Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Yikes! I qualify for pensioner insurance!

There's lots of things that give away the fact that you're not quite as young as you used to be, despite what your brain fools you into believing. Even avoiding mirrors doesn't help when brands you never previously associated with suddenly identify you as 'one of their demographic'.

I was hit between the eyes with this when my wife started telling me about quotes she had obtained on car insurance from APIA (Australian Pensioners Insurance Agency). "That's great," I said, before realising she was actually obtaining a quote on my car.

For those not in the know, APIA (I prefer the acronym because of the non-reference to 'pensioner') is an insurance company that offers cover only to people over 50. I thought the small print might get me off the hook, as they only cover people who are not working full time - the theory being if you're home knitting or repairing your false teeth, you're less likely to have a car accident or have your home burgled. But alas, you can get cover if your partner is not working full time - I qualify again!

I desperately thought I could put them off by demonstrating that I had just bought a car that belied by age - sports seats, sports suspension, big diesel motor, xenon lights and even a multimedia interface for my iPod. Sadly, this only confirmed the likely onset of mid-life crisis.

I thought of other age-proofing evidence I might throw at them to push me into the exclusion zone - gym membership, cycling, listening to Green Day, knowing what LOL meant in chat rooms and I even boring people with my blog. But to APIA, all these things just smack of an older dude still vainly trying to be cool.

There is one answer - divorce. It's the only way I can see my way clear to disqualifying myself from pensionerhood, at least according to APIA's criteria. If I don't have a partner who is not working full time and I remain working full time, I'm off the hook. But APIA are smart. They know the premium I'll pay for divorce is much higher than anything they plan to charge me.

There's only one saving grace in all this - I don't yet qualify for government seniors concessions. I love the idea of pushing the retirement age out to 67. It means the government won't identify me as 'one of their demographic' any time soon.

I don't need smart marketers and ever-vigilant CRM systems to mark me as senior. I'll know when I've met that definition - dribbling will apply to my state of health rather than my limited soccer skills. That's my yardstick but, in the meantime, I'll keep fooling myself while taking full advantage of any discounts that seniority might deliver.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The social media challenge for regulators

I heard this week, probably some time after everyone else, that the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) has released a discussion paper on guidelines that could apply to the use of social media by the financial services sector. I have to say a 'discussion paper' on social media sounds like something of a paradox. Why not just start up the discussion on a Facebook page (yep. ASIC is on FB) or have a crack at opening up discussion on Twitter? It might cast a light on some of the challenges we face!

I have to ask is there any point to a discussion paper on social media? Isn't this a bit piecemeal? As communications strategists, we don't consider social media in isolation, but part of a multi-channel, organic whole. So why would a regulator not consider a review of the entire disclosure regime with social media included as an integrated component?

To consider it alone is like the discussion that led to Product Disclosure Statements. Why wasn't incorporation by reference to website information integrated into the PDS discussion in the first place, rather than having PDSs considered as a stand-alone communication? Let's face it, the Financial Services Reform Act became effective from 10 March 2004 (who thought of that date), by which time we all had websites.

There's no doubt that the industry needs guidelines on social media's fit into the regulatory matrix. The disclosure requirements for the financial services sector are outdated by virtue of being geared to print media and, to some degree, traditional websites. Try putting full disclaimer into 140 characters on Twitter! What about throwing a few extra lines of disclaimer in an SMS? Users will not tolerate it.

The biggest challenge for social media integration is not disclosure, but engagement in two-way conversations. What are the rules around archiving? Is there any need to archive? How can social media conversations be captured and interfaced with more traditional communications channels such as call centres? Imagine a call centre employee picking up a call from a customer who claims to have just been 'speaking' with someone from your organisation on Twitter. What evidence does that operator have of promises made, advice given and so on?

These are questions that must  be answered before social media can be fully integrated into wider communications and engagement strategies. Until then, we've only got a toe in the edge of the pond. One-way, outbound conversations will not deliver desired outcomes in the social media space.

However, I believe that any brand-conscious business should not be relying on the regulators to answer these questions. It is in the best interest of effective and rewarding customer relations that organisations answer these challenges. As usual regulation is only required to look after the interests of consumers potentially exposed to unscrupulous operators.

