Financial Services brands: it’s not about being different but making a difference

New blog following a debate at the Financial Services Forum this morning.

Justin Basini

Thinking about marketing, branding and advertising.
Open for chatting, collaborating and consulting.

justin@basini.com

+44 (0)7786548395

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JUST HOW SPECIAL AND DIFFERENT ARE FINANCIAL SERVICES BRANDS?

This morning I took part in a lively debate organised by the Financial Services Forum and their newly formed Brand Strategy group chaired by the inestimable Lucian Camp.

I shared the floor with Tim Pile who is CEO of Cogent Elliott and has a long and distinguished career in marketing including being CEO of Sainsburys Bank and the insightful Mike Hoban who is now running marketing for DirectGov and has had successful stints at Scottish Widows and Barclaycard.

We were each asked by Lucian to describe the essence of brand building in either Packaged goods (Tim took this on), Services (excluding financial services – Mike took this one) and Financial Services (this was mine).

My key point was that I believe many of the principles of brand building are common irrespective of category because essentially we are dealing with human psychology but that the context of these principles within financial services does make it "special and different".

Three context differences in financial services:

1. Financial services companies are hard wired around product and P&L analysis rather than brand and customer.

This means that the power within financial services companies almost always resides within commercial product owners rather than marketing. These leaders are trained in P&L, balance sheet risk, regulatory compliance, operational effectiveness not marketing, brand, experience and customer.

The very logic of brand building, positioning for strategic competitive advantage, customer segmentation, product development based on consumer need are all more difficult concepts in a financial services organisation. The result is an industry that in general creates me-too products which are overly complex, often game the consumer, provide a poor overall experience and are communicated in complex jargon.

2. Financial services are delivered through people. And people are much harder to manage than a shampoo formulation.

Certainly in most product categories especially the FMCG companies, brands are entities created to effectively penetrate the customer mind and form associations with product performance rather than being a set of associations about a group of people doing something. In most cases in FMCG companies the brand you are marketing is not the brand you work for. Given most financial services organisations have one or only a few brand the internal service and brand alignment challenge in these brands is core and material to their success. From the Indian call centre agent to the CEO in a financial organisation each needs to understand the brand and how it applies to their job.

3. Financial services products tend to be more risky and complex than many other types of products or services. They require much more effort from the consumer and the provider.

An irony of financial services businesses is that the organisation often believes they are the most commoditised of products. I used to be told all the time at Capital One – credit cards are a “low involvement” business. Consumers take a product and then want us to disappear into the background.

But having spent lots of time obsessing about how to make white gloop in a bottle exciting to consumers, I don’t think that financial services products are or should be low involvement – they have a massive impact on people’s lives and well being.

If they low involvement its probably because they are difficult and complex to communicate and understand. This combines with the terrible mess we are in from a regulatory perspective, defaulting to complete, unedited exposure of all information, to make it extremely difficult for the consumer to make an informed and empowered decision.

And finally (as Lucian called it the "Basini bombshell") I ended up questioning one of the core purposes of brand building:

4. Financial services brands – it's not about being different but about making a difference

The strategic goal of marketing in many businesses is to create a differentiated position in the market that gives you competitive advantage through cheaper cost of sales or price premium for example. Of the many principles that we could consider this is perhaps one of the most fundamental.

Actually I’m not sure this has been proven effective for the main stream brands in financial services. If we look at our banks for example. A highly consolidated and inert market with very little to split apart the businesses products, performance or promise.  Certainly not enough to encourage mass switching to occur except maybe in those more liquid and more easily gamed products like credit cards.

In highly competitive and easily switched categories there is definite advantage to creating new ideas that better match and deliver against the consumer’s myriad needs. But the difference in financial services given their complex, impactful and long term nature is that aim shouldn’t be to create the new, new thing to gain share at the expense of customer loyalty but to focus on superior product reliability and partnership as a route to extracting competitive advantage and value. This is how our organisations and products can make a difference.

As marketers, we may not be in the right job to get to the CEO spot, we might be wired a little differently from the mainstream in our organisations but given our products are difficult and risky, and are built through human relationships and service, we have myriad opportunities to build great brands which have lasting value for our organisations and customers.

Lucian's blog on the session can be read here. 
 

