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.

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

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.


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.

The Great British brand identity crisis

Symbols are significant. And few symbols carry more significance for those who encounter it than a nation’s flag. So the unveiling of the dove-inspired design by British Airways earlier this week – less than a fortnight after the launch of the Team GB athletes kit pictured above – only serves to reinforce an idea that’s been irking me about the Olympics’ effect on the UK’s brand identity: is our nation in danger of conveying the idea that we are colourless, drained of energy and drab?
Continue reading “The Great British brand identity crisis”

Facebook’s ventures into brand diplomacy

Former Guardian technology writer, Jack Schofield, shared an intriguing link to a news item in the Silicon Valley Mercury Newsearlier this week.

It intrigued me for two reasons: first, that Facebook had decided to establish a network of 70 international representatives to establish a quasi-diplomatic service in key regions of the world and, second, that Google had already establish as similar operation in 2006.

The Google information was news to me. It’s not unusual for brands to employ corporate communications teams whose role is to maintain positive relations with both state and non-state actors both nationally and globally. It remains to be seen if the nature of the team that Facebook intends to establish veers away from this traditional role.

However, reading between the lines, the focus of the announcement suggests that Facebook is acknowledging a need to insulate its operation from unwanted legal and regulatory intrusion in the future – or an outright ban of its technology altogether – in nations where the nature of its operating model runs counter to prevailing political philosophy.

The story in the Silicon Valley Mercury News ran:

Facebook’s new global policy team will monitor the local political landscape and act as multilingual, TV-friendly communicators in countries and for cultures that, in many cases, have very different values and laws about privacy and personal communications than the U.S. Facebook is confronting its emergence as a global organization whose membership is much larger than the population of most countries, and whose technology can antagonize both Middle Eastern dictators and European democracies fretful about privacy. The international directors of policy, as Facebook calls them, will grapple with those challenges.

Are brands assuming the mantle of quasi nation states?

Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve become fascinated by the apparent parallels between the dynamics of nation state building and statecraft, and the transnational behaviour and attributes of global and networked brands; in particular, the Google v China skirmish and the more recent tensions between the US State Department and Attorney General and WikiLeaks piqued my interest.

Even though Marx warned of the globalising effects of capitalism, something else appears to be going on here because it’s not just economic capital that is transcending geographic borders; it’s ideas and movements too.

Somehow, populations of people – and not just business brands – are emerging as brands too; often their apparent power is unrelated to their scale.

This necessarily means that the nature and governance of brands as global actors, and their relationship and alliances both within and beyond the boundaries of nation states, are of real significance to future global political, social and economic stability.

You’ll have seen from those blog posts at NewTradition’s site that these episodes revived distant memories of my university days; specifically, of the ideas that were dealt with in Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’.

So I re-read Anderson’s book and, once I’d done that, I dug into Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Nations and Nationalism’ and collection of essays on ‘Globalisation, democracy and terrorism’. (To be frank, I’ve read more academic texts in the past year or so than I did throughout my University career.)

And I’m left with the nagging concern that the revolution in communications technology – and it’s worth bearing in mind that Anderson considers the ownership and mechanics of media to have been vital to successful nation building – is creating the conditions in which a new kind of nation state can be conceived: ‘brand nation states’.

Whether there is such a thing as a brandnationstate, I’m not sure.

I’m not sure if brands can genuinely transcend geographic borders and deploy the kind of diplomatic muscle that nation states are able – and, just as often, are unable – to.

I’m not sure if dispersed populations of people, who congregate under the auspices of a brand, really do wield the kind of power and authority that nation states – with their military, legal and governmental instruments of enforcement – do.

I’m just interested to test the ideas. So I’l be digging a bit deeper into the topic.

The difference between brand and branding: Part Two

Picture: Vittorio Sciosia

If you read my previous post you’ll know that it was suggested that I put together a blog post which helped explain the difference between brand and branding. I set out to address the question by saying the distinction between the two was that

  • branding enables people to recognise and understand how to navigate your business’s goods, services and organisation;
  • brand is the con­sequence of how you go about doing what you do.

In this post I’ll dig a bit deeper into the suggested definition of branding.

The cautionary note is that I’m attempting to explain the distinction and why I think there’s ambiguity over the difference. I’m not claiming to be providing an exhaustive definition of either or both!

Having said that, let’s clear up one fairly common misapprehension straightaway:

A logo isn’t a brand

It’s a brand mark.

And a brand mark is symbolic; it is applied to visually mark out the boundaries of a business’s territory and clearly distinguish it from alternative providers of similar goods and services.

(In fact, the word ‘logo’ is popularly assumed to derive from the Greek word ‘logos’ meaning a character or symbol which represents a word or phrase.)

No matter how sophisticated marketers like to think that we are these days, it’s a practice that’s as old as the human race itself.

