Asset management: the race to be different is on

Over the years, there have been few easier ways to make money than asset management.  It’s not just at the rocket-science, hedge fund end of the market:  for decades, a combination of high and opaque charges, unaware and largely inert customers, uncritical and often conflicted intermediaries and an absence of serious external scrutiny kept the most vanilla of fund managers (of whom there are many) well supplied with six-figure bonuses and top-of-the-range Mercs and Range Rovers.

Perhaps more importantly, these same factors have also combined to keep the market ridiculously overcrowded and undifferentiated.  When you can still make a ton of money running small funds that are exactly the same as everyone else’s and perform no better or indeed rather worse, there are few if any pressures to make the industry more competitive.

Now, though, that’s all changing in the retail market at least, and the active fund management industry is feeling the first stirrings of panic.  Among a long list of things all happening at once, the three most important are:
1.  The somewhat slow-motion effects of the Retail Distribution Review (RDR), implemented in January 2014, which eliminated intermediaries’ financial incentive to recommend high-cost actively managed funds.
2.  The ever-growing body of irrefutable evidence that, not least because of their indefensibly high charges, the very large majority of active funds underperform their low-cost passively-managed counterparts.
3.  The shamefully-belated new effort by the regulator to tackle the industry’s bad practices and help consumers get a better deal.

Over the next few years, the combination of these and other factors will change the industry in many ways.  But the one that most interests me is now clearly apparent:  pretty much all big and reasonably businesslike firms are feeling the need to ask themselves the question:  “What makes us different, a) from each other and b) from passive firms who charge 85% less than we do?”

For most, this is a horribly difficult question to answer, or at least to answer well.  (The troubling answer “Absolutely nothing” is readily available).  A few firms do already own, or in some cases partially own some kind of differentiating idea, and they’re much more strongly placed.  But most really don’t, and it’ll be fascinating to watch them grappling with the issue.

The key issue, it seems to me, will be to do with the balance of power between the marketers and the fund managers.  As I’ve often written in this blog, hitherto this has resided about 98% with the fund managers and 2% with the marketers, whose job is confined to producing the brochures and the sales aids and even then the fund managers tell them what colours they want them to be.

But in the evolving new world in which marketing assets like a differentiated positioning, a strong brand and a convincing value proposition are suddenly absolutely mission-critical, this long-established balance of power isn’t going to work any more.  A bit like star chefs newly-dependent for their survival on their pot-scourers, or airline pilots humiliatingly subservient to the cabin crew, an awful lot of pride-swallowing is going to be necessary.  At the moment, I really wouldn’t like to say whether I think they have it in them.

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.

The triumph of brands over experience

(Yes, I know, it would be a better headline if the word “brands” rhymed with the word “hope”.  Oh well.)

Over the last few days, I’ve been having my first airbnb experience, trying to sort out three or four places to stay during a short trip in the New Year.

I suppose the initial online experience is OK, although there are some highly un-intuitive page layouts and the whole thing certainly conforms to my comments about idiosyncracy from a few blogs ago.  But it’s once you’ve tried to book somewhere that it all gets very tricky.

I may have been unlucky, or maybe people took an instinctive dislike to the slightly self-conscious personal profile that I was obliged to provide.  (Or maybe it was just that it was obvious from my photograph that unlike the large majority of male users, I don’t have a beard.)   But for whatever reasons, it happened five times in three or four days that my bookings were accepted, and then within 24 hours cancelled again – involving me in a less-that-straightforward refunds procedure, and of course the need to go through the whole rigmarole again.    (In the end, I decided to quit while I wasn’t too far behind, booking half the trip on airbnb but turning to expedia for the other half.)

This was all extremely tiresome, and not at all what I expected from the service that has been hyped as the future of leisure travel.  But here’s the thing:  at a brand level, I don’t really mind.  In a service industry sector where we all agree that brand perceptions are overwhelmingly driven by experience, my experience has been rather less than mediocre.  But I still perceive the brand as the future of leisure travel, and I expect I’ll still go back to it again.

