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.