As a species, it seems, we just can’t help marking what belongs to us, whether it’s conveyed as a brand mark on a product or is emblematic of a nation of people in the form of a flag; whether it’s a sheep’s fleece branded with a farmer’s initials (which explains the tenuous connection with the image at the top of this post) or a sign over a shop.

Each of us has also been given our own brand marks by our parents – our names – which we uniquely express via our signatures.

So, for businesses, effective brand marks serve to symbolically represent the provenance of an entity – whether that’s physical, intellectual or virtual – in a manner which is both unique and distinctive enough to distinguish itself from comparable alternatives. It doesn’t necessarily follow that they have to be beautifully designed.

In fact, for a business, what really matters is the capacity of a brand mark to help existing or potential consumers of a business’s goods and services to recognise the business and react to its presence, preferably in a positive way.

Whether they do respond to it positively or not will depend, not on its brand mark or branding per se, but on what that brand mark or branding represents – and that’s the brand thing.

So if that’s a brand mark, what’s branding?

Where they’re used, brand marks generally form part of a suite of branding elements – like the use of colour, fonts, physical materials, pictures and imagery or iconography – whose application to items like packaging, print, stationery, physical space and signage is governed by guidelines.

Despite the fact that application of branding enables businesses to mark out the boundaries of their territory, its principal purpose is to make it as easy as possible for consumers to find their way to a transactional point – whether that’s a transaction involving money, service or information.

Branding translates your business and what it does into something that is meaningful, understandable and useful for the outside world.

If the branding elements are applied appropriately and consistently wherever consumers encounter it, not only will they encourage recognition and understanding of the relevance of a brand but, over time, it may be possible to acquire a branding state of grace – consumers intuitively recognise your branding whether the brand mark is visible or not.

But branding isn’t confined to just one of the five senses, the other four are fair game too.

For instance, have you ever walked past a Subway? It’s got an instantly recognisable and distinctive aroma hasn’t it? In fact, you can often smell a Subway before you see it and recognise that there’s a Subway nearby.

And how about Play-Doh? Or Crayola crayons? (You may not have encountered the last two for years, but you probably just
recalled the smell.)

What about the little Intel jingle? Or the repeated use of music in radio and TV advertising by brands like LloydsTSB or British Gas?

No matter the extent to which individual businesses go to to hammer their point home, the principal functional purpose of branding is to clearly mark out the boundaries and areas of its territory and help consumers find their way to a transactional point.

But in performing its function, branding also has the capacity to convey emotional attributes too. And this is where the muddy waters begin to appear which, I’d argue, contribute to a misapprehension about the difference between brand and branding.

So what were the reasons that led branding to be used in this way?

The changing marketplace and evolution of branding

Once upon a time, businesses were geographically confined and media was all but non-existent. However, in Europe, the industrial revolution changed all that.

Innovation in transport and communications opened up the opportunity to both find new ways of sourcing materials, making and doing things, as well as trade your business’s goods or services in more than one location.

(It’s always worth remembering that businesses like Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Tesco all started out as a single shop or market
stall – Sainsbury’s in Drury Lane, London (right) and William Morrisons’s market stall in Bradford. Jack Cohen’s Wall Street Market stall in Hackney, London, later became Tesco.)

By doing so, you were pitching your business’s stall elsewhere in the midst of established competitors who already offered the same goods and services that you did. At the same time, new names were popping up on your patch in your own marketplace.

That opens up a new front in the competition for attention, even among customers whose patronage you had previously enjoyed.

When that competition for consumer attention extends beyond the boundaries of your physical environment – thanks to the proliferation of both national and international broadcast and print media, and increased trading across international borders – the accompanying commercial clamour and noise presents you with two problems: how to secure a distinctive and sustainable reputation and – if it’s your intention to do so – how to grow your business.

In the face of increasing competition, the recognition of your business via its brand mark is one thing, but helping consumers understand what it represents is something else entirely; it could be the difference between buying or not buying your brand’s goods and services.

The likely source of confusion: The road to emotional branding

Let’s suppose your business couldn’t consistently compete on the basis of price. It had to be able to convey ideas on which it could compete and which consumers would instinctively recognise and value; things like quality, originality, service, support and innovation, for instance.

Of course branding can’t, itself, make the slightest bit of difference to the intrinsic value of a good or service, because it only serves to represent those qualities by helping express what a business does.

(To assuage the designers who will disagree with that last statement, I’m talking strictly about branding here. In the next post I’ll be arguing that a consistent characteristic of great brands is their pursuit of brand principles, of which interaction design is one. But brand identities are a consequence of this and not the catalyst.)

But what branding can do is seek to influence people’s perception of a brand.

It’s how, for instance, the branding approach adopted by Dorset Cereals helps it encourage consumers – based on today’s pricing at, at least – to part with a couple more pence per 100g for its muesli compared with, say, Alpen’s original Swiss recipe product.

On your next trip to the supermarket, why not pick up both brands of cereal and compare the two based just on their respective approaches to branding?

