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What makes a financial services firm relevant?

Jerry Johnson · May 31st, 2013

Money is a commodity. You won’t find much difference between the dollar bill you have in your pocket today and the one that may show up next week. Indeed, even the physicality of money is disappearing. Now it is just a number on your banking app.

But while money is a commodity, it is also a lightning rod. There are few things that spark more emotions and personal sensitivities than money. While this has always been true (remember, like politics, it isn’t something to be talked about in polite company…), it is particularly true in today’s environment where people lurch from one economic crisis and financial meltdown to another.

We learned a lot about the topic when recently for a related project; we reviewed hundreds of financial services firms’ advertising campaigns over a five-year period. The idea was simple. Companies spend billions pouring money into 30-second ads. We thought it reasonable, therefore, to assume that these ads are somehow reflective of what these companies assume is most relevant for their potential customers.

We found that the campaigns tended to fall into one of five positioning “buckets:”

  • You can have confidence in us;
  • Our size makes us important;
  • We are the intelligent choice;
  • We cherish relationships; and
  • We have values beyond the accumulation of wealth.

And further, what we found was this: while historically financial institutions have focused on confidence, recently more and more financial institutions focus on the “softer” elements of relationships and values. In general, we’re seeing institutions move from the colder elements of “big,” “smart,” and “bold,” to the softer elements of “connections” and “ethics.”

For years, the most common theme in financial services was that of “confidence” and its sister emotion, “fear.” Why? Because so few of us are confident and so many of us are fearful about money and our financial futures. We saw this 20 years ago in doing work with The Prudential. People want a “rock of Gibraltar.” We see the counter – confidence vs. fear – in a series of ads from John Hancock (done by Hill Holiday) with two people texting and coming back to that lingering question … “will we ever get through this thing called retirement?” There are many, many other examples of this (e.g. Ameriprise’s “You Need a Plan” with the late Dennis Hopper), but it all is an interplay of confidence vs. fear. The idea is to gain relevance by providing confidence in an uncertain world.

Then there is relevance through scale. That is, reminding folks that you are big and therefore important. Some 20 years ago, Riggs National Bank launched a famous commercial that touted the Washington DC institution as the “most important bank in the most important city in the world.” Size, scale, heft is another primary theme that runs through financial services messaging. Back when too big to fail was still too big to fail, this was the natural evolution of a “fear” message. Don’t be afraid, we’re big. Moreover, with “big,” you can do anything. “Big” is empowering. “Big” is macho. Taken to its extreme, you can see it played out in one of my favorite commercials, Anthony Hopkins’ spot for Barclay’s appropriately titled: Big.

The “when E.F. Hutton talks … people listen” campaign was the epitome of positioning a financial company as the smart, intelligent choice. Relevance comes by being the company with unique insight into what is a chaotic and scary world – that of finance. State Street follows this approach. State Street’s advertising features a dog who, in turn, signifies the intelligence and tenacity of the brand and “the need to be precise … designed to please … precise in a world that isn’t.” Of course that makes State Street the intelligent choice.

But the trend is clearly moving away from fear, size and intelligence to those things that take a more human and humane form.

We see a lot more focus on relationships. This runs counter to the popular notion that finance is cold and impersonal; that money comes first, people second. Financial companies often try and position themselves against this stereotype by showing that they put people before profits and actively seek to know their clients on a personal level (e.g. “every client is different”). It is relevance through relationships.

No financial services brand has done more in this area than State Farm. It is their motto … “like a good neighbor.” We know it is based in part on their corporate franchise structure where offices are staffed by local professionals. [Note, in the aftermath of the recent recession, State Farm has drifted into the “values” campaigns. Their recent “back to basics” campaign is a great example.] This “everyone is different” approach is also at the heart of HSBC’s advertising that takes the concept of “big” and applies it to the neighborhood. By showing the same image can mean opposite things, HSBC underscores its knowledge and understanding of the local market.

Many regional banks, seeking to exploit their “smallness” as an asset, often use this relationship theme in their brand marketing.

But what we see even more of as institutions and brands adjust to the new world of austerity and uncertainty is a focus on values. That is, convincing the public that despite the fact that you are a financial services firm, you actually have them (values, that is). The famous MasterCard series is a great example. The line “for everything else” tells you that MasterCard recognizes that what they do is small potatoes compared to what is really important. Recently, financial institutions have pitched this in a much more blatant manner. The Ally Bank series that accepts the central belief that banks have no values … and then uses that to tell people what Ally is NOT. On the positive side are the current ads by Liberty Mutual showing that “caring is contagious.” The “responsibility, what’s your policy?” is a clear value statement that they want people to recognize when they think of Liberty Mutual.

