This year’s Christmas tree in the middle of Trafalgar Square caused a lot more comment than usual. While unmistakably a Christmas tree – what else could it be? – it was lacking a certain something that we normally associate with trees: branches. It was a bit sparse all over, but some regions down below were particularly draughty, with a pine count of essentially zero. No doubt, with a bit of clever bauble positioning and fairy-light draping, it could be dressed up to give a more satisfying feel, but would never reach the levels of fulsome generosity of the trees we carry in our idealised mental images.
Well, I thought, this might not be much of a tree but, repurposed, it could serve as a perfectly good metaphor. Because out there, all year round, are whole categories of brands like that. Unmistakably brands – what else could they be – but missing vital elements that we expect to be there. And dressed up with a bit of gaudy communications to divert our eyes from the inadequacy that lurks beneath.
Here are five brand sectors that could give that draughty tree a run for its money.
Sector: financial services – What’s missing: service
The dispiriting thing about engaging with financial services brands is that you know they will live up to only half of that description. I have no reason to doubt the financial expertise of the banks and building societies I deal with, but a litany of reasons, frustrations and sorry tales to make me despise their total lack of service ethic.
Contact centre lines go unanswered for hours – because “we are currently experiencing unusually high call volumes”. But if that message never changes, how can it be “unusual”? Online support systems invite you to ask a question, then require you to keep it to a single sentence, then inform you that you’ll need to call about that, after all.
They don’t care. In part, this is a reflection of the norm for all brands to compare their NPS scores only within the category. In financial services, the average score for the entire the sector is deep in negative territory. So, it’s perfectly possible for a marketing manager to declare: “Hey! Great news: our NPS is now minus 32 – one of the best in the industry!” From this ludicrous management myopia, a torrent of customer problems ensues.
Sector: luxury – What’s missing: insight
Luxury brands take themselves oh-so-seriously. They revere their founders to an unfeasible degree and embed their heritage in ‘codes and cues’ that are supposed to signal all the right things to only the right people. Fragrance brands in particular, with their grinding torsos and husky voice-overs declaiming parfum this and Frenchified slogan that, take the sector to the point of parody. Or maybe it’s deliberate parody; it’s hard to tell. Either way, you get the feeling they are all bauble and nothing of substance at all.
Maybe these brands understand their high-end consumers, or maybe they just all adhere to a series of tropes without really knowing why. You do get the impression, though, that one day everyone will see what isn’t there and declare the emperor naked. A little more humanity would not go untoward.
Sector: the high street – What’s missing: commitment
Nowadays it is a rare high street retailer that doesn’t appear to have one foot out of the door. They are striving to straddle the online and offline worlds and the tension shows. Stocks are often irritatingly low, but they offer to order for you online – negating the immediacy that’s the point of being in a shop. Click-and-collect might be convenient but turns the store into a kind of glorified warehouse. What kind of experience is that?
Some brands do ‘high street’ with commitment – Lush and Tiger (which has no online alternative) stand out for making the whole thing a memorable, multisensory experience. But other hearts just aren’t in it. Perhaps exciting new technology like ‘just walk out’ – where payment is achieved automatically through a system of computer vision and sensor fusion – will reinvigorate things. Perhaps.
Sector: B2B – What’s missing: distinction
B2B marketers do not have it easy because there is no such thing as ‘the customer’. It is always a buying chain, with many able to declare a veto and none with the power to give an unequivocal ‘yes’. With a committee where a customer should be, the tendency for brands is to smooth off any rough edges and assume a kind of corporate blandness. But that just plays into the hands of canny procurement professionals, who treat branded wares as commodities and seek to price accordingly.
Distinction is as vital as it is scary and could come in the form of imaginative pricing, more courageous positioning, intelligent service add-ons or – the element so often absent – genuine innovation. Otherwise, the commoditisers, discounters and bundlers will win the day.
Sector: mobile communications – What’s missing: the basics
According to an Opinium study in February this year, 54.4% of UK households receive a poor or non-existent signal at home. Seems like I am one of them. That doesn’t stop the UK’s longest-established provider from trying to upsell me though, with calls that go a bit like this:
Voda: Good morning, Mrs Edwards? It’s Jeff here from Vodafone, and I’m calling to see if you were happy with your current package.
Me: I’ll tell you what I’m not happy about – the Vodafone signal where I live is getting worse and worse.
Voda: Hello? Hello…? Mrs Edwards? I can’t…hello? Hello…?
I have only one thing to say to brands that try to squeeze more money out of hitherto loyal customers while simultaneously failing to deliver the basics. Goodbye.
The more critical out there will observe that this year’s Trafalgar Square tree did at least succeed in achieving something all brands crave: fame. Yes, it’s famous for being a crap tree, but its inadequacies are what made it stand out and grab more headlines than all the perfect trees before it.
But in the great brand forest, it is not the faulty brands that stand out. They are all too common. Most are missing something they really should be endowed with. The brands that get everyone talking are the generous, fulsome ones that do everything superbly well. They are rare. It would be nice to think that, by this time next year, there will be a few more of them.