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Dazed and confused?

A long time ago, an advertising executive developed a conference presentation party piece to explain how advertising works. Without warning, he would lob a tennis ball to a member of the audience. The chosen individual would catch it. Then he would throw half a dozen tennis balls all at once towards the same person – who, almost always, would fail to catch any of them.

“This,” he would explain, “is how advertising works. If you deliver a simple, single-min-ded proposition, people get it. If you chuck half a dozen messages at once they do not get any of them.”

It was a good demonstration but he was preaching to the converted. If there is one thing pretty much universally accepted, it is that advertising – and to a greater or lesser extent all forms of direct-to-consumer marketing communications – will only work if they are simple and single-minded.

But in the world of financial services marketing, this article of faith has become more than a little problematic in the last few years. The trouble is that in various parts of the market the products devel-oped are anything but simple.

On the contrary, they are complicated, multi-faceted and only really make sense when you put all the pieces together and see how they work as a whole. And when you do understand them, you realise that many of these products have a very great deal to offer.

The trend started with flexible mortgages, which evolved into even more complex current account mortgages, such as Virgin One, Open Plan and Britannic Money.

It moved on into banking services such as Halifax&#39s Intelligent Finance, into general insurance with Bluesure&#39s all-in-one cover and, of course, into protection, where players including Scottish Provident and Swiss Life pioneered the flexible, integrated approach.

Right now, we are seeing the same trend spread into investment. The fund supermarket in itself is a pretty straightforward idea. But the logical extension of it, into a supermarket where you can choose and manage the full range of wrappers as well as funds, is sure to be hard for consumers to get their heads round.

You only have to look at the marketing and advertising campaigns for the products already on the market to see how the advertising and communications people have struggled to do justice to them.

Virgin One, for example, regularly changes its creative approach. Intelligent Finance has set an even faster pace, moving through a range of executions, including abstract, high-concept TV commercials, more micro-focused press ads that present individual facets of their offering and, more recently, customer testimonials in which satisfied punters sing the praises of IF.

It can be fun watching the advertising and marketing people struggle but the issue is one that we should be worrying about. If product development people across the industry, seizing the opportunities of new technology, are gravitating more towards these complicated offerings, then it is important that communications people should be able to help consumers to understand them – and, more important, to feel good about the benefits on offer.

This is a tough challenge, and one to which, so far, we have fairly universally failed to rise. Yes, we can stay in the world of unsubstantiated abstraction, producing glamorous but largely content-free commercials alleging that such and such a product will simplify people&#39s lives or transform their finances without ever getting too close to the specifics of explaining exactly how.

At the opposite extreme, we can dumb down products and settle for off-the-page press ads telling people that with a current account mortgage they can pay their loans off seven years early,or that with an integrated banking product they can pay no interest on their credit card balances.

But these micro-propositions do not really begin to do justice to the power of some of these products. It is a bit like trying to sell personal computers on the basis that they have a calculator and a clock.

Or there is a third option, admirable in principle but equally problematic in practice, which is to put large amounts of blood, sweat, tears – and indeed money – into well written, well designed brochures that explain the whole thing brilliantly but which you know not one person in a hundred will have the patience to read.

At the moment, it is easy to say that none of these three plans is really doing the business – but hard to think of a fourth plan which will.

It may be that there is some fourth communications dimension – a new approach which can somehow make a connection between uninterested consumers with short attention spans on the one hand and multi-faceted products with complex stories to tell on the other.

One obvious thing to look at is the combination of offline and online communications, where simple offline messages deliver the headlines and fuller and heavily personalised online product demonstrations fill in the detail.

But, for the time being, the message from the communications people is an anxious and generally negative one – “Please stop chucking these complex products at us because we do not know how to communicate them.”

For as long as that continues to be the case, product providers have only two real options. The first, disappointingly, is to ask the product development people to hold back and concentrate on simpler products, which deliver less compelling overall benefits but are easier for consumers to understand.

The second is to come to terms with the fact that professional intermediaries are more or less the only people who can get their heads round the products in the first place and give sensible face-to-face explanations of them and that therefore the only communications strategies that make sense are those that support face-to-face distribution.

This is not a big deal for integrated protection product providers, who have come to this conclusion already, but it is a bigger deal for mortgage, banking, general insurance and investment providers, many of whom thought that these products would have big appeal in the direct market.

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