Here is my presentation as a slidecast:

 

Thanks for reading. As always please share and comment if you've got a view.

Justin

Mail me: justin@basini.com
My website & Blog: http://www.basini.com/
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Brands: if you want trust give trust


Brands and businesses always want to be trusted. But rarely do they trust their customers to understand how business works. This is why most organisations mission or values statements don’t include simple direct statements of what businesses are there, in part, to do which is make money. Businesses and corporations assume that we distrust them and therefore act defensively. In some cases, often the high profile ones, covered by the media, this default position of distrust is right but the vast majority of businesses, those that many of us work for, and employ our friends and family members, are full of good people trying to deliver well for their customers and make a fair profit in return, and money for themselves.

But most businesses, especially the big ones, are pathologically scared of saying anything that isn’t on message. And those messages are devoid of reality because they just don’t trust normal people to understand that running businesses is not easy, a balancing act and they have to make a return on their efforts. The cancer in these organisations are the public relations and corporate affairs departments that are obsessed with controlling the message, saying as little as possible, and where success is staying hidden.

In my experience most people are fair and reasonable. We understand that businesses need to make money, but we want them to give us good services and not exploit us for super-profitability. But most corporations treat us like we are cynical, conspiracy theorists or anti-business. And this has created a culture, especially in Britain, France and Germany, where making a profit is seen as inherently exploitative and almost immoral.

Witness John Petter from BT this morning (12th Feb 2010) on BBC Breakfast. Since BBC doesn’t replay Breakfast (can someone upload the interview to YouTube? YES ITS HERE) I’ll give a sense of the Tweets that were going round that summarise his performance:

jhemusinsignia: BT spokesman on BBC Breakfast was v.poor: why are people lacking the necessary skills put forward? Train them or use someone else
charlie74: BBC Breakfast presenter grilling the BT rep on TV… loved it
Tommy_Hill: Anyone else think the BT guy was seriously floundering on BBCBreakfast? “I don’t know if we’ll make money on it”.. Bulls**t
zenemu: #BT chap who was just on the BBC was a bit of a worm. BT are changing free evening calls from 6pm to 7. Odious little man from awful company
RAIPR: Wtchng John Petter, BT directr justify 7pm off-peak move on BBC. Nervy, defensive, dncng feet, looking away from cam, stuttering #fail
imogenfarr: Anyone see the BBC Breakfast interview with the squirming BTspokesperson? Blimey, he’d never have coped if he was interrogated by Paxman.



There is no doubt that his performance this morning was very poor but I suspect rather than being a consequence of not enough media training, it was caused by too much media training. Having been through several versions of this torture myself these sessions are focused on Corporate Affairs/Public Relations/Media people drilling you. “Don’t say this, say that”, “don’t answer questions directly” and most importantly don’t tell the truth. Don’t lie, don’t tell the truth, better to not say anything at all.

This goes right to the heart of the way that businesses present themselves currently. There is no longer a recognition, a trust, that we understand how businesses work. Read the mission and values of BT (taken from their website this morning):


Our vision

Our vision is to be dedicated to helping customers thrive in a changing world. The world we live in and the way we communicate are changing, and we believe in progress, growth and possibility. We want to help all our customers make their lives and businesses better with products and services that are tailored to their needs and easy to use.
This means getting ever closer to customers, understanding their lifestyles and their businesses, and establishing long-term relationships with them.
We’re passionate about customers and are working to meet the needs they have today and innovating to meet the needs they will have tomorrow.

Our values

Our corporate identity defines the kind of company we are now and the one we need to be in the future.
Central to that identity is a commitment to create ways to help customers thrive in a changing world. To do this we must live our brand values:
  • Trustworthy – we do what we say we will
  • Helpful – we work as one team
  • Inspiring – we create new possibilities
  • Straightforward – we make things clear
  • Heart – we believe in what we do
We are committed to contributing positively to society and to a sustainable future. This is part of the heart of BT.”

I can guarantee that John Petter and his boss Gavin Patterson spend most of their time obsessing about how they can organise their business to make money, grow and be cost efficient, whilst giving a good service. That’s what they get rewarded for. And yet making a fair return, making money for themselves and their employees, is no where to be seen in the mission and values of BT. These vision, mission and values statements have become divorced from reality, and its not just BT that suffer this problem.

