To create an online financial advice brand, become a follower of fashion

Having worked — off and on — with a number of UK financial brands in my time, something’s alway perplexed me: the default setting for the design of financial services is based on what other financial brands already do.

Brands rarely seem to roam beyond the confines of the financial services archipelago for inspiration in service design.

It means that the development of new services is a painfully iterative process; a fact compounded, perhaps understandably, by a stifling regulatory environment.

Most innovation appears evolutionary: Incremental changes in product design, systems and technology that create efficiencies in transactional processes but not necessarily in the way people interact with services.

It’s all product, product, product rather than experience, experience, experience.

Take the Holy Grail of personal investment advice: the creation of an online end-to-end financial advice process.

There are financial services brands who would be considered pioneers – by the industry itself – of online personal investment.

But, as user experience goes, is there really any stand-out brand? A brand that’s reimagined the online financial planning process from end-to-end? A brand that hasn’t just clunked a superficial front-end on to an existing back-end system but started with a blank sheet and designed a service from scratch? A brand that makes you think ‘Wow!’?

So here’s my tip: If you’re kicking around the idea of establishing a distinct and compelling online advice service in the UK, seek out as your inspiration.

With a few tweaks here and there, Thread offers a blueprint for how the potential of the web can be harnessed to deliver enriching advice experiences in an elegantly frictionless way.

I came across it recently while idly listening to one of its founders on Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ (well, don’t forget to ‘roam beyond the confines of your archipelago’). And, though not sartorially-inclined but piqued by the idea, I signed up to see how it worked.

Within a minute or two, I’ve been assigned my own stylist — Elle Warren Thomas (no relation) — and make my way through a number of screens to establish my style; the fashion equivalent of ‘risk appetite’.

30 minutes later, I’ve been e-mailed five outfits, with a brief introduction describing why the ‘look’ has been suggested, and the key elements of each outfit itemised with detailed pictures and links to the makers’ sites.

If I message Elle to check sizings and things like that, she takes no longer than 30 minutes to reply — usually within less than five minutes.

Of course people will say: ‘Well it’s much easier to do that when it’s clothes but we’re talking about often complex financial products!’

But that’s codswallop.

That’s what other residents of the archipelago would say.

It’s about advice experience, not products.

And, besides, I’m not saying it’s easy to create a brand of online financial advice that emulates Thread’s service. I’m saying it’s worth putting in the hard work to create service design that’s able to deliver a financial advice experience that is as elegantly frictionless and enriching as Thread.

Monocle’s Soft Power Survey 2013

Monocle’s published it’s fourth annual Soft Power Survey – a topic that’s fascinated me ever since I listened to Professor Joseph Nye speak on the topic at the RSA in London in 2011 – and Germany’s toppled the UK from its top spot.

Produced in conjunction with the Institute for Government, Monocle’s survey asks which countries ‘best attract favour from other nations through culture, sport, cuisine, design, diplomacy and beyond’. In other words: beyond the bullets, economic sanctions and so on, who packs a soft-centred punch?

The kind of unspun Papal spin that couldn’t be spun by PR spinners

A piece from The Guardian today that caught my eye: journalist Jonathan Jones claims Pope Francis ‘has renovated a damaged brand not in years, but months’.

And how is this miracle being accomplished? Probably by not attempting to ‘renovate a damaged brand’.

In fact, the universal truth lying at the heart of this epiphanic repositioning of Catholicism appears to rest in the final sentence of the article: ‘Do and say what you believe.’

The idea that Pope Francis has ‘renovated the brand’ is a bit of a stretch.

Perhaps he’s simply revisiting the roots of the Christian movement and the source of its inspiration? After all, for those inclined to believe, wasn’t Jesus pretty consistent on the issue of leading by example?

So, while Francis appears to be making strides as far as perception of the Catholic church is concerned, renovation of the brand will require far more fundamental change.

In practice, it simply means applying the core principles of Jesus Christ’s teaching to the day-to-day work of the Catholic Church.

