There is something rotten in the state of Brand Land

by
November 17, 2013

scan0001Marketers have always been economical with the truth.  But some brands are virtually ignoring it altogether.

I received a brochure from my bank at the start of the summer.  The headline on the front was WELCOME TO THE NEW LLOYDS BANK, and the covering letter explained that the demerger of Lloyds and TSB was an opportunity for them to “continue building a better bank for you”.

My reaction as a customer?  I couldn’t give a toss.  I’ve got enough else to worry about.  All I want you to do is keep my money safe and accessible, without making my life even more complex and awkward.  And spare me all this stuff about your vision – I’ll be the judge of whether it becomes a better bank or not.

My reaction as a copywriter and marketer?  Let’s see what the new brand story is.

I love VW camper vans.  Doesn’t everyone?

First of all, there was no sign of the “for the journey” strapline and the little cartoon characters – the brand promise of commitment to long-term relationships with customers was gone.  Not to worry, I never liked it in the first place.

But what has replaced it? The picture on the front cover was of an orange VW camper van, the interior glowing with warm light, in a green mountain landscape at dusk.  My first thought was “what the **** has that got to do with banking?”  The only answer I can come up with is that camper vans seem to vaguely aspirational, especially with designers, and they couldn’t think of anything better to go with the uninspiring headline.

Believe this and you’ll believe anything

The first spread was covered in bold type with a string of promises about “a bank that truly understands today”, that “helps make more of tomorrow”, that will “help you make a house a home” and that will “turn an idea into a business”.   Finishing with the big bottom line promise “We’re here for the things that matter in life”.  Let’s see how many patronising clichés we get on a single page.

Right, all the usual bollocks you get from banks suggesting that their primary purpose is to increase the sum of human happiness.  I couldn’t help thinking about bankers bonuses.  About how much the top executives were being paid.  About how hard they were making it for small businesses to borrow.  About how they’d vigorously mis-sold PPI.  About how they’d given the term “fixed rates” a whole new meaning with the Libor scandal.  About recent stories of the major banks potential attempts to manipulate the foreign currency markets.  And about how the big banks had made billions in the good times and then got the rest of us to bail them out when their recklessness came home to roost.

Who is the cynical one here, I asked myself?  Me, for thinking like this?  Or them – for spoon feeding us with all the stuff their research must have told them we’d like to hear?

Joy of banking

Parking my scepticism I opened the next spread.  There was a picture of a boy in front of a barn, laughing.  The headline was WHEN YOU’RE HAPPY WITH OUR SERVICE, WE’RE HAPPY.  The copy on the page opposite was a string of blithe platitudes – “service that’s about more than just smiles” and “service that makes a difference to you” and service “that helps plans come to life”.   You’re right, that’s what I want.  But the glibness and smugness gives me the creeps.  And what the **** has a laughing boy in front of a barn got to do with customer service?”

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The next spread brought more banal guff about how they are going to make “the simple stuff smoother and quicker” to help me “make more of today”.  Again, the triteness of the tone did nothing to allay my annoyance.

Selective memory syndrome

This was followed by a spread with a picture of a young girl jumping for joy in a sleet storm, the headline ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS, and copy about how much they are lending businesses and home buyers.  Really?  So why are so many people complaining about how hard it is to get a mortgage or raise business finance?

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It ended with the lines “Because a bank that backs Britain, backs it up with action” and “we are committed to helping Britain prosper”.   Actually, in recent years it has been the other way around.  Britain backed Lloyds – the government bought a 43.4% share of the business in 2008 to save it from collapse.  Getting the taxpayers to bail you out when you fail is a funny way of helping the country prosper.  And what the **** has a blissed out girl in a sleet storm got to do with lending?

Keeping customers on a lead

The final spread shows a cute dog gleefully rolling in green grass inviting someone to tickle its tummy.  The headline was BECAUSE THANK YOU MATTERS followed by a promise to surprise “thousands of customers a month with an unexpected ‘thank you’ gift.  Because ‘thank you’ is about much more than words”.   If only it were true, and they were doing this out of genuine heartfelt gratitude.

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What, you’re saying the “thank you” was insincere?  Absolutely.  Because the copy on this page starts with the line “your loyalty is at the heart of our business”.  Which leads me to believe the true reason for sending me this brochure, right now, is not because they are overwhelmed with a rush of warm feelings towards me, or inspired with a mission to build a better Britain, or because their primary purpose in life is to put a smile on my face.  No, it’s because they’re paranoid the demerger is going to unsettle customers – and, shock horror, they might leave.  Which is going to unsettle the people they really care about – the shareholders.

