling me they’ve updated their privacy policy, while others vigorously urge me to click on a button to remain opted in and others still seem to need me to fill in lengthy questionnaires?  I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t care.  I’m creative, me.  Suits and/or planners explain these ramifications in the brief.

But what I do know is that, looking at the hundred-or-so emails that I’ve received over the last few weeks, the quality runs the gamut, as Dorothy Parker nearly said, from pitiful to mediocre.  I don’t think I’ve received a single communication that really did anything positive or good for my relationship with the brand.  And I’ve received a great many which, when they caught me in two minds about whether to opt in or not, filled me with such negativity that I decided not to.

Much of what’s worst about many of the messages are the headings.  I can’t decide which was the most hopeless from a shortlist including one which said only “General” and another which said “GDPR Survey Link.”   (I’m pretty sure, though, that in third place was “GDPR updates to DIBOR emails,” not aided by the fact that I haven’t the faintest idea who or what DIBOR is.)

Most aren’t quite that bad, but they’re not a lot better.  I’d say that only one rung higher up the ladder of effective communication are the ones where, as so often in our industry, stupid useless “creatives” think their job is to do something with words which makes the message incomprehensible rather than actually helping to tell the story.  A retailer called Thyme kicks off “Thyme to opt in.”  The Gatwick Express says “Final call before boarding.”  Given the crisis that generally surrounds email open rates these days, it’s very hard to believe that this kind of opacity is the way forward.

Next there are a few odd men out (and in the case of the first of these I use the word “men” advisedly, since it’s from male moustache-growing charity the Movember Foundation).  Plainly defeated by the whole thing, their email begins “We have to say goodbye soon,” which is strange because the whole point of the communication is that we don’t have to.   And online retailer Hush comes on to me with the line “A love letter from Hush,” which I have to say since I can remember nothing about ever doing business with them is love of a sadly unrequired kind.

Amidst these exceptions and anomalies, the large majority adopt a consistent approach with a headline about staying or keeping in touch, and a short piece of explanatory copy.  This is fairly sensible, although maybe a little short of “what’s in it for me?”, so you might imagine  all is well with this lot:  but not so, because there turns out to be a wide range of things that can go wrong during and indeed after the opt-in process.  Lengthy and complicated questionnaires, forms that don’t work, pre-populated forms pre-populated with the wrong information, processes that take you to websites you had no interest in – a significant proportion of emailers (up to half, I’d say) offer experiences bad enough to put us right off the idea of remaining in contact.

And then of course it hardly seems fair to mention it, but there is the whole tricky business of offering some kind of distinctive brand experience, intended to play some part even if only a small one in shaping our perceptions of difference.  Do you know, in all honesty I don’t think I’ve received any of those.

And one more thing:  although the GDPR timetable has been entirely clear for months, it does all seem to have turned into the most monumental stampede to hit Friday’s deadline.  The first email I received was on Wednesday 9th May, and all the others have been jostling for attention in a period of a little over a fortnight.

It’s true that it’s in the interest of both providers and consumers alike to clean up the database from time to time.  There’s little point in maintaining records of millions of people who have no further interest in what you have to offer.

But the depressing thing about these last couple of weeks is that in quite a few cases, I did have an interest, if perhaps a slightly less-than-red-hot one.  It was only irritation at the uselessness of the message that made me pretend I didn’t.

What FS marketers really think about their brands

Encouraged by the almost Kardashian-like number of views of my last blog, discussing research on how FS marketers define marketing, I thought I’d try another research-based topic.  And like last time, the research content is a brief summary of findings from a study among senior financial services marketing people, commissioned for my forthcoming book No Small Change, co-written with Anthony Thomson and published early next month.

The large majority of respondents worked for firms with at least some D2C distribution, so I suppose it’s no big surprise that 93% of them said that a strong consumer brand is important for their business.  (Just over half of these thought that it was not just important, but increasingly important.)

But after than, the findings were a lot more surprising – and not in a good way.  Only just a shade over a half, for example, thought that their own organisations actually had a strong consumer brand.  A third thought that their direct competitors’ brands were generally stronger than their own.   And when it came to “real” differentiation, the majority thought that their organisations were either “dependent on communications activity” to appear different from their competitors, or “not really different at all.”

Just to reality-check responses to that first question, we also asked respondents whether they believed that strong end-consumer brands are generally important for success in financial services.  95% said they were, and no-one said they were not at all important.

You have to say, on behalf of the financial services marketing community, that these findings are a bit of a worry.  Here is a business asset which is generally accepted to fall within the remit of marketers, and agreed by between 93% and 95% of respondents to be important for success – but where somewhere around 50% of respondents believe that their own firm’s brands are weak, and/or that competitors are stronger, and/or that their firms don’t actually possess the degree of differentiation that provides a platform for brand-building.

