Making sense of the Moola deal. Or trying to.

Last week we heard news of the latest, though undoubtedly not the last, acquisition of a sprightly young fintech by a cash-and-customer-rich sugar daddy – this time the fintech being robo-adviser Moola, and the daddy being benefits firm JLT.  The stated rationale, which you’ve probably deduced from the identities of the firms, is that everyone’ll win from the introduction of Moola onto JLT’s Benpal (terrible name!) benefits platform. Employees get a new savings and investment option, Moola gets a cheap source of lots of new customers, JLT gets an incremental business stream and I suppose if I was being cynical I’d say that if employees can be steered into Moola rather than increasing their pension contributions, employers might get a welcome reduction in their contribution-matching bill.

What’s not at all clear to me is whether all this is going to work, and if so on what kind of scale.  It comes down – as it has in quite a few other recent blogs – to the question about the level of appetite that exists out there among the public at large for simple, accessible, fairly low-cost investment schemes.  As my regular reader knows very well, I’ve always been massively sceptical about this – and my scepticism hits new heights in the context of an employee benefits platform, where the option most people really should take. increasing their pension contributions, is right there under their noses alongside the non-pension option.

What I think the acquisition does tell us is that up to now, Moola has been struggling to recruit customers at an affordable cost.  (In fact, we knew this already, partly because all robo-advisers are struggling to recruit customers at affordable cost, but also because Moola rather gave the game away with a desperate-looking promotion back in the Spring, offering new investors a whopping 10% cashback after a year.  Canny investment hobbyists immediately took to the message boards encouraging each other to buy in for exactly 366 days and then promptly walk away to grab the best offer on the market in Spring 2019.)  But whether appearing as an option on JLT’s Benpal platform will really change their customer acquisition prospects can’t yet be clear.

Wearing my ever-present sceptical hat, I’d say those prospects aren’t great.  As for whether the parties to the deal would agree with me, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know – or at least, not unless or until JLT chooses to tell us what they paid.

The book’s out, and only one word describes how I feel

Regular users of LinkedIn will know that the word is, of course, “humbled.”   If pretty much anything good happens to you – especially anything good which makes you feel any emotion in the proud/self-satisfied/vindicated spectrum – the way you feel these days is humbled.

Words change their meanings all the time, and it’s not unusual for them to flip more or less through 180 degrees and start taking on the opposite of their previous meaning.  In somewhat different parts of the English-language forest, words such as “wicked”, “awful” and “egregious” come to mind.   Even by these standards, though, the recent transformation of “humbled” is striking.  According to the dictionary, it means “feeling less important or proud” or in a different sense “decisively defeated.”  According to hundreds of LinkedIn posts, though, it means “proud and happy and wanting to show off about whatever it is, but in a way that doesn’t sound too insufferably smug.”

No Small Change, my financial services marketing book co-written with Anthony Thomson, is now published.  And we’re both feeling truly, madly, deeply humbled.

It’s out. At least, I think it is.

One of the things you don’t know about books until you write one is that it’s not entirely clear when, or indeed whether, they’ve actually been published.  According to Amazon, No Small Change – my book about financial services marketing, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson. – isn’t published until June 22nd.  In fact, though, unless I dreamed it, we held two very jolly launch events on Tuesday and Wednesday this week (5th and 6th) and sold a stack of copies at each, and if that’s not “being published” I don’t know what is.

And in fact I can’t have dreamed it, because, as you can see, there is photographic evidence.  And I look so uncharacteristically delighted that I must be holding a real copy of the book and not just some kind of dummy which has to stand in for the real thing until the publication date.  Thomson’s expression is, it must be said, a bit more equivocal.  But then again, he must be balancing uncomfortably on stilts to be towering above me to that extent.

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.

Actually, a good analogy just came to mind for this TSB business

My mother’s garden suffers from something called Honey Fungus.  This is a vicious and deadly fungus which lurks indestructibly under the ground – and bursts out, quite unpredictably, every now and then, to destroy some innocent and innocuous plant, shrub or tree.  There’s nothing to be done.  No matter how carefully my mother has tended the plant, shrub or tree, the honey fungus can kill it in a matter of days.

In this analogy, obviously, the plant, shrub or tree is a carefully-nurtured brand;  my mother is the marketing team responsible for the careful nurturing;  and the honey fungus is an IT meltdown like the one TSB is currently suffering.

