GUEST COLUMN: Financial marketing has a stock image problem

Lucian Camp

Brand & Marketing Consultant

Lucian Camp Consulting

Lucian Camp is a financial services brand consultant, copywriter, author and blogger. He co-presents the On The Other Hand podcast.

These days, very few financial marketing communications are built around any kind of creative idea –  least of all on the internet, where hardly any are.

Most – no matter whether they’re websites, social media pages or posts, online advertising, email marketing, whatever – are made up of a combination of words and pictures.  But the relationship between the two is loose to the point of non-existent, and neither words nor pictures relate in any way to any kind of overarching or unifying idea.

In a largely abstract, intangible world like financial services, this makes life very difficult for the designers and art directors who have to figure out what the pictures should be of.  The challenge is to come up with an approach which is reasonably attractive and engaging – but also, crucially, which makes sense to the consumer when presented without rationale or explanation.  If a designer chooses to illustrate a website with pictures of shellfish, say, or shoes, consumers are going to wonder what the hell they’re doing there.

By far the most widely-used solution to this problem is to show pictures of people – and, specifically, to show the target audience for the communication pictures of people who are supposed to represent themselves.  If it’s pensions, show pictures of retired people.  If it’s life assurance, show young families.  Business finance, show people in offices or factories.  And so on.

This can work pretty well in one situation, and one situation only:  when the target audience is so tightly-defined that you really can show them images of themselves that they will recognise and relate to.  Mountaineers like seeing pictures of people mountaineering.  Bass guitarists like seeing musicians with their instruments around their neck.  Archaeologists are pleased to see shots of excavations proceeding at Pompeii.

But target markets are very, very rarely as tightly-defined as these.  More often than not, we’re addressing great big diverse groups of people connected only by some kind of financial need which a) they may very well not even recognise they have, and b) doesn’t look like anything in a photograph anyway.  (What does “preparing for retirement” look like, for heaven’s sake?)

The consequence is obvious:  the designer heads off to the photo libraries in search of more or less the right kind of images of more or less the right kind of people.  Cost comes into the equation too:  if all we want is a couple of well-preserved sixty-somethings looking happily at the screen of a laptop, there’s certainly no point in getting David Bailey to shoot it, and not much point in paying the usage fee for a really good shot that someone really good took a few years ago.  There are plenty of very cheap royalty-free shots available:  admittedly the people are all obviously Americans and have an unbearable smugness about them, but the pictures do cost next to nothing.

But here’s the thing.  I’m convinced that this solution, near-universal as it is, really doesn’t work at all.  In fact, even worse, it seems to me that for many people in the target market the images we show them actually have the effect of alienating them and distancing them from the communication, and make them less likely to engage with whatever it’s offering them.

The reason is the very natural and very human tendency for people to respond to images that are supposed to represent them with an immediate, dismissive “That’s not me.”   Even when our kids were young enough for such things, we never ran photogenically along a beach with them balancing precariously on our shoulders.  Now that we’re older, my wife and I never sit side-by-side on the sofa smiling inanely and pointing at something that can’t be seen on a laptop.  We do have a dog, but not that kind of dog.  And Judy wouldn’t be seen dead in that ridiculous gilet.

And so it goes on.  The fact that the images are completely generic and fail to achieve any kind of differentiation is the obvious problem – but I’m suggesting that there’s a bigger problem that’s not quite so easy to spot, that the images that were supposed to draw people into the communication in fact have the effect of pushing them away from it.

I don’t suppose this problem is unique to financial services marketing, but it certainly affects us more than most.  In other sectors – cars, food, travel, technology – it’s fine to show people who are younger, better-looking and sexier than the target market:  older, less good-looking and not-very-sexy people will, we’re told, find such images aspirational.  But so many financial services are lifestage-specific that this approach really wouldn’t make any sense:  you can’t show a bunch of glamorous partying twenty-somethings, whether obviously American or not, in a retirement income communication.

I suppose I ought to admit that I don’t actually have any evidence for any of this, and there are several reasons why I might feel more strongly about it than most people do.  For one thing, I spend a lot more time than most looking at this terrible stuff and becoming increasingly irritated by it;  for another, as a paid-up life member of the National Contrarian Society (well, I would be if there was one) I hate being treated as any kind of member of any kind of crowd;  and of course thirdly, as an ex-ad agency creative director, I look back fondly at the good old days when original, exciting, entertaining ideas lay at the heart of our communications and gave the words and pictures brilliant opportunities to break distinctive and brand-specific new ground.

Still, I live in hope.  If there’s anyone out there who wants a website with no families on beaches or wrinklies with laptops, I’d be more than pleased to hear from them.

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