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
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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.

INNOVATION THAT YOUR CUSTOMERS MIGHT ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT


I’ve been thinking about the new stuff that companies do.

Innovation. Too many projects in businesses are given that title. It devalues the word and what it should really mean. It leads to that sad statistic that 80% of new products launched don’t survive….which given companies are generally very risk adverse is a pretty pathetic hit rate.

Unfortunately most companies believe that implementing anything new is innovation, which is more a reflection of how difficult they make it to get stuff done rather than anything that would make a real person go “wow – that’s neat”.

That’s not to say that a whole range of things can’t build your business but if we are honest with each other most of it isn’t innovation. Try this simple categorisation test for the new stuff you or your company are working on:

CATEGORY 1Stuff your customers think you already do because you are behind the curve or is so obvious that you should do like….

  • An innovation CRM project that allows your company to know when a customer has called (all service companies want this and most don’t have it covered yet)
  • An innovation IT system that allows your company to see a single view of a customer (i.e. you know what products I have from you) (all the big banks want this but most don’t have it)
  • Servicing your account online or opting for e-statements (Barclaycard have been pushing this to their customers in the last year or so as they played catch up)

CATEGORY 2: Stuff your customers think you should do already like…..

CATEGORY 3: Stuff which customers recognise is new but don’t really care that much about like….

 

and finally if you have any left….

CATEGORY 4: Stuff which customers recognize is new and really want like…

  • A truly easy to use fusion mobile smartphone that moulds to your needs (the iPhone)
  • A drink which is 2 of your 5 day and tastes great (Innocent Smoothies)
  • Off-set mortgages (Virgin One Account – this was a real financial product innovation which gave a real benefit to some)
  • Hybrid cars (Toyota and Honda – true technological innovations)
  • LED lightbulbs (which replace 50W halogens with 4W almost never ending bulbs)
  • Widgets which gave a smooth pour from a can (can’t remember who launched this first Guinness? Boddingtons? – but it was an innovation that delivered a real benefit)
  • Wash and Go 2 in 1 shampoos (yes – even this was a true innovation which solved a customer need that of simplicity)

It’s the last category of course that are real innovations requiring significant investments and creative thinking rather than battling with internal restrictions and bureaucracy.

How much of what you are working on that is called “innovation” could really be placed in the last category? If it’s lots that’s great – I can’t wait for these new breakthroughs to get to market! If it’s lots in the other categories (as I suspect it will be) that’s not necessarily a bad thing but make sure you don’t believe your own “innovation hype”- because it’s your customers that really know whether what you’ve just launched is new, truly different and worthy of lasting.

As ever I would love to hear what you think. Get involved, share your ideas, comment below – every comment wins a personal thank you from me!

Hope “The Teenies” are treating you well!

Justin

Mail me: justin@basini.com
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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
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TRUST IN BANKING

I’ve been thinking about Trust again as I pick up my book writing after a summer break.

I want to return to a theme that I discussed in a speech that I made to the Financial Services Forum conference earlier this year. You can download the text of the speech from my website. If you read my earlier blog on Banking and Common Good there are some key themes that emerge if banking is to regain our trust as consumers. As I outlined in that blog I believe we are a turning point but there is significant regression to the mean and that the old status quo is most likely to return. I read with interest in the weekend’s FT about the prediction of a bumper bonus season for the investment bankers.

As “masters of the markets” financial services can contribute market based solutions to the biggest problems. The issues facing us today as a globalised society are bewildering: climate change, peak oil, water crisis, natural resource depletion, all underwritten by uneven wealth distribution, poverty, crime, conflict,increasing urbanisation. These issues are moving more quickly and in a more interrelated way than ever before. The European Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme and the futures markets for protection of Amazon land, are all examples of financial markets contributing solutions.

Contribute proactively to a move away from an age of naked consumerism to something that priortises inidividual well-being and community cohesion. Imagine a world where a conversation in the bank, with a bank manager, could assess whether a credit card to fund that new purchase, or a stretching mortgage to buy that bigger house, were needed putting individual happiness at the heart of the discussion.

After all is said and done what we trust are organisations that have values communicated through their actions, run by accessible and open people, businesses that value their loyalty, and seek to create profit by creating products which meet consumer needs transparently. We will trust brands that communicate openly and positively about the many benefits they provide. Brands can move from basic levels of trust when their businesses start to play for higher goals.

What do you think? As always please feel free to share, retweet, comment and get involved.

Yours

Justin

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BANKING AND THE COMMON GOOD

I’ve worked in banks for the past 7 years of my career. I met some really good people, made some friends, and learnt alot along the way. I’ve got some insight into what makes banks and bankers tick and this has recently been on my mind given a few conversations I’ve had with people “on the inside”.
I’d like to spend this blog proposing a new model of value creation for banking and bankers based on the concept of the “Common Good”. With the “common good”, being defined as a positive effect on a wide constituency of stakeholders, and the system we call “society” as a whole.