Like all analogies, it breaks down if you push it too far.  I think honey fungus is always fatal, but TSB will live to fight another day.  But it wouldn’t work half as well if the fungus wasn’t deadly.

“Challenger bank” TSB may be a bit less challenging for a while

It would be unkind to make too much of this, but Sod’s Law is currently afflicting TSB with a vengeance.  It was only about three months ago that the bank pugnaciously announced a year of intense challenge to the lazy and complacent “Big Five” High Street Banks – a challenge kicked off with a punchy new animated TV commercial depicting the Big Five as sleeping fat cats and TSB as a lively little squirrel running rings around them.  “Break free and go somewhere better,” the voice-over exhorted us.

Three months on, the fear now is that it’ll be TSB customers infuriated by their inability to access their accounts after a disastrous IT upgrade who’ll be doing the breaking free.  And “somewhere better” could mean almost anywhere.

As I say, churlish to make too much of this, and important to remember it could happen to anyone (and indeed has happened to several of those fat-cat competitors in the past).  But I think it is worth briefly pondering the implications of this kind of melt-down for marketers generally, and especially for those responsible for brand management.

Ad industry trade paper Campaign reported on January 22nd that “Five years after its re-establishment by competition authorities, TSB is planning to underline its challenger brand status with a year-long marketing drive encouraging consumers to end [their current] banking relationships.”  I suspect this “year-long marketing drive” may now have returned to its garage.

Don’t worry, I haven’t taken all the good bits out

The book (No Small Change, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson) continues to inch its way towards publication (on May 31st), but this last week has seen unusually eventful inching.

It would be churlish to comment in any way other than positively on the role of our delightful publishing team at Wiley, so I’ll politely suggest that the reason no-one there had actually read it until a week or two ago was their complete confidence in its excellence.

However, when someone there did eventually read it, I hope they found it excellent but I know they found it a bit troubling from a legal point of view, with particular regard to a) quite a large number of possible libels, and b) a rather smaller number of possible breaches of copyright.  At the 57th minute of the 11th hour Roger the lawyer was given the manuscript to read, and at the 58th minute he came back with eleven pages of closely-typed areas of concern.

At the 59th minute I sat down to work through them all, and owing to the lack of available minutes there wasn’t much opportunity for negotiation, just an opportunity for JFDI.  A couple of good bits did have to go.  But I’m here to reassure you that there are still quite a few good bits left.  And if you buy a copy, I can share some of the deletions on a one-to-one basis.


Honestly, who wrote this rubbish? Ah, I think perhaps I did.

I’m about half-way through correcting the proofs of my forthcoming financial services marketing book No Small Change, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson.  For an inveterate copy-tweaker like me it’s a challenging exercise, because we’re under strict instructions not to change anything unless it’s obviously and embarrassingly wrong – a typo, for example, or an incorrect fact, claim or number.

I haven’t actually read large chunks of the book since I finished writing it late last summer, and I have to say I have almost no memory of much of it.  For example, I’ve just read a paragraph slagging off’s website, which I don’t recall ever visiting, and I’m amazed by the apparent strength of my feelings on the subject.

Coming back to all this material with a largely fresh perspective, I find myself frequently unsure whether to leave it as it is or make changes to it.  I don’t really think I have anything much against moneysupermarket,com’s website, and anyway I’m sure they’ve changed it all since the iteration I was writing about.  I know a couple of people there, and I have no desire to fall out with them.  And the criticism I’m making – about a lack of integration with the brand’s TV advertising – applies to dozens of financial services firms:  why should be singled out for such a kicking?

On the other hand, my brief is clear:  don’t make changes unless what’s written is obviously and embarrassingly wrong.  It’s neither, and also it’s actually quite funny.  Unfair maybe, but I think I’ll leave it as it is.

Another day, another rubbish PA system

Out again yesterday evening, this time to hear a talk about Brexit, and for the second day running everything was fine except that we couldn’t actually hear most of it.  This time the problems were a) the French host’s heavily-accented English, b) the fact that the PA made the sound louder but incomprehensibly distorted, c) the main speaker’s extraordinarily rapid delivery, which made me wonder if he has a lucrative sideline in reading out the health warnings in mortgage and investment radio commercials, and d) the absence of a roaming mike, working or otherwise, so we couldn’t hear the questions from the floor.

