No frills for finance

As the world faces economic gloom, financial services brands must focus on trust, not image, to promote themselves and to entice a new generation of customers. David Benady reports

Credit%20cardsBanks, insurers and pension providers struggle to turn their products into objects of desire because financial services lack the aspirational appeal of mobile phones, cars or trainers. As Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts might put it, they are far from being “love marks”.

But with a myriad of financial services brands promoting products from current accounts to savings, the sector uses design and communications on a massive scale.

“Everyone knows that the products and the sector are inherently dull, yet more briefs come out of that sector than almost any other,” says Peter Rae, creative director at design agency Curious.

“It is hard to think of an industry that does more to shape its products and services to the needs of consumers,” he says.

Balancing act

However, creating alluring, enticing designs for financial products is a delicate balancing act. “You are selling a product that may be complicated, where the person reading the ad may be slightly afraid of it and who has little interest in it anyway. The more approachable you can make it, the better,” says Adam Leigh, chief executive of direct marketing business The Communications Agency.

Crucial to the task is having a set of design guidelines that are flexible enough to allow a central theme to be used in thousands of pieces of communications, he believes. One example of strongly guided design is HSBC, which uses its red and white branding and logo in ads, branches and communications around the world.

An important role for branding and design in financial services is to increase visibility. Many people will not consider buying a financial product unless they are familiar with the company concerned. Heavy branding and communications are essential to give people confidence that this is not a fly-by-night operation that will melt into the air with their life’s savings.

“Brands matter in financial services,” says Paul Anderson, creative director of The Gate Worldwide. “Financial services brands don’t have any tangible points to them, unlike supermarket brands, where you can hold them in your hand, taste and feel them. Without a physical product it is hard to judge what the company is like – which is why branding is so important,” he adds.

But design is a double-edged sword for financial services brands. Banks, insurers and pensions companies have long failed to excite consumers with their communications. However, introducing high design standards and making the promotions easy on the eye and alluring can backfire. Many an appealing brand – from First Direct to Egg – attract customers who spend little on their credit cards or open a bank account for secondary purposes.

First Direct and Egg both revolutionised financial service branding in the Nineties and have spawned many imitators. They brought a simplicity and minimalism to financial service design that was a radical departure from the traditional logos that had dominated the sector until then.

Back to basics

First Direct’s branding was first created and designed by branding agency Wolff Olins, but was redesigned last year by the agency North Design. First Direct head of brand communications Lisa Wood explains: “We’ve gone very clean, we have stripped out the imagery, gone back to the original typography and it is all in black and white. We have used silver to accent the logo and give it a premium feel.”

One of the greatest drags on creativity in financial design is the requirement to stipulate certain terms and conditions. “You’ve got to have these things,” says Chris Pearce, business director at TMW. “So it is ridiculous to try to hide it away and act as if it doesn’t exist. The other view is trying to make a feature out of it in the ad,” he says.

Again First Direct has been a leader in simplifying and making a feature out of the terms and conditions while Virgin Money is considered to have done much to make the smallprint easy to read.

Importance of familiarity

Smallprint and wealth warnings helped create the impression that financial services are among the dullest brands around. But with the new style of direct and internet brands launched in the Nineties, banks and credit cards started wearing their baseball hats the wrong way round as they attempted to get down with a new generation of consumers.

However, with the advent of possibly the gravest financial crisis the world has faced since the Thirties, banks, insurers and pension providers are being forced to go back to basics and focus consumers’ attention on the issue of trust.

Building a sense of trust has always been at the bedrock of financial services brands, but the rise of youthful, designed-led financial brands in the Nineties shifted attention away from the traditional values of probity and confidence. These issues are back with a vengeance.

It is noteworthy that of the new entrants into the sector over the past two decades, the one that has probably fared best is Tesco Financial Services, which has used simple design derived from its supermarket branding. This reflects the importance of familiarity and trust in gaining success in financial services.

Creating more sober design and branding for financial products that inspire trust and confidence is now the order of the day for designers.

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