This doesn’t really make sense.  My not-very-positive experience should be powerful enough to overwhelm the fairly feeble positives built up in my mind by seeing some posters on the tube and reading some PR in the newspapers.  But somehow, it doesn’t work like that:  with brands that you kind of like, as with people that you kind of like, you’re willing to set aside the negative experience and carry on with the liking.

If there’s some kind of general theory about how brand relationships work, and specifically about how some kind of positive emotional engagement can offset a whole lot of negative experiences, it’s obviously important to try to understand how it works.  Can anyone help me with this?  If anything’s been written on the subject, I’d like to read it.

In praise of idiosyncracy

I’ve written about this before, but not for a while.  And anyway, I’ve written about everything before, or everything I know about financial services branding and marketing at any rate.

This is the second blog to be sparked by the Financial Services Forum session about customer experience, and how as things are currently organised there is very rarely any attempt to differentiate it:  as we said in the meeting, those involved are all preoccupied with moving along the axis that goes from “bad” to “good,” but hardly anyone pays any attention to the axis which goes from “generic” to “different.”

All this reminded me of a theory which I used to feel quite excited about, that the differentiation of many of the strongest brands flowed, directly or sometimes indirectly, from the personal idiosyncracies, beliefs and even in some cases prejudices of the people responsible for them (and, most often, the business’s founder/s).

I’ve written before, for example, about the way that the emphasis on nutrition and food value in the Mars Bar brand stems not from clever research insight into ways to help consumers feel less guilty about consuming them, but rather from the deeply-held personal views of the eccentric food scientist Forrest Mars, back in 1920s America, about the dietary benefits of chocolate.  Or how McDonald’s achieved a role as the family restaurant of choice in 1950s America because the founders happened to have a thing about cleanliness and hygiene which made McDonalds acceptable to families in a way that greasier burger joints could never be.

There are loads of other examples, from Anita Roddick’s ideas about beauty without cruelty which gave the original Body Shop much of its distinctiveness, through to IKEA’s obstinate determination to stick to their Swedishness even when expanding into markets where half their product names sound like swear words or skin conditions.

Yes, it’s true, I’ve said all of this before.  But what I hadn’t realised until now was the extent to which a large, growing and successful part of the external consultancy marketplace is spending all its energies in helping clients manage their customers’ experience at best without any regard to this kind of idiosyncracy, and at worst with a view to stamping it out wherever they can find it.

The result may be (I say “may” because I’m not at all sure) customer experience which is gradually getting a bit better, but it certainly isn’t customer experience which is getting any more different.

It would be unfair to blame the customer experience industry for not getting brand, or indeed for not getting idiosyncracy as a major component of brand.  It’s not a big issue in their world, or in the worlds of the clients who hire them.

Look at it the other way round, though and it’s a very different picture.  Customer experience is a huge thing in my world, and in the world of anyone who cares about brands in service industries.  It’s up to us to get our point of view across to the people who haven’t got it yet.

Oh dear, I wonder if I’ve just discovered the fatal flaw in my thinking

Actually, I think I may have had a bit of a road-to-Damascus moment – but in an entirely bad way, as any experience involving roads going anywhere near Damascus tends to be at the moment.

Exhibit A:  the universally-held belief held by people in my kind of line of work that brands in service industries like financial services are overwhelmingly experiential, and so are built in people’s minds out of the sum total of their experiences of the brand in question.

Exhibit B:  my own empirical observation, that while some financial services businesses provide good service, some are mediocre and many are terrible, hardly any provide a kind of service which could in any way be described as distinctive or specific to what their brand is supposed to stand for.  (There are a few exceptions to this, but not many.)

Exhibit C:  the observation by my old friend Christopher Brooks, agency man now turned customer experience consultant, at a Financial Services Forum event on this subject yesterday, that in his experience when FS businesses are working on aspects of their customers’ experience, “invariably brand simply isn’t at the table.”