Will consideration of appropriate social media regulations provide new perspectives on those we already have for more traditional channels and produce overall improvement in communications? I fear that by considering social media as yet another stand-alone channel, we could just add an overlay of unique regulations or amendments that will further complicate an already muddy customer interface. It would be much better to launch a more holistic discussion of communications channels.

Brand no longer a marketing function

I attended the annual Rainmaker Marketing Symposium this week, a talkfest for marketing and investment types from the Aussie financial services sector. One presentation from Julie Bennett, Principal of 64 Media, got me thinking about where brand rightfully sits within organisations now. Julie ran through her version of the differences between marketing and PR functions within organisations.

This is a oft-regurgitated discussion and Julie's list of responsibilities were interesting. I actually challenge the value of the term 'PR' these days. It has unfortunately been defamed too often through association with hucksters, frauds and spin to have any credibility. But that's a discussion for another day. Julie's list, while not specifically identifying brand within the PR portfolio, certainly included the key ingredients of brand - reputation and corporate citizenship, stakeholder relations and so on.

Admittedly, Julie is from the PR industry so this could perhaps be seen as a lunge to secure the territory. After all, in terms of influence within progressive corporations, steering brand trumps marketing and/or communications any day. Not belittling these activities at all, but strategy flows from brand, not vice versa.

Not everyone will agree with  this assertion of course. Financial, legal, compliance, investment and a host of other professionals and executives will not see their activities as subordinate to brand. But the reality is that all other activities are, by definition, subordinate to the organisational values and ethos - whether this is formally recognised and expressed or not. Brand is the expression within and projection into the community of underlying organisational values.

Those organisations that understand this will not make any governance, financial, ethical, product or service decision without evaluating how it aligns with brand. Brand is a focal point for everything an organisation stands for.

How many organisations lose customers because their actions are not authentic - truly aligned with the values they communicate to community? Even the mighty Apple brand lost its way for a time when it stepped back from servicing and appealing to the creative industries to pursue the mainstream corporate market with beige boxes built to a price.

When Steve Jobs took his sabbatical, executives failed to realise that its traditional market was a rich source of early adopters and trend setters. The company quickly enjoyed a resurgence when it returned to its core traditions of breaking new ground with slick, appealing design and market-leading user interfaces.

Apple doesn't have customers, it has a community that belongs to it. Nokia, Blackberry and others will never crack the Apple customer base in any serious way, because it's not about price, distribution or even features. It's about Apple.

And that's what Julie's presentation this week highlighted. The marketing list did not include relationship and community development. The communications function did. Therefore, in my view, marketing cannot own brand. It is too one-dimensional, too sales-oriented. Brand is not about making a sale. That is merely a single component. From a brand perspective, the first sale is merely the first customer experience of an organisation.

From there, through on-going interaction, brand is the delivery of a series of consistent, positive experiences through the life of the customer. The outcome of that is favourable customer pre-disposition for repeat sales. Marketing merely leverages that pre-disposition.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Political campaigns - branding on steroids?

I promise this will be my last entry on the Aussie election campaign. But there is a strange mesh between what I've been observing and what someone said to me the other week about merging with another organisation.

He said that achieving stakeholder buy-in to a merger, and the launch of a new brand, requires running a campaign - more akin to a political campaign than an advertising campaign. Great time to suggest this don't you think? I almost wanted to rush home and take notes as Tony and Julia traded blows - or at least their campaign teams did.

But I resisted the temptation. As I remarked the other week, with a merger planned for completion in about two years, it would be hard to 'maintain the rage', to quote a line from a bygone political campaign, for such an extended period. Stakeholders Australia-wide would drink to that notion as the electronic media blackout on election advertising descended the other night.

Every election we choose from two brands (with due respect to the Greens and Bob Brown, who I can predict with certainty won't be prime minister on Sunday). The campaigns promoting them are branding on steroids. They're brands muscling up to each other, with messages often trying to encourage us to forget brand heritage as we look to the future.

What does this leave us with? Will we actually buy into one of these brands, or are we comparing two commoditised products from which we will ultimately select the one that will cost us less? How often could you get away in the commercial world, with a brand strategy based on debunking competitors?