I’m not going to leave – I can’t be arsed, and I don’t believe that any of the other high street banks will be any better.  But let’s be clear – I’m staying despite the marketing.  The brand experience picture they’re painting is pure fantasy – about as realistic as the Teletubbies or Postman Pat.  It assumes I have a mental age of pre-school child.   Plus it pedals a myth that banking is all about spreading the love.  Get real – it’s about targets, risk, margins and market share.

So, I believe this brochure is deeply misleading and mendacious.  And the fact that they assume I’m stupid enough to believe this vanilla piffle, and just roll over so they can tickle my tummy some more, merely adds insult to injury.

 It’s 1984, all over again

Even more worrying (for me, at least) is the fact this is the way marketing is heading.  We’ve reached a point where branding is less about the nature of the product and more about the nature of the customer experience.  Where warming words and pleasing pictures are artfully combined  to project aspirational snapshots of life as we hope to live it.  And giant corporation are positioned as socially responsible organisations dedicated to caring, sharing and nurturing.

The danger with this is that marketers, in their chic offices, with their sleek Macs, their cool iPhones, their skinny lattes, their VW camper vans and their mountain bikes, get so wrapped up in Brand World that reality is entirely forgotten.  Or, to use language that has no place in this brave new virtual world where everything is rosy, they believe their own bullshit.

To keep reality at bay they have become experts at doubletalk (the bastard offspring of Orwell’s doublethink, from his novel 1984).  Here’s a classic example I heard at a recent briefing session about an internal communications project.  I was told that “we need to start speaking ‘future truth’”.

‘Future truth’?  Isn’t that the same as ‘present lies’?

As marketers I think we need to stop and think – what kind of a world are we so blithely creating?

Author:  Jim O’Connor.

27 Comments
  1. Trevor Lever November 18, 2013 Reply

    Hi Jim

    Love this analysis and your thoughts along the way. Professional services (such as banking) are heading the same way as the political parties. The one that wins your vote / business is the one that can sell "hope" the most effectively.

    Sad times indeed.

    T.

  2. Jim November 18, 2013 Reply

    Yes we can (sell hope).

  3. Ryan James November 18, 2013 Reply

    I LOVE it when you get on your soap box Jim... never a truer word spoken and not afraid to say it like you see it either! I salute you.

    Personally I'm overjoyed when I see some big corporate get it so wrong.

    For starters, it gives those challenger brands, those people we're actively trying to help, a chance to create a service or product that lives up to it's billing... if by nothing more than by underselling themselves and committing to the promise of actually delivering what they said they would - which is all a customer really wants... or is it?

    You see I think there are two key aspects to pleasing customers, and the tension between the two creates the problem you've highlighted for marketers, and customers alike.

    1. On the one hand customers want to know they can trust their buying decision.
    They want their 'expectation' met. They want reliability. They want peace of mind.

    I don't expect my Big Mac Burger to be healthy or to change my life. But I do expect it to satisfy my hunger for about 2 hours and be a tasty, convenient 'meal' whenever I buy one, in which ever country I buy one.

    McDonalds meet my expectation every time. I don't expect much from them and they deliver that every time! It is no surprise that their brand is as strong as it is.

    2. On the other hand customers want to feel they can buy their own slice of 'happiness'.
    Capitalism depends on it, and without 'things' we're sold the idea that we'll all live a life of misery.

    Which of course is complete b*ll*cks... but sadly 'truth' rarely enthuses customers to buy anything, because the truth about most services and products is that they won't change your life or make you happy. So customers don't REALLY want the truth... 'they can't handle the truth'.

    The inconvenient truth about life is that it's difficult, and that you can't actually buy happiness. Companies know this, customers know this (however conscious they may be about it or not), and governments know this.

    ---
    And there in lies the tension and the dichotomy of the truth about branding.
    Customers want enough truth to ensure they can trust their buying decision.
    BUT not so much truth that they have to face up to the realities that they can't conveniently buy 'happiness' in a bottle... or a bank in this case.

    Which sadly means that there will always be a place for marketers to create bullsh*t campaigns for companies who sell services that will never, in a million years, ever make you truly happy.

    Which on the upside means that you and I will always have plenty of excuses to have a good rant and there will always be a need for services like our own, helping to fuel the dichotomy of a capitalist state. Rah!

    Thanks for the opportunity to rant Jim. Always a pleasure!

    • Jim November 18, 2013 Reply

      Ryan,

      You've summed up the challenge very eloquently - thanks.

      On a good day I enjoy rising to it. On a bad day I just want to walk away.

      Cheers,

      Jim

  4. Sam November 18, 2013 Reply

    A great read Jim.

    Ever thought of writing a book?