Every business person that goes through a media training torture session comes out scared to death of saying anything, and is certainly left with the impression that having an open conversation about working hard to deliver value whilst making money is completely “off message”.

That’s what you could hear this morning from Mr Petter. His message was “buy unlimited packages” and he automaton-like repeated this time and time again. Charlie Stayt asked for a commitment from him that the prices would always be better value now and in the future, something which was impossible to answer on the couch in a studio. But instead of calmly responding, as Mr Petter might in a normal conversation with you or me, that BT always wanted to be good value, but that these decisions needed to be properly planned his only reply was “buy unlimited packages”. He thereby demonstrated that he didn’t trust those listening to his interview to conclude that he was a reasonable man with a reasonable approach and, yep, these things generally needed to be thought about.

Even when Susannah Reid asked him directly why he didn’t just explain that giving customers free calls meant that they didn’t make enough money, he wasn’t brave or trusting enough, to agree and admit that giving a good service and making a fair profit was what they were trying to do. All he could say was “buy unlimited packages”.

I felt sorry for John Petter this morning, a classic victim of media training where the goal is to say nothing, and a corporate and cultural context where trusting people to understand that businesses are there to try and give good services that we all need, and make a fair profit in return, is unacceptable.

Unfortunately until brands and businesses start to wake up to the fact that trust is a two way relationship, they will never win our trust.

Did you see the interview this morning. What do you think?
Do you work for BT? How did you feel?
Have you been media trained? What is your experience?

Please comment below and share with others using the social media icons.

Thanks – have a lovely, non-business, non-brand, non-marketing weekend and Valentine’s day.

Justin

Mail me: justin@basini.com
My website: http://www.basini.com/
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MORALITY & BANKING

Yesterday I attended a talk at the RSA by John Lanchester who has recently written a book called Whoops! about the credit crunch.
The talk and subsequent questioning was mostly about the role of culture and regulation in banking; with the audience and speaker exploring how to develop a system that might be more sustainable.
I wrote a blog called Banking and the Common Good a while back which explored how the concept of common good could be placed as a central focus of a financial institution. Today’s blog picks up on some of these concepts.
The question is how we create a banking system that actually balances commercial objectives with social objectives that deliver benefit to the common good. I believe that a new language of responsibility needs to be imposed on the banks. Nearly all banks will tutor their leaders in Business Ethics; all banks have values statements that will include some version of “doing the right thing”.
But despite these words and intentions we still have a system that doesn’t in aggregate and from a macro-economic perspective deliver “the right thing” and act ethically in its impact. The frustration is that there are very few financial institutions that deliberately act in a clearly unethical way decision by decision, action by action, but in aggregate the effect is destructive.
The heart of the issue for me is one of what banks, especially investment banks, markets focused institutions and bank leadership more generally, value. And that is money, to this everything else is subservient. This is why banks are so successful, they have created extremely efficient systems for maximising profit to the exclusion of virtually all else. This creates inattentional blindness, which is the psychological phenomenon of being “blind” to anything apart from that which you are concentrating on, add hubris and you have a system that builds risk and is narrowly focused on one immediate outcome.
This valuing of one outcome only, with little assessment of second and third order effects and impacts, allows for a culture to become devoid of morals. And that moral bankruptcy turned into financial bankruptcy.
So what to do? Remembering that business ethics and values were taught and “on the wall” at our big financial institutions and offered no protection.
I would advocate a complete reversal of the incentive systems at our banks. We need an incentive system that puts most emphasis on demonstrating moral action and joined up thinking rather than seeking risk for greater return. This should be in an overtly, openly discussed moral framework. Leaders in these organisations need to become expert not just in maths and playing the markets, but seeing the impact of their business on different stakeholders and balancing this for commercial and social return.
Morality is at the very heart of our economic system. Adam Smith’s conception of markets was built on predictable outcomes between buyer and seller. The foundations of these predictable outcomes, in a time when regulation and rules of commerce were much less regimented and established than they are now, were moral action from individuals. I don’t think it is surprising that The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that Smith wrote 15 years prior to The Wealth of Nations and the majority of the books in The Wealth deal with how individuals living in society should conduct themselves. In order for the invisible hand, specialisation and the market dynamic to work as a value exchange there needs to be trust and in Smith’s conception this comes from morality.
This morality will need to be imposed. Major financial institutions have regressed back to the status quo, as John Lanchester said yesterday “the system is as risky as ever”. They will never voluntarily accept any balances to their earning power. So this will need to come from changed systems of regulation.
But this creates a paradox in that regulation, with its rule based approach, enables a moral vacuum by replacing human judgement with an attitude of “if we stay within the rules we are acting responsibly”. Ironically the FSA (the UK bank regulator) knew this. Over the past few years anyone working in a UK bank will be familiar with the pre-crash mantra of “principle based regulation”. No longer were we to work just within the “rules” but to their spirit. It didn’t work because it stayed at the surface, and people’s behaviour doesn’t change, in many cases the people need to change.
By changing what is valued in banks this will change who progresses within the organisations. This will be a key to unlock a new system. Let’s open up board positions on banks to a wider audience. What’s clear from the past two years is that having a career in banking behind you doesn’t give you any special insight or understanding so let’s have a more diverse group from environmentalists, to community leaders, to customers, having a real voice in the running of financial institutions.
It has been said that markets are amoral. That maybe true but they don’t work unless their participants act morally. Creating moral financial institutions working for commercial gain and the social common good is the challenge.