Hmm.  Taken together, these exhibits are distinctly alarming.  At worst, they suggest that no-one important on the client side has ever bought a single word of what I’ve been saying for the last god-knows-how-many-years:  they simply don’t seem to accept that designing customers’ experiences in a brand-minded way is worth the bother.

Why is this?  Is it because they don’t accept that service-sector brands are indeed very largely experiential?  Is it because they just don’t care about their brands and can’t be bothered to build them?  Or is there a third reason which makes me feel a bit less miserable?

I think there might be. Imagine if you will a four-box grid about service quality, with the south/north axis going from “Bad” to “Good” and the west-east axis going from “Generic” to “Distinctive.”  My proposition – much confirmed, I must say, by the discussion at yesterday’s event – is that at most organisations, most of the time, the overwhelming priority seems to be to move up the bad/good axis, ironing out some of the truly abysmal service failings that are still endemic in our industry.

For as long as that’s the case, no-one is much worried about moving positively along the west/east dimension, building experiences which are distinctive, hard to copy and specifically designed to build the intended brand perceptions.  In short, when your inbound calls are waiting an hour or more to be answered, no-one’s too bothered about the tone of voice of the poor sod who eventually picks up the phone to another infuriated customer.

I get that – it makes perfect sense.  But, in my brand-centric terms, it’s still not ideal.  My preference – in heading towards that top-right box where we all want to be in four-box grids – would always be to move diagonally upwards.  Yes, move from bad to good by all means.  But, at the same time, move from generic to distinctive too.  In my book, brand considerations are always part of the agenda, even when you are dealing with abysmal service failures in urgent need of improvement.

It looks, though, as if those currently responsible aren’t seeing it that way, and this discovery gives me a useful sense of a focus – or a proposition – for my customer-experience-oriented activities.

And at the same time it gives me a nice clear objective for my lobbying on the subject – trying to find a place for that chair marked Brand at that Customer Experience table.

“Money On Toast targets high earners,” says the newsfeed. Targets how, exactly?

Money On Toast’s You Tube film has had 801 views.  On Twitter, they have just over 700 followers, nearly all of them as far as I can see either IFAs or industry people of one sort or another.  They have about 150 likes on Facebook, which is kind of surprising because there is very, very little to like on their extremely dreary page.

I’ve never seen a Money On Toast ad, online or offline, and although it’s always dangerous testing these things on oneself I am pretty much right in the middle of their target market, as defined in the article appearing beneath the trade press headline quoted above.

You’ve heard me grumble before that the new world of direct, D2C online investment services is never going to happen until a number of the leading players start spending some proper money on marketing communications.  It doesn’t look as if Money On Toast are anywhere near doing so.

I ate some excellent strawberries yesterday. Would you like to hear about them?

No, I thought not.  Unless you’ve come to this blog entirely by chance, with no preconception at all about what you’ll find here,  I’m certain that you aren’t here to learn about my recent red-berry experiences.  In short, the subject wouldn’t pass a relevance test.

I’m a keen reader of The Week, the news magazine that summarises the most interesting content from the previous seven days’ media.  In the last couple of issues, there have been a couple of reasonably interesting pieces about things happening in America – one about the way that almond-growers in California are contributing to that state’s water shortage. and the other about a way of organising busineses, so-called “holacracy,” where you do away with bosses and leave groups of employees to make all the decisions.

Slightly off-brand for The Week, I’d say, because neither had any connection to events or media coverage of the last seven days, but both quite readable and well-written – about as good as my strawberries piece would be, I dare say.

But relevance, or rather the lack of it,  is the connection.  Because these two articles are the latest in a series called “A view from America,” appearing every three or four weeks ago – appearing under the heading “Advertisement Feature,” and carrying the logo of American Airlines.

Waffly writers like me are generally pretty happy with the “content marketing” mania that has gripped the communications industry in the last few years.  You can write a couple of thousand words on almost any subject under the sun and find a company willing to pay you for it and put it on their website, provided that you put the words “White Paper” at the beginning.

