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Branded for life

The polarisation debate rolls on, over (if we are to believe the pundits) the supine bodies of consumers and IFAs.

With the mega corps set to be in charge of product distribution to all but a select and wealthy few, what will Howard Davies&#39 “significant liberalisation package” mean for product provider brands?

Will they need to tool up their business-to-business salesforces or their consumer marketing efforts? Will they need to abandon their brands and focus on making better products to attract the gaze of this big bancassurers?

Today, the brand landscape of the financial services industry is dominated by well known marques. The ranks of the old school bancassurers and providers remains fairly solid, with the occasional newer initiative, either from the land of or engineered to del-iver the openness, responsiveness and transparency that the digital world promised. However, this landscape may look very different a year from now.

Let us assume for a moment that the multi-tie disclosure regime will favour bancassurers and that independent, fee-based advice becomes the province of the rich. One key channel is diminished – IFA distribution networks.

Banks and building societies become the supermarkets of financial services, selling a range of off-the-shelf products, some provided by themselves (white labelling), some distributed for other providers.

How does this environment affect product brands? Two main strategies emerge for ensuring your products get as much shelf space and in-store visibility as possible.

The first is the development of an aggressive trade salesforce that interfaces with the retailers&#39 buyer networks. Financial providers&#39 trade sales teams rarely approach the level of sophistication of Unilever or Procter & Gamble.

The tools of this trade rarely deliver consumer transparency. This is a closed world of negotiation between buyers and sellers, where the salesforce uses discounting, the promise of higher, promotion-supported sales, new launches that encourage customers to “trade up” and considerable expense accounts in a war for stock-keeping units.

Supporting the efforts of the sales team are the marketing department&#39s advertising and promotional schedule.

Two key characteristics of fmcg marketing campaigns are their saturation coverage and the way they “dumb down” their core offer. The two features are linked.

P&G&#39s European interactive marketing manager Jenny Ashmore described the key issue of media fragmentation last year: “Twenty-five years ago you could buy five spots and get 80 per cent reach. It now takes 320 spots.”

It is imperative that the message is broad enough to be understood by anyone who sees it. The rule of thumb is the unique selling proposition – one key benefit per product and keep it simple, stupid.

Financial products are unused to this level of simplicity in brand communications. But one result of the FSA&#39s proposals will be fewer, stronger financial brands that compete on simpler benefits.

The race for brand awareness to ensure placement as one of a bank&#39s recommended products will mean that only the strong will get on the shelf.

Strong does not mean “best product”. It means the company with the biggest marketing budgets or residual brand value (past marketing budget).

We are likely to see a wave of mergers and acquisitions and collusions as product companies seek to snap up customer mindshare by buying competitor brands.

A key challenge in this future retailer scenario is likely to be how to develop a brand that differentiates itself in a market with few dominant players. In this environment, it is hard to convince marketers to adopt a niche approach and companies will scrabble for category-generic propositions. Washes whiter than white, younger-looking skin and best-performing fund.

Most financial services companies are not good at understanding brands. Brands tend to be thought of as advertising budget multiplied by logo to the power of media spend. Brands live, not in what companies say they are, but in consumers&#39 experience of what they do.

Customer experiences are generated every time they interact with the brand. When you call your bank and are put through to a call centre in Edinburgh, a distinctive brand message is delivered – you are just a number to us. The more times the automated messenger says “Your call is important to us” the more you question the company&#39s integrity. Consumers think “If my call is so important, pick up the phone.” Doing so would deliver a brand experience that strengthens the marketing communication.

Time and time again, the experiences of customers are out of step with what the advertising claims the company believes in. The result is that customers stop believing in the company. Companies which mistakenly believe that product superiority is all that matters are missing the key point. We do not entrust our pay cheques to companies because they have superior products, we do so because they have built up a relationship of trust with us. That relationship is the source of a strong brand.

Building great brands over the next two or three years will require a move away from simplistic perceptions of mass-marketing best practice. The standard techniques will leave financial services companies in the position the big banks are in today – their only “loyalty” coming from customer inertia.

Financial services companies will need to start thinking about brands as promises and trust relationships. The successful brands will have to differentiate themselves with powerful and emotive positions on consumer-relevant issues.

For some, it will be the first foray into the softer aspects of branding and there will be high-profile failures and significant growing pains.

Differentiation will come at the level of brands and services, with providers vying for attention by incorporating experiential and social values into their messages.

Don&#39t look now but financial services are about to go lifestyle.


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