Compared to the Alpen packaging, you may notice that the texture of Dorset Cereals’s packaging is slightly rougher – suggesting an ‘earthier’ quality compared to Alpen’s smoother packaging.

You can’t see Alpen’s muesli but you’re invited to look at Dorset Cereals’s product thanks to transparent windows cut into the packaging – conveying the idea that this brand is both focused on the nutritional content of its product and proud of it too.

Finally, the text mimics a typewritten face and is impressed into the outer packaging (just run your fingertip across the type) which – whether you realise it or not – suggests each box is carefully packaged and not mass produced.

Admittedly that’s a pretty cursory analysis of the packaging, but do you think the branding of the Dorset Cereals product pulls its weight in conveying what’s distinctive and unique about the brand? Is it enough to contemplate parting with that extra couple of pence per 100g?

Whether you like muesli or hate it, the example serves to show that branding design possesses the capacity to roam beyond its functional role and encompass an additional role – employing the senses to convey emotional ideas about the brand it represents.

The use and abuse of branding as a means of conveying personality

It’s this capacity of branding to convey emotional ideas that’s given rise to the idea of ‘brand personality’.

And, since a brand’s personality is a fictions of its parent business’s imagination, it’s also where the worlds of fiction and reality either harmoniously converge or discordantly collide.

Throughout this post, I’ve been careful to say that branding serves to help convey functional and emotional ideas about a business in order to translate and articulate how its brand of goods and services help a waiting world. The problem is that branding can also be used to portray its brand of goods and services.

The moment a business lays claim to human qualities like ‘values’ and ‘characteristics’, and seeks to reflect those qualities through its branding, it is treading a fine line between conveying the characteristics it really possesses and portraying the ones that it wishes to be seen to be associated with.

The only problem is that the way people seem to be, and the way they really are, can often be poles apart. And businesses can be just the same.

The temptation within businesses is to articulate a brand reputation to which they aspire and immediately deploy all elements of their marketing communications armoury – including branding – to portray acquisition of that position without even embarking on a strategy to change the way they do business.

But changing the way you appear doesn’t change the way you are.

And its the superficial application of branding to portray one thing rather than convey another, that is probably where the confusion over the distinction between brand and branding stems from.

It’s been compounded by the fact that – in the scrap for consumer attention that is intensified by the scarcity of available space in traditional media – businesses opt for promotional content which carries claims that are littered with hyperbole and neologisms: to be first, to launch something new, to improve on something, to be award winning, to claim superiority over a competitor.

So I’d argue that – until recently – it’s been all to easy for businesses to let its branding do the legwork and portray characteristics of, for instance, originality or innovation, rather than go to the effort really being original and innovative.

But branding does not maketh the brand. Consumer experience is the ultimate judge of the way brands really do business.

And the shift in the communications landscape – which I’ve illustrated previously in this presentation at Slideshare – is already changing the ability for businesses to fall back on presentation to do the heavy lifting for sub-optimal operation.

Branding can no longer be relied on to sustain reputation.

And, in the next post, I’ll pick on a brand in order to illustrate exactly how its branding appears to promise more than its brand is really able to deliver. By doing so, I hope to conclude the epic journey to explain what I consider to be the difference between brand and branding.

The difference between brand and branding: Part One

I hadn’t anticipated that we’d use our blog as a Q&A but Emily Davis tweeted us the other day suggesting that a post about the distinction between brand and branding wouldn’t go amiss.

Emily said she felt that, anecdotally, there was some confusion about the difference between the two and my own experience suggests that she’s probably right.

In fact the misapprehension about the distinction brand and branding is almost as commonplace as the misapprehensions about the distinction between ‘marketing’ and ‘promotion’, and ‘public relations’ and ‘media relations’.

How may times have you sat in a meeting where someone talks about marketing and you know they really mean promotion? Or talk about PR when they mean media relations? How many times have you said it yourself? *holds hand up*

But back to the difference between brand and branding…

Continue reading “The difference between brand and branding: Part One”

Are you motivated by what you think motivates you?

We’re currently working on the design of an employee communication programme so, perhaps selfishly, this animation of Dan Pink’s talk at the RSA in January 2010 is remarkably useful in considering the configuration of communications in a way which delivers a sense of fulfillment and purpose for an internal audience.

But if you take a look at the video of the talk, Mr Pink offers some stark conclusions about the role of financial incentives as a means of motivating people; conclusions which seem counter-intuitive to the way incentives within brands and businesses are organised today.

For instance, Mr Pink points to plenty of evidence demonstrating that financial incentives tend, over time, to lead to lower levels of productivity and performance. In contrast, however, when software developer Redgate trashed the traditional financial bonus scheme, sales actually rose. And how can it be that Wikipedia and Linux have proved so successful when their very existence is due to the time and goodwill invested by individuals who receive no financial compensation whatsoever?

Continue reading “Are you motivated by what you think motivates you?”