And as the fire grows ever hotter, and the need for mountains of further fuel ever greater, buyers become less and less critical about the relevance of what they’re buying.  These pieces in The Week have the word “America” in their theme line, and so does “American Airlines.”  That’ll be fine, then!  Someone somewhere can write a content marketing strategy paper saying that our aim is to own American-ness, the link is created and the pieces start to appear.

But, as Orson Welles famously almost said in the legendary Domecq sherry commercial out-take bootleg, if anyone can tell me how these articles benefit American Airlines’ business, I’ll….

…well, modesty forbids – I’m sure it’s on You Tube.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have a mind more than devious enough to like the idea of achieving brand and communications by subtle, cunning and indirect routes.  I’m not with the client I once worked for – at Danish Bacon, if you’re interested – who once sat through an agency presentation of outdoor ideas packed with wit and wordplay, and at the end asked, in a tone of honest bafflement, “Well, everyone, I can see you’ve all worked very hard, and your ideas are very clever.  But could someone tell me – I really want to know, I’m not just being difficult – what exactly would be wrong with a headline which said, say, just for the sake of argument, ‘Buy Danish Bacon’?”

My own mind is a lot less literal than that, but even so I cannot for the life of me understand how American Airlines can possibly benefit commercially from a full page article in The Week with a headline that reads “Holacracy and other flatter-earth theories.”  Or, for that matter, “The trouble with almonds.”

If I’m missing something here, please tell me.  I’d love to find someone who’d pay me for that strawberries piece.

Formula One tank rides again

Of all the creative teams I’ve most enjoyed worked with, Colin and Alex come pretty high on the list.  Partly, that’s because they often came up with cracking ideas.  But also, it’s because they always came up with presentable ideas, cracking or otherwise.  It didn’t matter how woolly or complicated the brief, or how little time was available – if you briefed Colin and Alex, you could be sure that by the time the clients came in (even if that was hours or even probably minutes later), there’d be two or three ideas you could quite happily show them.

Mind you, in the interest of coming up with an impressively thick stack of layouts, the chaps were in the habit of padding the work out just a little – adding in one or two horribly unoriginal, pretty-much-entirely generic ideas which, at a push, you could just about defend as semi-relevant responses to any brief featuring any proposition and any product.

Of these – I am going somewhere with this, honestly – the most frequently-presented was the Formula One Tank – a visual of a tank, obviously, but in a Formula One racing livery, not camouflage. You can see how this works – it’s not just strong, or robust, or reliable, it’s also fast.  Or, at an even simpler level, it’s better than a Formula One car because it’s a tank, and it’s better than a tank because it goes like a Formula One car.  Colin and Alex invariably included this idea in the stack, and I invariably turned this idea down, which of course left Colin and Alex free to add it to the stack again next time.

That’s all a very long time ago now, and the last I heard Colin was living in Bulgaria.  Which, I suppose, makes it unlikely that they’re freelancing for the agency handling the rebranding/relaunch campaign for what until how has been MGM Advantage (and now apparently Retirement Advantage).

This is a bit personal for me, because not so long ago I was much involved in the rebranding/relaunch campaign for what until then had been MGM Assurance – which became, obviously, MGM Advantage.  If I say so myself, we did an excellent job.  The new identity was fresh, lively and original, and the launch communications were simple and strong.

None of which can be said for the new incarnation.  Everything about Retirement Advantage is crap, including the name.  But crappest of all is the advertising which – you’ve guessed it – actually does feature the Formula One Tank, or something very close to it.

Actually, it’s built around a useless generic idea about people being “better equipped,” visualised with pictures like several blokes pheasant shooting with shotguns, and one person on the moors with an anti-aircraft gun.

And since, by the way, one of the many problems with this idea is that photographing it would be unaffordably expensive, it’s only possible to run it as a crap drawing which makes it look as if they’ve decided to run the rough.

There are several other visuals in the campaign (not so far actually including a Formula One Tank among other tanks, but I live in hope).  I can’t actually remember any of them but it doesn’t matter because one of the acid tests for useless generic ideas is that you can think of a hundred more in an hour.