This is what makes political campaigns fascinating from a brand perspective and that's why I disagree that running a political campaign to secure stakeholder buy-in for a company merger is not quite right. Selling a merger will require close attention to identifying and promoting positive attributes. I haven't seen much evidence of this in the 2010 election campaign.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rules for you don't apply to me

I'm already having withdrawal symptoms. No more election adverts as the blackout descends upon us. There's peace in our TV time. The war between 'phony Tony' and 'real Julia' is silent. No need for the NBN now, as we don't have to rush images of the two protagonists quickly around Australia with gigabit efficiency.

We can now sit and ponder, as the battle moves to the editorial pages and - God forbid! - our local shopping centre, did anyone think that Tony would have been on a winner if he'd promised to "Stop the adverts!"? Promise to stop meddling with Julia's hair which, according to Liberal Party advertising images, remains unmoved as here eyes and head swivel underneath it. And move to prevent any further images of his own, sepia, wild-eyed stare in Labor's adverts.

And what about banning the designer-daubed construction worker in Labor's ads, who uses the boss's time to promote the employment-saving benefits of the government stimulus package? I wondered whether the building site behind him was one of those sites where a house burned down due to dodgy insulation. "You've lost my vote Mr Abbott." he proclaims, raising the question as whether Neilsen or one of the other pollsters remembered to include this negative for the Libs into their latest figures.

And in the blue corner, the Libs counter with footage of a train wreck from the steam era - a methaphor for Labor's poor economic management, or am I thick and missing the point? Don't be surprised if this is recycled in a few months' time by the Victorian Libs in their campaign about the plight of public transport.

You see, the withdrawal symptoms are evident. I actually remember all this stuff and even think about it when I'm officially blacked out. Why do I remember it? Because it's so laughable. I guess humour is emotional engagement of a kind, the thing all of us who promote brands strive for.

Perhaps in financial services, we should use train wrecks as metaphors for the state of your finances post-GFC, or images of rebuilding to represent the scramble to recoup your retirement savings in the later years of your working life. Of course, we'd have to include a lengthy disclaimer along the lines of "this image may or may not reflect the state of your personal finances".

It's amazing what you can get away with in some spheres of marketing communications and not others. But perhaps not so when you realise that politicians set the rules for marketing and disclosure, with one key exemption - themselves!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Julia v. Tony - the battle for authenticity

Have you noticed anything different about the "real Julia"? Since she declared a fortnight ago that the authentic "Julia" brand would be unleashed, I've hardly noticed any difference. She gets out a bit more, tossing coins to start footy games, chatting with truck drivers, cuddling babies - it's just 'so Julia', the hard-edged industrial lawyer and political apparatchik.

Anyone who knows anything about branding would know that it would have been much better for her to morph without making the formal acknowledgement that she'd been faking it for several weeks - a concept, by the way, that I don't think I should discuss with my young daughter!

Recognition of authenticity is earned not declared. It's Branding 101 stuff and not comprehending this just reflects inexperience that must pervade the advisory ranks of the Labor Party. As soon as you have to design an "authentic" label your brand's on the road to ruin.

As for brand Tony, we've seen no declaration of where or when the "real Tony" might have started or finished. The Labor heavies quickly dropped the quip "phony Tony", famously the result of the Kerry O'Brien 'gospel truth' interview. That might have been because they were suddenly about to acknowledge a fair level of phonyness in their own ranks.

I tend to believe that, loath him or love him, Tony Abbott is pretty true to brand, even though he seems to have suddenly become really focused on fishing and learning the fine arts of filleting (is this a metaphor for the disposal of Malcolm Turnbull by Nick Minchin and his troops?). Whoops ... sorry, there's no leadership coups in the Liberal Party!

I mean, who could possibly create, or even seek to create, a brand like Tony - a love child of Catholicism and Howard Conservatism? A progeny who would send Moses home if his basket inadvertantly washed up on Australia's northern shores, but only after consulting with Pharoah.  A man who wants to stop boats, stop the NBN, stop debt, stop just about everything. And he means it.

I know Tony's authentic because he declares he 'is not Bill Gates' when he talks about his plan to short-change us on broadband. He's dead right. Bill Gates has vision that Tony will never have, despite the compromised software his company foists on us.

So we have authenticity (perhaps) versus self-declared authenticity. Like many Aussies, I find myself not convinced about either brand. But I'm not going to adopt the Mark Latham 'blank paper' strategy. I'll head off to the ballot box, complete the sheet of paper and make a choice. I can always return the goods to the store in three years time if the elected leader doesn't live up to the brand promise - authentic or otherwise.