Values and finance. Many would label the two incongruous, especially since values deficits have contributed to debacles like the subprime mortgage crisis and raised pervasive doubts about the entire financial industry.

Many consumers are now desperate to see evidence of solid values from their institutions, financial and otherwise. That’s likely why values are increasingly relevant for financial services today. Just as acting on values is the right thing to do, demonstrating you’re committed to values is a promising path to relevance. If you’re in that business, try it.

Predicting a Year of Sincerity in 2012

Andy Coville · January 4th, 2012

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope 2012 brings you joy, health and prosperity. This is a pivotal time in so many ways: America is choosing a president. We’re trying to do the best for our pocketbooks and the planet. And technology is reshaping our world.

As always, we’re thinking short and long term about what’s coming next in business, technology, media and social change to ensure our clients’ communications strategies resonate.

Here are just a few thoughts from Brodeur Partners associates as we kick off January:

‘SEO’ abuse is dying. Long live content

SEO, at least in its most cynical form, will lose relevance.

Search engines will give more weight to sticky content that is shared by real people, and less weight to spammy, content-farmed pages overstuffed with keywords.  That means great content will increasingly trump SEO.

And since sharing will drive search results, be on the lookout for search engines to prefer emotional content (the kind people like to share) over the boring yet factual content people have traditionally associated with search engines.

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Reviving tired brands and categories: Ford, hand dryers and Steven Tyler

Andy Coville · July 7th, 2011

Relevance, as we’ve been saying, is paramount in this noisy era when so many communications gambits fail to win our attention. That’s why we can learn so much from the rare person, company or product that comes roaring into relevance. Or becomes relevant again.

I’ve got three examples on my mind today.

Ford. A few years ago, Ford was just another U.S. automaker being schooled by the Japanese and headed for bankruptcy. My, how things change. In 2009, Ford bravely turns away a government bailout. The company introduces new, greener and more affordable models. Customers are delighted.

In Q1 2011, the company announces a $2.55 billion profit, its best quarter since 1998. Ford’s 2010 sales beat 2009’s by 19 percent, a larger margin than any full-line automaker. Its stock price soars to $14.12 today, up from $1.26 on Nov. 19, 2008. J.D. Power quality ratings rise. (Even the much-maligned Ford Pinto is suddenly drenched in nostalgia.)

As we’ve said, relevance is a function of experiences that go beyond the rational. Did rejecting the bailout engage peoples’ values to reheat the brand?

More: “Reviving tired brands and categories: Ford, hand dryers and Steven Tyler” »

Buick taps purposeful life trend to re-brand and increase relevance

Andy Beaupre · June 21st, 2011

Toyota mined the vein of green and sustainability with its Prius TV ad campaign, but I can’t remember a car company leveraging, well, mortality to recast itself.

A new Buick TV commercial called “What Matters” does just that. It isn’t focused on automotive speed, comfort or price. It doesn’t spend time spouting superlatives. Or cite independent sources to validate car quality.

Instead, it frames around the inevitability of dying and living the best possible life. Heady stuff in an industry still largely dominated by flash, sex appeal and performance.

It begins:

“How will the value of your days be measured?”

“What will matter is not what you have, but what you gave. What will matter is not your success, but your significance. What will matter is how long you will be remembered by whom and for what.”

“A life of meaning and purpose and happiness… that’s the greatest luxury of all.”

During the voice-over, we see images that are largely people-action-centered:

  • A man and woman run for their car in the rain; he shields her with a newspaper and opens the car door for her.
  • A dad and son shoot hoops in the driveway at night.
  • A father and daughter play in the beach sand. Then he gently brushes sand from her little legs as they spill out from the rear seat.
  • A man pauses to savor a beautiful landscape, then captures the moment with his camera.
  • One driver happily yields for another.

While Buicks are visible throughout, they’re in the background quietly supporting the spirit of “what matters.”

Then Buick transitions more directly to its own brand and makes the consumer connection.