Anyway, I feel a bit guilty about giving this miserable stuff such a kicking, but at least it’s an opportunity to pay tribute to one of the best creative teams I worked with.

And if by any chance they have been freelancing for Retirement Advantage – well done chaps, you finally got it through.

 

Oh dear, MORE TH>N, I’m afraid you’re much more than a disappointment these days

Of all the financial services brands I’ve had a hand in launching, none engaged me more than MORE TH>N.  It was partly because we had an inspirational client, the legendary Mike Tildesley.  It was partly because we had the biggest, most exciting and at the time most important of the agency remits available, brand advertising (remember Lucky the dog?).  But it was also because, within the mainstream of the general insurance market, I did actually believe that MORE TH>N intended to be a bit special, a bit different, a bit better.

How stupid.  For all the About Us rubbish on the website (for example, “It takes thousands of dedicated and talented employees around the UK to deliver the excellence of service and products our customers demand and expect”. – there’s loads more at www.morethan.com/aboutus) these days it’s just another grotty general insurance business, delivering rubbish service with the one hand and ripping off its loyal customers with extortionate premium increases with the other.

I had to speak to them on the phone to renew my travel insurance recently.  I wrote about this a few blogs back:  it took four calls and a total waiting time of nearly 100 minutes before I actually got to speak to someone. (I only had to give them a new credit card number and ask for a couple of minor policy changes – why the hell I can’t do this online I have no idea.)

After my 100-minute wait, I wasn’t very pleased to hear that with the minor changes, my premium would be going up from £302 to £684.   I did a bit of shopping around (the new business lines almost always answer nice and quickly) and found AVIVA quoting me a great deal less than MORE TH>N – £320, to be exact.  Not a difficult decision, really.

Out of touching and clearly misplaced loyalty to what was then a client, I also had my motor, building and contents insurance with MORE TH>N too.  Motor went a long time ago, for exactly the same reasons – shocking call waiting times and extortionate premium increases.  The buildings and contents I still have, but only till the next renewal – I know I’m being ripped off, and I don’t like it.

In all of this, I don’t suppose MORE TH>N is more than averagely useless and untrustworthy – I have no great faith in AVIVA, for example, beyond the point that over the coming 12 months they’ll save me £360 on my travel cover.

It’s just that my expectations were that little bit higher – partly because of my personal experience with the business in the early days, but also a little bit, I mist admit, because of that rubbish on the website.

Here’s another sample:  “The MORE TH>N brand is grounded in the values of modernity, individuality, perspective, purposefulness, clarity and integrity. It’s underpinned by the desire to go the extra mile for the customer, deliver more than words and treat customers as individuals.”  Absolute bollocks, every word of it.  Unless you have personal experience to confirm it, you still can’t believe anything that any financial services provider says to you.

If our relationship’s so personal, where’s my wife’s birthday card?

I’m not in favour of the meaningless, machine-signed corporate birthday card.  Of course I’m not.  It’s as silly, and potentially as counter-productive, as those birthday funeral plan mailings I used to get every year from Cornhill Insurance on the erroneous premise that my date of birth was the fifteenth of the tenth 1903.  (They congratulated me each year on reaching such a ripe old age up to, as I recall, 2008, in which year I’d have been 105:  at that point some sort of data-cleaning exercise must have taken place, because I haven’t heard from them since.)

But there are various financial services providers, especially in my household’s segment which I guess I would define as “upper mass affluent,” who pride themselves on a more genuinely personal approach.  Naming no names, but the kinds of firms I’m thinking about include our financial advisers, our rather exclusive private bank, the black card provider and maybe the classic car insurers who cover our small fleet of (2) ageing seventies sports cars.

All these firms would claim to justify their premium prices at least partly on the basis of their close personal relationships with us.  All of them have provided us with the names of specific individuals who are supposed to be looking after us.  And of course although none of them knows very much about us, one thing they do all have is our dates of birth.

My wife is coming up to a Big Birthday in the next few days (although some might ask what’s so big about being 39 again…).  I wonder how many of these named individuals maintaining these close personal relationships will take the trouble to send her a card.