Can great creative work save the finance sector?
“Marketing has always combined facts and judgement: after all, there’s no analytic approach than can single-handedly tell you when you have a great piece of creative work.”
– McKinsey & Co., Measuring Marketing’s Worth
Capitalism has come in for a bit of a knocking of late. Recently, the Futures Company found that 86% thought “big business” maximised profits at the expense of customers and communities (not helped by another recent poll stating 51% of top financial services executives think businesses should just be about making money). The antipathy is not a recent phenomenon and hardly one confined to the fringe. John Maynard Keynes, whose ideas framed modern macroeconomics, said capitalism is “not virtuous [and] doesn’t deliver the goods”. And while there was a short period when such sentiment was only to be found in places like Pyongyang, these feelings are now more pervasive, particularly against the driving force of capitalism, the finance sector. Can marketing help shift perceptions?
From the outside looking in, it would be difficult to say that some of the wounds are not self-inflicted. Multiple fiascos have led to much head-shaking and hand-wringing within the industry. The furore has ceased to abate as politicians score cheap points for fingering the blame on bankers, and lionised institutions like Goldman Sachs suffer massive public relations disasters (including a part ownership stake in a prostitution ring). The manipulation of the LIBOR scheme and subsequent reforms reveal no quick end in sight to a period of immense negative exposure that began with the global recession four years ago.
So the image of finance is indisputably tarnished right now. Marketers are trying to change this, in different ways. Many Western financial institutions have been around for a while; the symbolism of such longevity can serve as a valuable asset for brands. Coincidentally, this year sees Citigroup – while dealing with its turbulent present – celebrate its 200th anniversary. They’ve had a broad above-the-line campaign celebrating their place in history, putting their relative achievements – helping fund the building of the Panama Canal – alongside other important moments in time. Citi also have their eye on the future too, making a concerted push in areas of sustainability, recently managing to become the first bank to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for 200 projects from the U.S. Green Building Council. The question is whether leveraging history and sustainability – both of which arguably convey a sense of trusted consistency, rather than reckless risk-taking – with advertising can help address a serious deficit in consumer affinity for the finance sector. Does it even matter? If we assume banker-bashing is an irrational emotion, and the whole sector is tarnished with the same brush, how much sway does it have over the rational part of our brain that must decide where and how to invest our money?
Several banking brands rely on the prestige of their historical affiliations, and have found themselves no safer from customer ire. It can be hard to seek engaging differentiation in a commoditised industry where the power of switching costs can a play a strong role. A PwC report from July summarises, “Many consumers remain loyal due simply to the absence of a negative because it is often easier to put up with something that is less than perfect than go to the trouble, and potential expense, of switching”. So what else can be done to wake potential customers from this inertia?
It’s interesting to see Morgan Stanley take a decidedly more personal tack, with a new campaign, “What If?”. Shifting focus away from the company as a faceless monolith, the WSJ said the aim is to make the company seem “like your neighborly [sic] stock picker”. The creative itself is beautiful, showcasing professional types with aspects of business and social responsibility framing their translucent faces. It attempts to convey a personalised and considerate attitude that includes but also goes beyond profit-making. It broadly taps into themes in a new book. “Positive Linking”, by Paul Ormerod, sets out to dismiss the outdated notion that people are driven by personal, “rational utility maximisation” and instead claims they are more interested in aiding the network to which they belong, realising this will help them too. This in essence is a slightly less selfish form of capitalism.
“I owe the public nothing”, J.P. Morgan was once quoted as saying. Have times changed much since? The problems with the world of finance are too numerous for this article. The crisis of confidence has begun to have an effect on recruiting, as MBA graduates turn their learned eyes to more reputable sectors. Although it may not seem like it now, customer perceptions of brands within this sector are malleable. Any one that can position itself as an outlier in what is currently seen as a pernicious industry will have much to gain. The tail cannot wag the dog though. If these businesses are to change, they must back up their ambitions with operational changes that reduce risk and ensure profits sit alongside dedication to the broader lifestyle their advertising evinces.