It is Boxing Day. You are with a large group of family and friends. Someone suggests there is plenty of time for a good walk before you adjourn to the pub. You strike off confidently into a wood. Several of you have been there before and you all know where you are going. There is no way you are going to get lost.
Except that after a while, it is all starting to look a bit unfamiliar. You are not sure whether to turn left or right. Neither is anyone else. You could retrace your steps but that is just an admission of defeat. Everyone mills about aimlessly, anxious that any step could take you further in the wrong direction. It is 1.30pm and if you do not get to the pub by 2pm you will miss the food. Arguments break out. It starts to rain.
Experiences like this come to mind when I look at this year's crop of Isa advertising – and especially the onslaught of Isa posters which assail us on every high street, main road and railway station.
A few years ago (when it was still Pep advertising), someone first thought it would be a good idea to advertise like hell – especially on posters – in the first quarter of the year.
This seemed like a good plan, so lots of other product providers joined in. As the level of advertising increased, so did sales.
Each year, a general consensus emerged on the overall theme – bonds in 1999, technology in 2000. We all knew where we were going.
Until this year. There is still lots and lots of advertising, especially on posters. But otherwise the picture is looking more than a little unfamiliar. The market is flat, sales are down, the sense of direction is missing (there is a bit of Europe, a bit of UK, some bonds, a few global titans,you name it).
It is late March and if we do not get there by April 5 the market will have gone. A bit of bickering has broken out, especially in the AITC camp. And right through the winter it has hardly stopped raining.
The problem – and do not worry, this lengthy Boxing Day walk analogy has disappeared now – is that the original thinking was not hugely well-considered.
Why exactly was it a good idea to spend so many millions of pounds on Isa advertising, especially posters, in the first quarter? What were we trying to achieve? How would we know when we had achieved it?
As with so many marketing and advertising issues, there are dangerously simplistic answers available to questions like these.
No question that in the first quarter of the year, millions of individual investors and thousands of intermediaries make Isa selection decisions, no question that posi- tive brand awareness can influence these decisions and no question that advertising can build positive brand awareness.
So money spent on first-quarter Isa advertising must be money well spent and the advertisers can expect to reap the benefits, right?
Well, maybe not. There is a bunch of additional considerations that make it all a bit more complicated. Here are the main ones:
The state of the market.
First and obviously foremost, no amount of advertising can change basic perceptions of the neutral-to-negative state of the market.
Current predictions estimate that Isa sales may be down by 25 per cent on last year and it is debatable whether advertising can do anything much to affect this overall decrease in market size.
The number of advertisers
Quite simply, there are too many advertisers.
In measuring the likely effectiveness of an advertising campaign, the professionals like to measure each advertiser's share of voice – that is, the proportion of the total advertising volume in the market attributable to each advertiser.
With something like 20 Isa advertisers using posters and twice as many as that number using national press, common sense says that, on average, no advertiser has a share of voice of more than 5 per cent.
This simply is not enough to establish a worthwhile advertising presence in the consumer's – or intermediary's – mind.
The difficulty in hitting the hot buttons
If advertising is to have an immediate effect on sales, then it must strike an immediate chord with the target market, homing in on hot buttons which motivate people to action.
In the current market, hot buttons are hard (perhaps impossible) to find and as a result there is a bewildering variety of different messages, products and propositions on offer.
Looking at the poster hoardings just now feels a bit like wandering through Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park – dozens of different people standing on soap boxes banging on at full volume about subjects which are hugely exciting and important to them but very larg-ely meaningless and irrelevant to the casual bystander.
The dreadful dullness of most of the advertisements
There is a tiny handful of consumers and intermediaries who are so interested in investment that they will take the trouble to pay attention to the most boring and complicated ads.
But as soon as you advertise outside the personal finance sections, by definition you are addressing millions of people who do not share this unusual enthusiasm.
Leaving aside Invesco's frog – and politely ignoring any campaigns from CCHM – it is difficult to recall a single arresting thought, image or copyline in this year's Isa campaigns. This must be a problem.
Confusion about what the advertising is supposed to achieve
What is the point of this advertising? If it is supposed to influence IFAs' recommendations, then most of it is appearing too late.
We know from research that most IFAs have drawn up their buy lists earlier in the year. If it is supposed to drive direct sales, then how come a significant number of the advertisers undertake little or no direct marketing activity?
If it is supposed to encourage consumers to accept IFAs' recommendations, then would it not be helpful if someone could find some evidence that this strategy actually works?
Lack of consumer awareness does not seem to be hurting ABN Amro, Artemis or Credit Suisse.
With all these considerations, and more, muddying the water, it is not hard to guess the eventual outcome – come April 6 it will be possible to draw whatever conclusions anyone likes from the exercise.
Some fund managers will advertise heavily and sell strongly – proof that advertising works.
Some will advertise heavily and sell very little – proof that advertising does not work.
Some will not advertise but will still sell strongly – proof that not advertising works.
And so it goes on.
Taking a step back from all this subjectivity, there are a few more reliable observations that can be made.
First, Isa product providers might do well to adapt a very famous copyline and remember that a brand is for life, not just for the Isa season.
If your game is to build positive awareness that will support first-quarter sales, then unless you have a budget big enough to dominate and a hot and sexy proposition, then the first quarter may well be the worst time of the year to build your brand with the market being too cluttered and the time available to build positive awareness too short.
Second, it really is important to start thinking about alternative media strategies that take product providers into less crowded environments.
On quite a few poster tri-sites – the ones with rotating panels that show three different ads in succession – all three are currently from Isa providers. This cannot help any of the advertisers.
Only Schroders has made significant use of non-personal finance print advertising and, although its particular approach does not seem perfectly matched to the media it is using, in principle, this must be a good move.
Third, for goodness sake, surely it must be time to start trying harder to come up with some genuinely arresting advertising ideas. It simply is not possible to bore people into choosing your Isa – wit, imagination, excitement, originality and drama are essential, not optional extras.
And finally, an observation on the development that did not happen in 2001.
Whatever happened to the fund supermarkets we have all heard so much about?
We have seen muted campaigns from Egg, Fidelity and Virgin Money but that is about it.
This may be good news for IFAs, many of whom have been looking anxiously across the Atlantic to a US market in which around a third of mutual fund sales are now through supermarkets of one sort or another.
But in terms of the development of the UK fund marketing industry, it does mean that the future has been put on hold.
A world in which large numbers of investors make fund choices in an open finance retail environment is clearly a world in which building positive perceptions of brands, and individual funds, becomes very important indeed.
For this reason – along with all the others in this article – I have a strong sense that 2001 will turn out to have been the last year in which we will see quite so many fund managers dabbling in half-thought-through, half-hearted, largely ineffectual Isa advertising campaigns.
Going forward, either they rely for their sales on IFAs' advice and recommendations and stop bothering about consumer attitudes and awareness or they decide they want to be serious players in the direct and supermarket channels and get serious about building brands with real differentiation, real awareness and real value.
It will be interesting to look for any signs of movement -in either of these directions.