“What if there was a car company that felt the same way? That car company is Buick, a brand that’s growing faster than any other major car company in America. By making vehicles of substance and quality, with a look and feel that says, ‘come as you are.’”

“This isn’t luxury the way you’ve always known it; it’s luxury the way it should be. Your kind of luxury.”

Turns out this clever emotional alignment was based on a longer poem written in 2003 by Michael Josephson. Buick gives credit at the end of the spot, but the tiny type is easily missed.

By aligning its brand with the highest level of human desire (remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the ultimate level of self-actualization?) – instead of wooing base desires – Buick is leveraging a high-level branding platform that spans multiple demographics in one swoop.

Caring. Kindness. Helping. Is it magical positioning? Authentic brand reinvention? Or clever salespersonship? I’m not sure, but I do know Buick hopes to sell more cars by embracing the best in all of us and hoping we, in turn, align with their brand because it represents what we cherish (or hope for) most in ourselves.

I don’t think this kind of appeal will hurt Buick, and it may spur even higher revenues. After all, Buick was the fastest-growing major automotive brand in the United States in 2010 with 40 percent of its sales coming from other manufacturers’ customer bases.

At the very least, we’re seeing a formerly stodgy brand intelligently re-aligning itself toward a new level of success…and Relevance.

The relevance of the senses

Jerry Johnson · June 9th, 2011

I was walking through Penn Station in New York City and something struck me.

It was the smell.

It was the “train station smell,” a peculiar mix that is part diesel fuel, a dose of pumice, quarry and an occasional whiff of sulfur. Add to that a liberal dose of dirt and grime and the quotidian smells of large groups of people, reheated fast food, and refuse.

But this was not peculiar to New York’s Penn Station. It was universal.

It was the same smell at Union Station in Washington DC or Gare du Nord in Paris or South Station in Boston. At Shinjuku Station in Japan or Centraal Station in Amsterdam.

I was struck by how sensory experience communicates across cultures and across categories.

More: “The relevance of the senses” »

CEOs who make communications programs great

Andy Beaupre · April 19th, 2011

I’ve collaborated with over 300 chief executive officers, from the world’s largest global brands to established independents to VC-funded startups.

What jumps out is how few of them were personally instrumental at positively transforming communications and public relations programs.

The 80/20 rule holds true. 80 percent of my CEO experiences were middle of-the-road from the point of view of making the PR effort better. These middle-of-the-road CEOs didn’t do anything horrific, they just never put real skin in the game. They did what we needed them to do, nothing more, nothing less.

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Why relevance?

Andy Coville · March 22nd, 2011

Something’s missing. Too many organizations are failing to make connections with their stakeholders – I mean meaningful connections, the rare kind that not only shape a perception, but compel a person to act.

More: “Why relevance?” »

Super Bowl ads 2011: what worked, what didn’t

Andy Beaupre · February 8th, 2011

What worked & what didn’t with 2011’s Super Bowl ads

What happened to social responsibility? Super Bowl ads were trending this way but we lost it last night. My hopes started rising when Timothy Hutton began talking about Tibet, but the ad speedily deteriorated into a pathetic sales pitch for Groupon. Not aligning purpose-driven brands with authentic social responsibility marketing campaigns is a missed opportunity.

More: “Super Bowl ads 2011: what worked, what didn’t” »

Who Are Today’s Most Effective Thought Leaders?

Andy Beaupre · February 1st, 2011

Nearly every organization or company would agree thought leadership is a good thing.

But when it comes to readily naming brands that exemplify thought leadership, most people struggle. When they do name names, the results are either remarkably similar or widely diverging.

I surveyed 20 high-level opinion leaders to uncover their insights and opinions on this topic. Their titles included CEO, CMO, Chairman, Founder, Partner and EVP.

First finding: people have a hard time. One CEO’s response sums it up: “Your question gave me pause, because no company came to mind immediately.” There were many extended pauses with the others.

More: “Who Are Today’s Most Effective Thought Leaders?” »

Admit a weakness in yourself to build credibility fast

Andy Beaupre · December 23rd, 2010

Rhetoricians call it “arguing against interest.” In simple terms, it’s a good way to build credibility fast. You readily admit a weakness in yourself or your argument to actually advance your larger case. I swear to you, your honor, I had no role in the killing of which I’m accused. I was out of state, uh, delivering a shipment of drugs. This mechanism causes the audience to wonder, who but an honest-to-God truth teller would disclose something so damning?