As we all know we (the people) own much of Northern Rock, RBS and Lloyds and have had to support with financial investments in market structures, liquidity and insurance virtually all other financial services companies. Now I can tell you, and it should come as no surprise, that all the banks that have received state support are desperate to get the government, i.e. our representatives, out of their affairs. This is the major focus of RBS and Lloyds and what will allow this to happen is moving back into profit fast, stablising balance sheets and stopping all unprofitable activity. This agenda is consuming their management teams. These activities are being supported by governments that, quite rightly, don’t want to run or be involved with commercial enterprises and want to show a return for the investment of our money as soon as possible.

The leaders of these organisations are talented and well incentivised and will succeed. They will get back to being independent commercial enterprises that play the markets, deliver profits, (often super-normal) and pay big bonuses to their staff, sooner than we think. They will pay dividends and look to make stock market returns by placating the analysts thirst for short term results. And these potential outcomes, a return to the “status quo” with a little more risk management and some structural reform, would be a far better state than we are now in.
But shouldn’t we play for more? Shouldn’t we, since its our money on the line, demand greater change? One scenario would be we demand an approach where there is a more balanced set of objectives for our banks, objectives which build “the common good”, as well as profit and return. This in my mind is the big opportunity out of the crisis.
We have lived through an almost unimaginable collapse in our global banking system. But it seems to me that we are regressing back to the norm – going back to the status quo. Given each taxpayer has had to stump up somewhere from £2,500 to £15,000 to bail out the banks through this crisis (depending on what source you read!) – what do we want to do with this investment? Whether we like it or not these institutions were too big too fail. And this, I think, is not just the result of their commercial size and success, it says more about the role, and potential role, they play in our society. Banks, for good or ill, are a big part of making our society, the system in which we live, work.
State intervention in the banking system was right and no doubt protected us from a catastrophic economic situation. We, the taxpayer and our government, are now involved in these enterprises and this gives us the right to demand a change. Do we want to return to the type of banking and market dominance that led to the collapse? This is the likely scenario unless we start to engage in intelligent, informed dialogue about what new form of contribution we want from these institutions.

My opinion is that it isn’t enough for banks just to pay off government aid, buy us off (hopefully with a return), and go back to what they were doing before with even more less-than-effective regulation. All stakeholders (and that includes us) need to get involved to understand how banks can play for a different set of aims which include contributing to the common good.

A bank operating for the common good could:
  • make a profit, but not seek to drive super-profit
  • seek to grow their value, and that of their shares, by long term investments in businesses and people, not short term quarter by quarter spinning and lurching
  • stay away from the complex, synthetic, products which make a lot of money but are often so far removed from any underlying creation of a value to society
  • realise that they are a part of the fabric of our nations, not just a commercial entity, and that with this comes responsibility to serve and work with a wide range of consumers
  • don’t hide behind or pander to the “consumer” – for example if someone doesn’t understand credit don’t give it to them
  • seek to get seriously involved in supporting community cohesion and the broader issues in society – millions are financially excluded, maybe there isn’t much money to be made, but working with these consumers responsibly would provide a social good
  • back businesses and become a facilitator of solutions to keep businesses going rather than too often making arbitrary decisions, of the “computer says no” type that mean good but cashflow challenged businesses goes under
  • see the opportunity for their people and places to become centres of the community – why wouldn’t the local bank manager go to local schools and talk about money and how it should be managed or invite local people into the bank to discuss community funding of projects. (Interesting to see what the Campaign for Community Banking is lobbying for – shared branches for example, recently rejected by HSBC)
  • create an environment where staff could really be proud of what they do, and one where debate and challenge, not to the specific issue or product, but on a broader more fundamental level is encouraged and actioned

And in return we would need to cut the banks a break. We will need to understand that the fixing of the system is hard, it will have ups and downs, successes and failures. There will continue to be excesses as the old status quo evolves to something different. The market will need to allow management teams to deliver lower absolute profitability, without the ruthless short term focus; and develop new measures for contribution of the business both financial and societal. The media will need to focus less on the reaction to short term issues and seek to represent and support the longer term goals of delivering a “common good” through intelligent and informed debate.

And there are some potential new practises emerging:

Barclaycard is launching a new online account management system which allows spend analysis by category in order to give their customers better information.

Tesco Personal Finance are talking (but only talking at the moment) about building a bank rewarding loyalty.

There is talk of a “Post Bank” being launched using the infrastructure of the Northern Rock (see this article). And other local community banks are also being discussed.

I am sure many, even some old colleagues, will read this and think it is all pie in the sky thinking. But if we allow the system to return to the old status quo, albeit with some structural or regulatory modifications, then I think we will have squandered an opportunity of a lifetime to forge something new and better for the banks, the bankers, our society and for us as consumers.

What do you think? Please leave a comment, thought, disagreement or agreement below or drop me an email at: justin@basini.com

As always please feel free to share, Retweet, Digg or bookmark! I really appreciate it.

Thanks for reading (and thinking),

Justin

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