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.

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