I don’t think that in this blog I have much to add to that last paragraph (unlike in the book, where as I recall we bang on about it at some length).  The only thing I do have to say is that of course, at a purely personal level, the picture painted by these findings makes me wonderfully, blissfully happy.  It looks like there’ll be loads of work for financial services brand consultants like me for many years to come.

Apparently no-one in FS knows what marketing is. Not even marketers.

As the countdown continues to the launch of my financial services marketing book No Small Change, co-written with leading challenger banker and old friend Anthony Thomson, it’s time for these blogs to start working harder to build up a frenzy of pre-launch excitement.  Hence this effort, which previews some of the book’s findings from the research we carried out among senior financial services marketing people.

This isn’t the place for detailed facts and figures, but, long story short, one of our key question areas was to do with the activities which respondents thought did, and indeed did not, fall within the remit of marketing.  To do so, our questions were built around the good old tried-and-tested “Seven Ps”, the list made up of Product, Price, Promotion, People, Place, Process and the slightly incongruous Physical Evidence (a list I now know so well that I can write down all seven without hesitation or need to check Wikipedia for the one I’ve forgotten).  How many of these areas should come under the control of marketers, we asked.  And in your business at the moment, how many currently do?

Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that there was one area of very-near-unanimous agreement.  Almost everyone agreed that Promotion should come under the control of marketers (although you can’t help wondering about the one or two respondents who thought it shouldn’t).

But the other two headline findings are less pleasing.  First, there was an extraordinary and extreme divergence of views on the other six areas.   Some felt sure that marketers should control them all.  Some thought that marketers had no business controlling any of them.  Some thought marketers should control some, but not others, Some thought they should control others, but not some.  You get the picture.

And second, almost everyone thought that in their own firms currently, marketers had a lot less overall control of these areas than they should.

What do we conclude from all this?  First, that marketers themselves are still unclear and disunited on the extent of their remit.  Should marketers control, or at least have influence over, everything that touches the customer?  Or is their job only to promote propositions developed by others?

And if we’re unclear, it’s hardly surprising if a) others are unclear too, and b)  in the absence of any visible boundaries they feel free to park their tanks across as much of our lawn as possible, leaving us only with the corner called “promotion.”

It would be interesting to replicate the research outside financial services.  Anthony and I can both remember working for FMCG client companies where the centrality of marketing was universally recognised three decades ago, and I’m sure that any further change since then has only been in one direction.

But here in FS there’s still a long way to go – and that’s as true for us marketers ourselves as it is for our colleagues in other parts pf the business. And that – to sum up the whole story in a well-known and painful phrase – is why, even today, in so many firms we’re still known as “the colouring-in department.”

Is it just me, or is this stuff really meaningless?

You’d think that if there was one thing that young, innovative, disruptive fintechs might be good at (better, at least, than their stuffy, legacy-bound predecessors), it would be communicating.  But you’d be wrong.  Most of them write in an abstract, conceptual, intangible way that I find absolutely impossible to understand.

Here’s the copy from a full-page ad for a fintech called Finastra in a Times supplement today.  The headline says:  “OPEN for banking with unlimited potential,” and although I don’t suppose Bill Bernbach or David Abbott would have signed it off I can live with it, provided the copy goes on to tell me what this “unlimited potential” might look like.

In fact, however, it says:

“Today, banks of all sizes are being held back by outdated legacy systems and increasing regulations.  But customers want innovation more than ever.  It’s time for financial software to change.  Finastra brings you a dynamic, open platform that will unlock the full potential of financial institutions.  It’s time to open up to realize banking’s full potential.”

I can’t tell you how little I can make out of that paragraph.  There’s only one bit I understand, and I completely disagree with it:  I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence that banks’ customers “want innovation more than ever.”  Beyond that, I know this is something about software, but I have not the faintest idea what.

I suppose you could argue that I’m not in the target audience, which, as far as I can tell, is people in banks (or maybe in financial institutions).  But I’m not that far from the target audience.  And anyway, my strong feeling is not that this is written in a specialised language that only makes sense to a small and specialised group:  my strong feeling is that it’s vacuous nonsense that can’t possibly make sense to anybody.

In the unlikely event that anyone from, or connected with Finastra reads this blog, then I apologise to them.  It’s nothing personal.  In this sector, I’m afraid there are plenty of other ads and comms of one sort or another which I could just as well have chosen.

When it comes to the quality of copywriting at least, Pete Townsend was on the money:  “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” indeed.  Now there was a young, innovative disruptor that I could make sense of.