GUEST COLUMN: Why everything in financial services marketing is a triangle

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.

Having nearly completed a 40-year stretch of chiselling away at the financial services marketing, branding and advertising coalface, I thought it was about time to ask myself if I’d learned anything worth passing on.

One point stood out:  everything in financial services branding, marketing and advertising is a triangle.

Some things are obviously triangles, so you won’t be very impressed when I point them out.  Demographics is full of them:  we’re all familiar with the Triangle of Wealth, with millions of people lacking in wealth at the bottom and Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos at the top.  And there’s the Triangle of Age, with billions of kids at the bottom and Methuselah at the top.

But there are millions in other fields, in FS and way beyond.  A few seconds’ thought comes up with guitarists:  millions of people who can’t even play Smoke On The Water at the bottom, a stack of half-decent strummers in the middle and Hendrix, 50-odd years after his death, still at the top.  Or cinema-goers, with many never going, lots going occasionally and Mark Kermode going several times a day.  Or social media users.  Or hayfever sufferers.  Or malt whisky fans.  Or Big Mac eaters.  Or hat-wearers.  And so on.

I should acknowledge at this point, before you get there first, that not all triangles have identically-sloping sides.  Some have zillions of people at the bottom, and then no-one much till you reach the top:  I think of my friend Simon Harris, who’s one of a handful of people who play an obscure and virtually extinct game called Real Tennis, which no-one else plays at all.  And quite a lot of triangles, a little confusingly, have a middle layer which is wider than the bottom layer:  I’d guess, for instance, that more people use Google occasionally than never use it at all.   That makes for a shape which does rather stretch the meaning of the word “triangle”.

But be all that as it may, let’s move back a bit closer to home, and remember that this is, after all, a Financial Services Forum blog.  And with that in mind, let’s focus in on some of the triangles that matter in the field of FS branding, marketing and advertising.

I mentioned the most widely-recognised one, the Triangle of Wealth, already.  But actually some of the more attitudinal and less quantifiable ones are more important.  Perhaps the most important is the Triangle of Engagement, which consists of a small number of hardcore financial anoraks at the top, a lot of people who are mildly interested in the middle and loads who know nothing and care less at the bottom.  Then there’s the Triangle of Appetite for Risk.  And the Triangle of Openness to Experimentation and Innovation.  And the Triangle of Responsibility Towards Others.  And the Triangle of Trustingness.  And the Triangle of Readiness to Accept Deferred Gratification.   (Some of these triangles have offputtingly long and clunky names, but that’s financial services for you, I suppose.)

For marketers, all triangles pose the same basic targeting dilemma:  do you target the small number of people who already do a lot of whatever it is, or the much, much larger number of people who do little or none of it?  It’s a tough call.  The former are relatively easy to reach and persuade, but there aren’t many of them and they’re unlikely to remain loyal;  the latter are the opposite, difficult and expensive to reach and persuade but available in large numbers and unlikely to switch once recruited.

Self-directed investment is a market where this issue has driven the dynamic for decades.  Here in the UK, there are a few million people at the top of the triangle, doing the vast bulk of the self-directed investing, while below there are many more millions doing much, much less, and many doing none at all.   In addition to being much fewer in number, the active group are massively targeted by competitors, and probably have existing relationships that may be hard to disrupt.  But targeting the hordes on the lower slopes is heavy going – even persuading them to notice your messages is hard, and motivating them to adopt new behaviours is ferociously difficult.

Of course everything I’m saying here is no more than the briefest of summaries of the first chapter of Teach Yourself Segmentation, and doesn’t everyone with any interest in marketing understand this most basic of principles already?

Well, up to a point, maybe.  But I still think that many of us in and around the industry, personally living lives in and around the upper levels of a great many of the triangles, fail to realise just how different things are down on the lower slopes.  The Triangle of Engagement is perhaps the best example.  Time and again, we fail to realise just how disengaged most people are in whatever it is that we’re offering, and we come up with products, propositions and communications which never stand a chance of breaking through their indifference and achieve absolutely no engagement at all.

And there’s another common mistake with similar consequences – underestimating the difficulty of achieving upward movement from lower levels to higher.  I learned this lesson from the massive Government privatisation campaigns of the Thatcher era, and the belief that once people had enjoyed the benefits of owning shares in previously-nationalised industries, they’d evolve into far more active and enthusiastic investors in the stock market more generally.

But most really didn’t.  The large majority quickly flogged their British Gas, British Telecom and British Airways shares, and put the money back into the savings accounts, Premium Bonds and bricks and mortar options which they’d always favoured.   People at the top of triangles are ready to adopt new behaviours.  People lower down aren’t.

Which brings me to one last triangle – the Triangle of Marketing Innovations That Have Achieved Mass Market Success In Recent Years.  For all the efforts that have been made and marketing budgets that have been spent, remarkably few new and innovative ideas stand at the pinnacle of their respective triangles.  I think I can only come up with one – price comparison sites – that has really got to the top in the last 30 years or so, although some might make a case for various deeply dodgy investment propositions involving hideous risks and crypto currencies.

And finally, come to think about it, I do have one other piece of learning to pass on, although you may well be there ahead of me – explaining that you work in financial services marketing really doesn’t work as a conversation starter.

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