I’m sorry, I know it’s bad form to use a public medium like a blog to bang on about personal irritations, but surely at this stage of the information revolution we ought to be able to communicate with each other within the confines of a single, smallish space better than this?

Segmentation. So important in theory, such a shag in reality.

I think I first started getting my head round segmentation about 37 years ago, maybe 36, when I was a creative group head looking after the Co-op’s food retail business.  The stores were pretty grim, and to be honest so were our ads, but our senior client Barry Silverman was probably the closest thing to a mentor that I’ve had in this business, and segmentation was a big theme of his mentoring.

Because of the nature of his organisation, his approach was largely product-driven, not consumer-driven –  basically he’d segmented his food outlets into three, superstores, supermarkets and corner shops, and segmented their propositions and communications on the basis of the needs that each met (respectively, main shop for car users, main shop for non-car users, and secondary or top-up shop)..

This was basic stuff, but it still reflects an approach that’s fairly uncommon in large parts of retail financial services today.  Well schooled by Barry, I can remember when I moved into the financial services world how troubled and surprised I was by the usual practice when promoting products to end-consumer and intermediary target audiences:  to the end-consumer we said “You’ll love this top-performing fund,” and to the intermediaries we said “Your clients will love this top-performing fund.”   This is search-and-replace segmentation, not the real thing at all.  Although I don’t actually think we have search and replace in those days.

This particular approach is less common these days even if only because there are fewer propositions targeted simultaneously to end-consumers and intermediaries, but nevertheless our approach to segmenting markets and targeting propositions to different segments is still rudimentary in the extreme.  Quite often we start well, observing that a number of segments with different needs and attitudes exist.  But, all too often, having recognised this, we decide there’s no way (or no cost-effective way) to identify, prioritise and target any of them, so we need an approach that speaks to them all at once.  (That’s how, as I’ve said before in this blog, a few years ago I found myself writing a mailing about Child Trust Funds to customers of a Big 4 bank that began “Whether you have children or grandchildren, or don’t have children at all…”.)

This failure to segment and target has a devastating effect on our ability to involve and engage.  Our propositions and communications could be incredibly much more powerful if we could develop them with real insight into the way people are – or, rather, the way some people are.

(And, by the way, at risk of stating the obvious, segmentation isn’t just about offering and saying different things to different people – it’s also about deciding which segments to address, and which to ignore.  A proposition which excites a quarter of your market can be massively more successful than one greeted with a yawn by all of them.)

I don’t suppose many people would disagree with much of what I’ve written here – and for once, by way of additional firepower, I even have the regulator on my side.  The FCA may not be much concerned about marketing effectiveness, but it is very concerned about people understanding things.  As a result, it more or less demands that we segment our markets so we can address them in terms they find comprehensible, but much of the time we seem to ignore this demand.)

So what’s going on?  To take a couple of big current examples, why is it that neither the Pensions Freedoms of the last couple of years, or the coming of PSD2 in the last few weeks, seem to have sparked off the kind of highly segmented, highly targeted activity most likely to deliver results?

I think there are two key issues. The first is a largely emotional problem with the whole business.  Segmentation involves a lot of extra work and ultimately extra expense to make life more complicated and/or to make our target markets a lot smaller.  These both feel like un-smart things to do.  If we can keep it nice and general and generic, we can generate business from everyone.  Our slice of the cake may be a little smaller than it could be, but just look at the size of the cake!

The other issue is that for all the data revolution that we’re living through at the moment, our ability to access and use the data we need at the one-to-one level is still very limited.  That bank I mentioned earlier can’t tell, or at least not with certainty, which of its customers have children, or if so how many, or if so how old they are.  It may know whether some of its customers have children, but targeting its Child Trust Fund activity only on them seems like a missed opportunity.  On the whole, it looks like a better bet to target the campaign very broadly – and to begin the letter with that cringe-worthy first sentence I quoted earlier.

I expect it was Barry Silverman who told me all those years ago that the secret of all good marketing – and, even more so, of all good copywriting – is to do what you’re doing with a clear and full picture of just one single individual in your mind.  Not far off 40 years later, we’re still spending most of our time with our heads full of hazy, ill-understood crowds..