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Brass brand loses tune

“Brand New” is an excellent new Victoria & Albert exhibition running until January 14, next year. It features case studies from the worlds of techno-goods, communications, soft drinks, fashion, football and food.

The exhibits show the power and value of well managed brands in these sectors and demonstrate how brands such as Coca Cola, Nike, Body Shop, M&S, Microsoft and Manchester United are not only clearly defined but help people to define themselves. Expressions like: “I&#39m a cornflakes man,” “I always buy Levis,” “Yes, I&#39m on my fifth Skoda,” are captured on video clips and help bring to life the way in which brands works.

Virtually absent is any reference to financial brands. This has to concern everyone in the financial services industry, not just those charged with brand development.

Expenditure on brand building in the financial sector is enormous on a national and global basis. Whatever benefit this brings and however well a company is delivering against its core propositions, the cut through into the minds of its customers appears to be minimal compared with the strength of affection, respect and loyalty felt for companies and products in other sectors.

On the face of it, this is surprising. After all, money is central to lifestyle, gives power and choices to those with it and varying degrees of angst to those without it.

It ought to follow that those companies arranging and saving money for us would be held in some kind of regard. Well, apparently not.

At the V&A show, the only financial brand in the worldto warrant significant mention is the Co-op Bank .It features in a group of “conscience” brands along with Body Shop and various green products.

The Co-op earns its place by its ethical investment stance. If it sticks to its guns and extends the thinking consistently to all of its business the Co-op has the chance to stay on the podium.

Other brands in the finance sector are absent without comment. The major banks inthe UK are more or less homogeneous, their consumer propositions would be more or less identical and their advertising and communications exhibit the fatal error of having no distinct character or message over the years.

The only other finance brand considered worthy of mention is American Express. This brand also takes top finance ranking in consultancy Interbrand&#39s valuation of the world&#39s great brands. It takes 19th place with a brand value of $12,500m. Predictably, Coca-Cola is top with $83,800m, followed by Microsoft, IBM, GE, Ford and Disney. Citibank at 26th place is the only other finance company in the Interbrand top 60.

American Express is distinguished by its clear niche marketing, albeit to a large and valuable niche. Its skill in conveying exclusivity with consequent price premium while being highly availableis consistently impressive.

The V&A defines a brandas “a company, product or ser- vice representing a set of values which the consumer accepts, believes and wants to associate themselves with. These values are often unrelated to a product&#39s actual effect”.

While financial brands should avoid too much gap between values and reality, all brands require their consumers to “suspend their disbelief”.

In other words, a strong brand gives its owners a period of grace where from time to time its actual product or service delivery can waiver without brand loyalty collapsing.

If we believe otherwise, we should ban the brand word and focus only on business excellence and quality tactical communications. We should also stop paying large amounts for the “brand” when life companies change hands.

The message from the V&A exhibition is implicit in the selection of case studies. The vast majority of the brands shown to have a real relationship with their consumers are very specific either in their physical scope, for example, Colgate, Coke or Persil, or in their target audience definition, such as BMW, Amex, Dunhill, Gucci and Co-op Bank. BMW, when defining its target audience, says rather more than just “We&#39d like car buyers who can spend between £20 and £80k.”

Most financial service companies say effectively little more than this.

To get close to the branding top table, with all its benefits in differential margin, financial service companies must embrace sensible, meaningful target markets then deliver differentiated product, service and communication against the needs of that sector. This may involve multiple brand – as many brands as there are commercially viable segments. It will work better than selling pensions to anyone who can meet the minimum premium.

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