Please comment below and share using the social bookmark icons. Thanks as ever for reading.

Justin

Mail me: justin@basini.com
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THE FINANCIAL SERVICES CHALLENGE: MORALITY AND BANKING

After a really interesting RSA talk yesterday by John Lanchester author of the book about the credit crunch called Whoops! I’ve captured my thoughts in my latest blog post Morality and Banking.

ALREADY DESTROYING VALUE? THE CADBURY-KRAFT MERGER

 



This morning Cadbury, the UK multi-national confectionery manufacturer, and Kraft, the US based multi-national food conglomerate, announced they had agreed the much contested takeover bid for £11.5bn. I am a consumer and shareholder of Cadbury.

Food brands are all about trust, and chocolate even more so because it is an emotional category. Cadbury is an iconic British brand with a rich and socially aware history. In its early days Cadbury was a major employer of women and had a paternalistic attitude to its employees (in a good sense) investing in their welfare. Cadbury is one of the most trusted brands especially in the UK regularly coming in the top 10 of brand trust surveys. Even this morning on it's website the headline graphic was "values led, performance driven". 


Is Cadbury's history of commercial success in a social context important or relevant anymore? 


@urbanfly tweeted this morning "There's a romantic idea that Cadbury is a Birmingham company. They're a global corporation who buy out other companies". 


Whilst Cadbury is a global corporation I believe that history is an important part of the embedded value of any company. Brands are created by people and their actions. And the mythology of a company is important as an implicit guide for those making decisions, providing a different perspective or a pause for thought. 


Of course there is another side of Cadbury. They benefited hugely from the British Empire, but more recently have been a huge buyer of FairTrade commodities especially in West Africa.

A descendent of Cadbury's founder called the takeover "a horror story" according to the BBC. Felicity Loudon, George Cadbury's great-granddaughter said, "Every single iconic brand is going – we sell out everything." Of course this isn't important in of itself but I think it is the attitude that many will feel as we see this great British company consumed.

The takeover has been justified because the companies want to secure growth and save cost with now warm words between the parties saying how the best of Cadbury will be retained. But I doubt this will happen. I've worked on both sides of the fence being acquired and acquiring in my corporate career. Cultures rarely merge well. The company taking over inevitably dominates and imposes its values and decision making processes.

What all this means is a challenge to the very logic and price paid for the takeover by Kraft of Cadbury. Another reload of the Cadbury website this morning proclaimed "creating brands people love".

And here is the rub….of the £11.5bn paid a major part of this will be goodwill. A major part of this goodwill will be the intangible value of the Cadbury brands. From the reaction on Twitter and in the press the destruction of this goodwill has been palpable already. The provenance and corporate background of brands is increasingly important to people. In our transparent society information on the companies that make the brands "we love" is so much easier, we know their stories and a sense of where they come from. The fact that Cadbury has been promoting its use of FairTrade in advertising is all about proving they are true to being led by their values.