    • Jim November 18, 2013 Reply

      Hi Sam,
      yes, I'm constantly thinking about writing a book, but my mind just jumps around too much to do more than random blog posts...lack of self discipline/laziness/need to pay the bills each month. Excuses, excuses - I need to get a grip and do something a bit more substantial.

      Thanks for the encouragement!

      Jim

  5. Paul Lewis November 19, 2013 Reply

    I think most people gave up expecting anything authentic from the banks long ago. But this type of mindless, warm bath, drivel marks a new low in the banking sector’s vain attempts to convince us they offer us anything authentic by way of either service or integrity. This is what happens when top executives ask their marketing teams to create a meaningful, “experiential” brand out of something devoid of real values. As opposed to shareholder value. Some things can’t be polished…

    • Jim November 19, 2013 Reply

      Absolutely agree. As you say, this is what happens when brands go all "experiential" on us.

      The trend towards selling experiences is going to be subject of next post - I've just got to do some work in the meantime to keep my Lloyds bank account from going into the red and incurring a hefty penalty!

  6. Amanda Craig November 19, 2013 Reply

    New reader here. I love everything about this post. Absolutely all of it. And I'm so new to your page I haven't even glanced around to see what my options are for an RSS feed or newsletter, but I'm sure I'll find something.

    I have been screaming about this for a while now. Integrity and accuracy in brand positioning is crucial. If it's lies, copywriters need to stop writing it because it's hurting the industry.

    • Jim November 19, 2013 Reply

      Hi Amanda,
      I'm glad you like post! I end up screaming too. The blog is my therapy. You can subscribe to newsletter at top right of page. As you say, copywriters who do this kind of stuff devalue the profession.
      Kind regards,
      Jim

  7. David White November 20, 2013 Reply

    As I read your rant, my heart swelled, tears came to my eyes, the clouds parted and angels sang for I, a one-time lowly copywriter had financial clients for 28 of my 30 years as a word butcher. Your screed is beautifully written and on target.

    But what always, always angered me about bank communications is their announcement that the merger of the two banks was done to improve customer service. To put it 1984 New Speak terms, double-plus bullsh*t. The merger was done for the benefit of top executives and any shareholders. The fallout of the merger is always higher fees and a reduction in head count - a cold, heartless phrase that prompts an image of executives and their lickspittle minions going through the office with Samurai swords, lopping off the heads of "redundant" employees.

    In defense of banks, they do face a marketing problem -- they all pretty much do the same and offer the same services. So creating some fanciful, warm and fuzzy image is one approach to making a heartless organization almost human. Almost.

    In the western US, there was a bank that actually had an interesting story behind it and a relevantly themed ad campaign and that was Wells Fargo Bank. I remember the campaign from the 1970s and it used a lot of Old West images and was very appealing. In fact, I still have the thick leather checkbook holder embossed with the Wells Fargo logo from when I banked there.

    • Jim November 24, 2013 Reply

      Hi David,

      Many thanks for such an enthusiastic comment. As a postscript, a story has just broken in the UK about the Co-op bank, which always prided itself of it's caring/sharing ethos and took a very high moral stance. It has just emerged that they have a massive hole in their finances, the Chairman (an ex- Methodist minister) resigned, then was caught on camera a few days later buying cocaine...plus stories emerged of him using male prostitutes. Banking in Britain is universally scorned!

      Glad to see you are not writing for financial services any more - enjoy!

  8. Stephen Spicer November 24, 2013 Reply

    What a brilliant bit of writing and insight. Seriously, you have articulated what was wrong with that Lloyds mailshot (I got one) although I couldn't be arsed to look at it that deeply.

    Me? I'm a bit suspicious of the whole branding thing. When it's boiled down to positioning, lifestyle, and all the other fuzz and seems to regard the actual product as almost incidental (Harley-Davidson have almost forgotten they make motorcycles) then I'm out of here. And when the branding speech is delivered by some 20 something at a conference then I'm running...

    Many thanks.

    • Jim November 24, 2013 Reply

      Hi Stephen,
      you've nailed it, in a lot fewer words than me. When the product becomes incidental and you get branding theory from people who don't know what they don't know (and are therefore full of the confidence of ignorance) it does make you question how much longer you can continue to earn a living in this industry.

      Hence this blog - it's my therapy....

      Glad you liked it!

  9. Barnaby Adams December 9, 2013 Reply

    Jim, you fabulous man! Are you coming to my talk on Wednesday (did you get the email)? You will love it!!! I'm going to explore branding (in a very positive way) before exposing it for what it really is, before suggesting a solution…. something I call "Authentic Brand Building."

    • Jim December 10, 2013 Reply

      Hi Barnaby,

      Many thanks for enthusiastic response and I'd love to come to your talk (see email I've just sent you...).