Is understanding customer expectations like reading alphabet soup?

Just completed an annual round of customer satisfaction research. What does it tell me? Pretty much what every piece of research about the superannuation industry is saying right now - people have lost faith as investment returns have taken a battering and superannuation administration and communications platforms fail to live up to 21st Century expectations.

You see, the bods who built the administration platforms 30 years ago are still influential in driving customer satisfaction downwards. They were platforms built when the world was a quieter place and customers weren't so vocal, or networked. They were built when you defined customers as numbers and transaction histories rather than people. Their legacy still lives on.

Overall satisfaction with communications in our survey has hardly moved for over three years, yet the supposed underlying drivers of satisfaction in this area have improved immensely. I might say with some pride that the underlying improvements are because we actually act on our customer research - re-prioritising and fine-tuning the points of customer pleasure and pain.

The question is: if the underlying drivers have improved by over 50% in some instances over two years, why has overall satisfaction not commensurately improved? In fact, there is almost no customer touchpoint, except printed newsletters, that have not improved their scores over the period. Is finding the solution like reading alphabet soup, or is there an obvious explanation?

Although not obvious, I think the answer lies in the relevance and customisation of communications. Superannuation fund customers want stuff that makes sense to them. So reporting the investment returns for each investment option every month is 'nice to see', but largely 'irrelevant to me'. When you have a big chunk of the population that has no notion of how to calculate a percentage, publishing what we do fails to communicate. Customers want to receive communications that do the calculations for them. 'If I am invested in investment options X, Y and Z, translate those monthly returns into the actual dollars I have made after tax, fees and other costs have been taken out'. They don't just want to see their account balance, they want a report on how much they made. After all, that's what investment's all about isn't it?

The other factor is timing. The old quarterly newsletter cycle is bunk. It's useless. When you need to say something, it's usually not in sync with the regular cycle and when you have a newsletter to publish, there's generally nothing to say other than issue more trite reminders about how it's good for you to invest or save more.

No period highlighted this more than the GFC, which tossed investment markets and investor confidence around mercilessly - and is still shaking out in the form of market volatility. When people are losing money, or think they are losing more than they should, they're hypersensitive to the relevance and timeliness of information and they're thirsty for it. They want to log into the website and see, if necessary, a daily summary of their total position in dollar terms, with all their accounts displayed on a single screen and how much they made - or lost.

And this is where the industry's technology platforms are failing investors. Almost with exception, they deliver this information, but not in a consolidated and interpretive form that makes sense to customers, who are often anxious and apprehensive, but far from knowledgeable.

Customers expect and need personalised information. The want dashboards they can configure online to present information in the way they prefer or understand it, the convenience of access via their preferred mobile device, and printed statements that are unencumbered by reams of disclaimers and notes that create suspicion about 'the small type' rather than clarity.

Yes. I know exactly why improvements in touch point scores does not result in an improvement in overall communications score. We're given credit for the quality of our existing touch points, but many customer expectations are forging ahead - demanding more 'on demand' and information formatted how they want it on the media they choose.

We've got a long way to go...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Choosing a research partner

I've been going through the process with colleagues of considering alternative research partners to undertake the critical task of researching the underlying values of two organisations on the road to merger. Sensibly, over the course of the past fortnight, we have melded the brand and communications research with the human resource group's activities to ensure we get the best heads around understanding corporate cultures.

The process has encouraged me to revisit my thinking around the selection of brand partners, given extra poignancy by the fact that the objective is to select partners capable of satisfying the criteria of two quite cultural distinct organisations.

For the most part, the best research companies offer similar technical capabilities, but what emerges during presentations are quite different perspectives and individual styles. We have found criteria bubbling to the surface that have less to do with the technical capabilities of potential providers, but their personalities.

We are considering characteristics such as the likely performance of key individuals in the prospective organisations when presenting to two boards. And a key aspect of this is depth of experience outside of research - the ability to translate data into strategic recommendation.

We left the initial invitation to present credentials quite open to provide potential research partners to demonstrate insight and experience beyond our own. There was no point, in my view, in setting up a tight framework that may constrain original thinking and perspectives.