Arguing against interest can be a powerful tool for building brand credibility. Look at Domino’s Pizza, now publicly admitting their old pizza was terrible. Or Dos Equis: What, the Most Interesting Man in the World doesn’t always drink beer? This is a beer commercial!

What makes arguing against interest so powerful is its stark contrast against the vast majority of communication that argues, often lamely, in its own interest. Ads, websites, press releases and corporate blogs dump buckets of overstated goodness on a cringing consumer. You know, if you buy the right camera, you’ll shoot National Geographic quality images. With the right diamond necklace, you’ll be back on your honeymoon, and with a fabulous spouse.

Not saying such images aren’t seductive, but overstatement is the Achilles heel of marketers who are mired in old-school corporate communications. While gilding the lily has never been a great persuasion technique, today’s audiences despise it. They are sophisticated, discriminating and skeptical, if not cynical, driven largely by social media.

Case in point

A wonderful example of a brand arguing against interest to deepen credibility is Patagonia, the maker of outdoor apparel for skiers, rock climbers and campers (it’s like a crunchy Timberland). They’re not just sprinkling their content with a few aw shucks asides, they’re actually building their brand around a concept that, at first glance, is directly opposed to their own goal of making money.

The company’s Common Threads Initiative is urging customers to buy less clothing, wear it longer, repair it instead of throwing it away, and when it’s worn out, hand it back to Patagonia for reuse or recycling.

… to wrest the full life out of every piece of our clothing, the first three of the famous four R’s are equally important – to reduce, repair and reuse as well as recycle.

Under reduce, the company is calling on consumers to “buy what you’ll wear, and want to keep long enough to wear out” in order to “get by with fewer clothes.”

Under repair, it’s offering to fix zippers for free if the garment has enough life left in it.

(The company already has a recycling program that’s collected 39 tons of used clothes.)

This initiative is like General Motors telling you to drive your clunker into the ground because it’s the right thing to do. Of course, Patagonia is a for-profit business and commercial brand. So their larger goal with the Common Threads Initiative, one assumes, is to deepen customer loyalty, reduce raw material costs, and put a noble face on plain ol’ customer service (I mean, they’re probably going to fix zippers anyway).

Deep in the content

All this is clearly a flavor of cause branding, but Patagonia is taking it to the next level with a generous dose of argument against interest throughout its public content. For example, Patagonia recently underwent a corporate social responsibility (CSR) audit. A nonprofit watchdog organization took a hard look at their operations. Patagonia blogged about the audit in great detail. The post mentions a couple of instances of where the company fell short in the review (arguing against interest). They even admit they’re a founder of the group that was auditing them. Who even blogs about audits, much less the negative findings and conflicts of interest? Now you might be asking, where’s the marketing value in this? What comes through is not Patagonia’s warts, but its seriousness about being green and transparent. It’s as authentic as you can ever expect communications to get. And utterly believable.

Another example: In writing about the new Common Threads Initiative, Patagonia talks about its five-year-old recycling program, whose goal was to make all Patagonia clothes recyclable within five years. “This we will achieve in fall 2011,” Patagonia writes, “a year behind schedule.” Another argument against interest. This line is just sitting there in the copy, no excuses, no tortured transitions, just a fact. You make the call. This kind of statement is convincing.

Patagonia has a minisite, The Footprint Chronicles, that drills into the origin of Patagonia garments. Click on the Merino 2 Crew sweater and learn that the wool is sustainably ranched, the dye is okay, and the factory is okay,  but the wool travels 16,280 miles from sheep to store. “This is not sustainable,” the Patagonia website tells us. Who says this about their own supply chain? Nobody. In how many instances is it true? All the time, presumably. Patagonia cares so much about getting it right they readily admit what they’re still getting wrong.

In another Patagonia post, a blogger admits his orthopedic problems ruined his climbing adventure. One would expect tales of glory. But while Nike has LeBron and UGG Under Armour has Tom Brady, here’s Patagonia speaking through a guy whose arm keeps dropping out of his shoulder socket.

If all this arguing against interest sounds like overkill, it’s only because we’re calling out the exceptions to the rest of the Patagonia content, which as you would expect is generally favorable to the company. But this positive content is all the more believable next to a few well-conceived arguments against interest.

By acknowledging that’s nobody’s perfect, starting with yourself, you can strike the perfect note.