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Jumbo error

How does an elephant get in the room in the first place? Whenever I hear that phrase, my elephant is in a sitting room with human-sized doors.

Obviously I have not thought this through properly although I do know that the elephant is quietly minding its own business in a corner so it does not obstruct anyone’s view of the telly.

The logistics of elephant access occurred to me after I saw some research from the good, good people of Brand-speak, a communications consultancy whose work I had been unfamiliar with until last month when it published some other research. Come to think of it, all this research may be part of the same batch – recycling, of course, being no crime in these environmentally-conscious times. Either way, both instances show that I am not the only one who has not been thinking things though properly.

For the research suggests TCF could be causing more harm than good. In other words – oh cruel, cruel irony – an initiative that incorporates the idea of treating customers fairly into its very name is actually assisting in their unfair treatment.

The theory goes that consumers have been known to walk away from buying a financial product after spotting apparently conflicting messages in the advised sales process. Essentially, says Brandspeak, they are often confused by the contrast between the more positive product appraisal given by advisers and the more negative – although commendably TCF-compliant – detail subsequently found in the provider’s literature.

This is A Bad Thing because, according to the earlier Brandspeak instalment, punters are not buying into the whole sales process in the first place. If you missed it, it seems that every second a consumer signs forms stating that they have read and understood terms and conditions when they have either not read them or have read them but not understood them.

Just to make any marketeers and compliance types who may be reading this feel all warm and appreciated, the research found that of the respondents who had either not read or understood the product literature, 22 per cent said it did not seem important while 14 per cent did not want to appear ill-informed. Oh, and 13 per cent did not feel that the person advising them was approachable, so you see what I mean about not really buying into the process.

Thus, when you add into the mix the chances that the product messages of adviser and provider may not appear to be in synch, the consumer is even more likely to abandon attempts to understand the product, resulting either in them rejecting it or making an uninformed decision. Is this where I go “QED”?

According to Brandspeak managing director Jeremy Braune, while a TCF focus on financial product literature is clearly important, it is only part of the picture. “It is neither the first nor the most important part,” he adds. “The real barriers to product understanding are gener-ational, rooted in the educ-ation system and in the prevailing financial mindset and behaviour of consumers.”

Braune goes on to doubt if the political will to tackle these fundamentals exists, meaning TCF continues to “skirt around the elephant in the room” – his elephant evidently being a lot less considerate than mine with regard to an unrestricted view of the telly.

“If the Government and the FSA are serious about empowering the financial consumer, then this cannot be achieved ‘remotely’ through literature,” says Braune. “Instead, it must be the result of face-to-face communication and relationship-building. In the short term, the individ-uals in the best position to undertake this are financial advisers but unless they get the very real support of the providers and the regulator, then why should they?”

Unfortunately, support for advisers has rarely driven the FSA’s agenda and so, instead, we have an undeniably well-intentioned initiative that will cost the industry a huge amount of time and money yet which is ultimately doomed to failure because its architects were unable – or did not want – to see the whole picture. Nice idea, lousy execution? That at least explains how this particular elephant made it into the room.

Julian Marr is editorial director of marketing-hub.co.uk

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