We have wrapped up presentations now and are on the road to locking in a decision. I suspect that I know the outcome. It will be the company and individuals that have the best prospect of, not only providing good data, but also the capacity to help us build a brand story that will ensure stakeholder buy-in from board to call centre levels.

In the end, human endeavour is all about dreams, stories and journeys. And brands personify companies. All we need is for the data to unearth a story.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Broadband isn't a luxury - it's a basic service

Any communicator or market worth their salt should be voting for the best and fastest broadband option available. It's a basic tool of the trade - with bandwidth and speed to the maximum number of people for the maximum amount of time unleashing enormous opportunities to communicators and consumers alike.

From a business perspective, it can deliver a competitive edge internationally, not just in Australia. There are already some communications and marketing businesses taking advantage of time zone differences to produce and finesse content here ready for the first breakfast meeting overseas later that day (think about it!).

And effective competition in our business is not just about superior ideas and creative, it's about being able to deliver those ideas - many of them in the form of large audiovisual or even print-ready files - to customers when they want them.

As we think about the relative merits in the imminent Australian Federal Election of Labor's $43 billion fibre to home concept and the LNP's collage of various technologies (for around $6 billion), we should consider what this network has to deliver. Unfortunately, I believe it's often discussed within the framework of 'internet'. For some, this means simply being able to read emails which, I think, is why we get such crazy arguments about not needing the bandwidth and speed of fibre optics. That's why businesses with skin in the game should stand up and be counted on this as a primary election issue.

Through this broadband pipe, we increasingly pump television, general telecommunications, movies on demand. online games and so on. And the variety and volume of content is but one dimension of the increased demand on the delivery network. Look at the phenomenal growth of social networking sites like Facebook, the new users they introduce to the web, the exponential number of new links created, the thirst for bandwidth demanded by hi-resolution on-line games and movie entertainment.

I am sure all of us can think of great products that have been compromised to the point of underperformance in function, appeal and sales simply because some bean counter said by eliminating such and such a feature or design element would save $nat's..... per unit. Of course, I'm not suggesting $37 billion is a piffling amount. But peel away the price sticker and look at the value before making a decision.

We're in the information age. Users are increasingly paying for content and access - and they're prepared to do it. Mobile communications would not be in the midst of a boom and iPads would be unsaleable if people were not prepared to pay for content delivered how and when they wanted it. Let's take the broadband decision out of the three-year election cycle and look at its benefits long term.

And by the way, I'm not ruling the low-cost option out. I'm just sceptical!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Are you in control of your brand?

It was great to see one superannuation fund CEO emerge from the pack to demonstrate an understanding of the essence of brand, in an industry otherwise generally bereft of any concept of the value brand delivers to organisations. The champion? Tony Lally of Sunsuper, who argued that, despite the free discourse facilitated by social media, companies still retained control of their brand.

In the opposite corner was Deloitte Digital CEO, Pete Williams, who pushed the alternative argument oft heard in brand circles now (particularly those of social media inclination) that brands are controlled by consumers. Pete argued that this was by virtue of their freedom to disseminate and amplify brand messages, both good and bad, through social networks.

So what do I think? And 'who cares?' you may possibly ask. Well, regardless of your level of caring, I'm going to proceed to tell you (exit here if you wish).

On the continuum of brand control from 100% organisation to 100% consumer, I'm going to give it 95% to organisation. And the reasons were clearly expressed by Tony Lally. Brand is not about your name, your logo or your advertising. It is about underlying values and the consumer expectations they engender. Aligning these is what effective brand management is about. It's about how you engage with customers, how your products perform and your organisational integrity.

All of these are levers controlled within your organisation. Sure, you'll never please 100% of the people 100% of the time and one disgruntled customer my possibly use Pete's social channels to amplify a negative message many thousands of times. But there are mechanisms for dealing with this - identification and resolution of the issue, conversing with your online community and so on.

My argument is that organisations who are getting brand management right will share control of their reputation with consumers, because consumer expectations will precisely align with brand values. Under these conditions, consumers will merely amplify an organisation's brand values through their social networks, whether online or alongside the weekend BBQ with a tinnie in hand.

An organisation that achieves this alignment has nothing to fear from social media, because the channel is merely a vehicle for... damn it... there used to be an old-fashioned term for this... what was it? Ah, got it! Word of mouth.