The financial services sector is facing tough times. Weak global stock markets are damaging investment returns and people are buying fewer products like individual savings accounts, or ISAs. Concern about the funding of pension schemes has attracted Prime Ministerial attention, while high street banks have been accused by both the Chancellor and the Competition Commission of ripping off small business customers.
Against this background there are signs that some financial services providers are looking to design consultancies to refocus their brands and to help them plot a course for future development.
Last week Dixonbaxi was appointed to rebrand the independent financial adviser Bates Investment Services, Underground The Brand Laundry began work on a review of the Internet bank Cahoot’s brand equity and Egg, another on-line bank, unveiled the results of Wolff Olins’ revamp of its identity (DW 4 April).
Brands like Egg and Cahoot are trying to consolidate their market position, having survived the dotcom era and established the viability of on-line operations that challenge the status quo.
Wolff Olins consultant Nikki Jones says, ‘Egg has moved on as a business since it was established three years ago. [We] felt the brand needed refreshing and updating. The design work is grounded in where it’s going as a business.’
Egg went out on a limb in being anti-establishment to develop its profile, she adds, but now the brand needs to build more stature.
Clearly, financial services encompasses diverse product offerings. But there are common threads.
‘Over the past 15 years or so we’ve seen increasing consumerisation,’ says Egg chief marketing officer Nick Cross. Cross feels the industry has traditionally comprised of institutional brands that are introspective, not client-facing and conduct relationships with customers on a ‘parent-to-child basis, not an adult-to-adult one.
‘There’s a lot of industry-speak. Language that’s invented for the industry and not the consumer. But we’re seeing the beginnings of a change, which has accelerated over the past five years with new entrants taking a position on the consumer side,’ says Cross.
Money Marketing editor John Lappin agrees. He says regulatory pressures and a more competitive environment have turned up the heat on long-established players.
‘Several companies have made attempts to shake off past reputations that weren’t completely unblemished,’ comments Lappin.
In general, however, he believes that the fallout from issues like pensions mis-selling has affected the sector as a whole rather than damaging individual brands.
‘Consumer scepticism is industry-wide and companies have been [looking] for solutions,’ he says.
BamberForysth Fitch director Keith Bamber, who is currently advising Zurich Financial Services on brand strategy in the UK, understands this situation.
‘There’s lots of baggage. [It’s] totally sales-led, not customer needs-led and this results in the industry being perceived as untrustworthy,’ says Bamber.
He feels financial services companies need to close the gap between promise and delivery.
Consumer expectations are based on ‘brands they deal with everyday’, says Bamber. Approachability and trustworthiness needn’t be mutually exclusive, he thinks, although it is important to bear in mind the ages of various audiences.
Dixonbaxi co-founder Simon Dixon also agrees that financial services marketing is ‘product-led’ and recognises the plight of the confused and anxious consumer.
He says, ‘There’s an air of confusion and negativity about how brands are perceived in [what is] an already cloudy marketplace. Consumers are interested in the end result. Peace of mind is more important than the nuts and bolts of how to get there.’
Dixon says design needs to cut to the chase and cites EasyJet as an example of a brand that ‘says it like it is, but is still sophisticated and not crude in execution’.
‘Companies need to be more direct, open and honest in their communications. Say it well and say it strong,’ he says.
Cross adds, ‘It’s about language – how to speak – and clarity around what’s a brand and what’s a product.’
Bates Investment Services deputy managing director Jonathan Gains believes the potential impact of good design is often overlooked in financial services.
‘There are problems getting the message across. The sector is blighted by junk mail and regulatory obligations make for unreadable and uninviting forms of communication,’ he says.
Cross, a former marketing director of Selfridges, suggests financial services can learn from retail and fcmg branding.
‘We want to use graphics more aggressively as part of Egg’s communications, while taking care not to trivialise. It’s about finding the right way of engaging with customers,’ he says.
Cross also believes design has a strategic role in defining the playing field for other marketing disciplines. ‘Wolff Olins’ work provides a context, rather than a brief for advertising,’ he says.
If financial services providers should have a dialogue with consumers rather than broadcast to them, design can help this conversation. As Bamber says, given market conditions there’s never been more need to differentiate.
First Direct is still regarded as an exemplar, but Cross feels the industry is yet to see a ‘truly customer-centric brand’. A challenge for designers if ever there was one. But how many financial services providers are listening?