Given the arguments over the deal, the context of the UK economy and the shameful collapse in manufacturing in the UK's manufacturing base over the past 20 years this takeover will get a huge amount of coverage both now and in the future. The result for consumers will be the perception, even slight, that their bar of Dairy Milk is less satisfying than it was before. Even if the taste of the chocolate stays the same (a big topic on Twitter!), the "taste" of the brands will be tainted for ever.

There is no doubt that a great British company and brand died this morning.

What's your view? Do you think the takeover will destroy or create value? Comment now!

Thanks

Justin

Mail me: justin@basini.com
My website and blog: http://www.basini.com/
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Here is a  live feed of comments on the deal from Twitter:



A CROCODILE FOR BILLY?

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In his speech to the Financial Services Forum dinner in December Nigel Gilbert the outgoing Chief Marketing Officer of LloydsTSB talked about the role of marketing and the consumer in banking. He also talked about an initiative that LloydsTSB ran last year called “A Crocodile for Billy”. This is a book / ebook about saving and spending for parents to use with young kids.

His themes about the role of marketing and brands in financial services echo my own thoughts around the rights and responsibilities of marketing departments. I outlined some of these in my Battle of the Big Thinking presentation: Escaping The Matrix. Undoubtedly there is a massive need for more human understanding in business with its overfocus with quantitative analysis and comfort with people who are technically gifted but less comfortable with vision and working in our very human and emotional world.

When operating well marketing should be the “heart of an organisation” – and I mean that not to indicate its position but to capture its unique added value. Businesses and brands, the great ones anyway, are full of heart, vision, ambition and human understanding. They are often driven by a passionate leader who captures the heads and hearts of employees and customers alike. Marketing and the brands they develop have the ability to inspire and energise even when a charismatic founder or CEO isn’t available.

And there is something here that is at the core of why our big banks are not great businesses or brands. They have little heart, vision, ambition or human understanding. They can’t understand why people are appalled at billions sitting in bonus pools after the past two years of bailouts. They don’t have a vision for the role that banks and financial institutions need to play in our society. A senior executive at LloydsTSB recently said to me that their vision was “to become the UKs most recommended bank”. If that is the extent of their collective vision for a business that has been given near monopoly share levels and billions in state money (your money, my money) then my vote would be to break it up – they don’t deserve to exist with that little ambition or understanding of their responsibilities in society.

And Crocodile of Billy is a neat example of the practical impact of this lack of vision and “head beneath the parapet” attitude that most of our banks are operating in currently. Its cute, I like it, I’d like to get a copy (although I can’t see how? You can’t buy it anywhere?), and I’d like to read it to Luca and Daniel. There is no doubt that we need desperately need more financial education in our society. But Crocodile for Billy is a tiny, albeit positive, effort in this regard. Why doesn’t the financial services industry realise that they have a massive responsibility and the resources to fill this gap? They could work together, invest the hundreds of millions needed and ensure that every child gets the information they need to make informed decisions in their financial choices.

That would be a vision. That would be added value. That could be transformative to our view of financial services brands. Until they realise that we demand more as their customers and as members of our society, especially in the light of the last two years, financial brands will remain in the gutter, actively distrusted and disliked.

Get involved in the debate – comment below. Do you work for LloydsTSB or another UK bank – are you brave enough to share your view?

Happy New Year! I hope 2010 brings you all that you need.

Justin

Email me: justin@basini.com
My website: http://www.basini.com/
Read my blog: http://www.blog.basini.com/
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Community involvement at Waitrose

Have been meaning to post this for a while. Waitrose (UK supermarket) are connecting with their customers and local community through their charitable giving. As you check out you are given a plastic green coin which you can then use to vote for one of three local charities. I love this its engaging for the customer, raises the profile of local charities and issues, and connects a national high street brand with a sense of connection with their local community. Justin Basini
Web: www.basini.com
Read my blog: www.blog.basini.com

Battle of the Big Thinking….Escaping the Matrix

Well after what seems like a very tough few weeks with wet towels wrapped around my head I emerged nervous and sweating for The Battle of the Big Thinking conference organised by Campaign and sponsored by APG.
You can see the presentation plus a slidecast of the speech and the core ideas at:
Have a look and share your thoughts – there is a great debate to be had about marketing’s impact on our society and consumption economics. Let’s start…..
Thanks
Justin