      Cheers,

      Jim

  10. Jeff December 9, 2013 Reply

    Jim,
    I've been lurking here and avidly reading the blog for a long time, but never responded before. But this had me huffing and puffing in indignant agreement. I actually find it funny - peculiar, not haha - that the banks can spout this nonsense and seemingly expect us to swallow it. When you've betrayed someone, the right thing to do is to show some humility and try to show you intend to change - rather than tell them how great you are.
    But I digress. The reason I was motivated to post here is that like you I can't be arsed with repeatedly changing banks. Life is indeed, too short. But we should all do it, just once. Because there are banks which are genuinely trying to Do The Right Thing. I moved to Triodos. When the banking crash happened, I read an article by the Triodos boss, who said that 'if all banks operated the way we do, it wouldn't have happened'. I thought that was a bold statement, maybe arrogant even, so I started looking. And you know what? It's true. Because they have the old-fashioned idea of not lending more money Out than savers have deposited In. And they only lend to projects which make the world a better place. (I admit this might not help you if your business doesn't...) Their promo video - see it on their website - talks about lots of us ordinary Joe's doing a little thing, which together makes a big impact. I'm sure as a marketer you'd appreciate it!
    Anyway, I'm not a Triodos zealot or anything, and I'm sure they're probably not perfect. But like you I'm sick of this empty corporate bankcrap, fed to us whilst their fat cats show no remorse, and I'm pleased to be contributing my tiny piece of rebellion. We should all exercise our own. It's worth being arsed, for a few minutes.
    Thanks for the insights you bring here.

  11. Jim December 10, 2013 Reply

    Hi Jeff,
    funnily enough I drove past Triodos head office a couple of days ago. You are right, it would be good to do something, and be arsed for a change. I'll check it out. Many thanks for your positive response to the post and taking the time to make a helpful suggestion - both much appreciated.

    Kind regards,

    Jim

  12. Jamie Hudson December 10, 2013 Reply

    Love it Jim, great read.

    Coincidentally I covered the rottenness in the state of Banking in my latest blog:

    http://blog.jamiehudson.com/

    I'd really appreciate your opinion.

    All the best.

    Jamie

    • Jim December 10, 2013 Reply

      Hi Jamie,
      read your post, great article.

      The coincidence you speak of is spooky, and I had missed it...but I think it can be explained. So many me-too brands are realising that we absolutely don't care about them. They simply don't matter to us. So it's just their way of countering our indifference. "We matter to you because we care about what matters to you". It doesn't work for me! It just shows me how devious and cynical they are...

  13. Grant December 10, 2013 Reply

    Hi Jim.

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity for a rare Tuesday rant.

    It must be awful to work in the Marketing Department for a bank/energy provider/political party. They seem to have reached the stage where positive brand differentiation is no longer possible; less 'brands', more 'logos'. These days, I have genuine sympathy for all the marketers and copywriters who are constrained by corporate ignorance and misdirection; I fear we may never see the likes of 'Volvo - boxy but good' again.

    Brave new world suggestion - if they all pooled their Marketing/Advertising budgets and redistributed the funds to food banks and charities, nobody would notice (apart from the thankful folk who increasingly rely on those services). I seriously doubt that even their shareholders would notice; everyone needs power and a bank, so with evident price fixing, the profits should still roll in. The political parties/system are the subject of a future rant that will probably get picked up by my friends at GCHQ.

    The highlight of the article was my introduction to the term 'future truth'. It can only have been created by someone who is destined shortly for a trip to the fourth circle of hell.

    Keep posting!

    • Jim December 10, 2013 Reply

      Yes,
      If I didn't see another bank ad for six moths would it diminish the quality of my life? I think not - so great suggestion Grant.

      The "future truth" statement bowled me over when I first heard it. I thought "Is he being ironic?" but then, looking into his unsmiling eyes, I realised that future-truthing was probably current best practice amongst corporate comms professionals and I had some catching up to do!

      • Grant December 10, 2013 Reply

        How do you catch up with 'future truth'? The guy needs regression therapy to the point where he nears sanity.

  14. christopher December 22, 2013 Reply

    Hi Jim,
    Awesome. Once again you've managed to keep me on the edge of my seat whilst reading about a subject in which I have no interest. Or perhaps I do? You write beautifully. A book, (as Sam mentioned in an earlier post), should be seriously considered. I for one would buy it.
    Hope you and yours have a great Christmas.

    • Jim January 2, 2014 Reply

      Hi Chris,
      glad you liked it. A best selling book sounds like a great idea - I must work out how to write one!

      Hope you had a great Christmas too.

      Cheers, and love to Madeleine and Louie.

  15. Suzanna Cardash March 6, 2014 Reply

    Spot on. Enough said!

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