And that’s the tragic irony for the victims of the organised Church’s wilful blindness to abuse in the past: the idea of practicing what generations of clergy have preached has, only now, been acknowledged as critical to institutional Catholicism’s integrity and credibility – and the wellbeing of its flock.

Picture: Catholic Church of England and Wales | cc

The Bebanking talk I nearly gave at TEDxCheltenham

Back in October 2012, I was kindly invited to deliver a talk at TEDxCheltenham about the idea of Bebanking that I wrote about here last July.

I’d meticulously rehearsed my lines – learning the the script off by heart – and was all set to deliver the speech.

It went well – for about two minutes. And then my mind went blank. The lines were lost. I stood in the spotlight before an audience with absolutely no recollection of what I was supposed to say next.

Apple’s Tim Cook and the distinction between brand and branding

Away from the furore among analysts about Apple’s – apparently – disappointing results yesterday, the brand’s chief executive, Tim Cook, uttered a phrase which precisely states the distinction between brand and branding.

He said: “We could put the Apple brand on a lot of things and sell a lot more stuff. The most important thing to us is that our customers love our products, not just buy them but love them.”

Branding = ’We could put the Apple brand on a lot of things and sell a lot more stuff.’

Brand =  ’The most important thing to us is that our customers love our products, not just buy them but love them.’

And that’s why Apple is the biggest brand in the world.


Are trade unions the answer to the economic crisis?

Perhaps it was inevitable that, with the rekindling of interest in the economic analysis of Marx and Engels on the crest of the current global economic crisis, the idea of organised labour as a force for good would emerge somewhere down the line.

But a couple of columnists – Will Hutton in the Guardian and Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, in the New York Times – both refer to an unlikely advocate for trade unionism in pieces published over the weekend: the International Monetary Fund.

Continue reading “Are trade unions the answer to the economic crisis?”

Britain’s brand: ‘this frail travelling coincidence’

It may sound like a glass-half-full definition but Frank Cotterell Boyce’s reference to this line from Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Wedding, perfectly pinpoints the poignant curiosities of the British character that his script for the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony so brilliantly conveyed.

The Larkin reference is included – about 12 minutes in – in this fascinating interview for Radio 4’s ‘Broadcasting House’ in which Mr Cotterell Boyce describes the behind-the-scenes experience of what, for me at least, was the defining cultural moment of 2012 in the United Kingdom.

Mr Miliband’s big moment

Last Saturday’s blog post by the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, astutely makes a connection between perception of the present Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, and Clement Attlee.

Attlee’s legacy is formidable. Among other measures in a truly remarkable period in British government, he presided over the creation of the national health service, and established the welfare state and free secondary education. Arguably he was the finest Prime Minister of the twentieth century and the most accomplished leader the Labour Party has ever had.

All this despite – in an era where relentless rolling news wasn’t a factor – being considered to possess a pretty dull, non-media friendly, personality; hence Sir Winston Churchill’s quote, cited by Mr Robinson in his post, “an empty taxi drew up outside 10 Downing Street and Attlee got out”.

Continue reading “Mr Miliband’s big moment”

Why reform banking when we could transform it instead?

Once upon a time – a couple of years ago in fact – I was so alarmed by the high cost of payday loans advertised by brands like QuickQuid and Wonga, that I started a small campaign called 2356percent (it’s a link to an article from the Independent, by the way, the 2356percent site is no more).

One thing led to another and, thanks to Greg Mulholland MP, an Early Day Motion, signed by about 30 MPs, was tabled in the House of Commons. Because of that campaign, I was invited to meet with Errol Damelin, the chief executive of Wonga. We had a fascinating conversation and the 2356percent campaign has been pretty much dormant since.

That’s not because Wonga persuaded me that their loans were a good thing; instead, I realised that campaigning against behaviour in a financial services ecosystem which spawns brands like Wonga is not the same as campaigning for an alternative kind of financial services industry.

I reached the conclusion that – no matter how persuasive the calls for the regulation of people like payday lenders from MPs like Stella Creasy – the financial services industry is unlikely to up its game until there’s an alternative way of doing things that really challenges the status quo.

Continue reading “Why reform banking when we could transform it instead?”