Stick of rock
Confecting brands, integrity and trust in financial services with branding and business creativity expert Mark Taylor
Words: Mark Taylor
Illustration: Eric Campbell
The humble stick of rock was once a powerful symbol of collective memories and shared experiences … the great British seaside holiday. Countless resorts up and down the country proudly produced and promoted their stick of rock, with the unique name of their town shot through the centre in dayglo pink, for people to take home as a reminder of their carefree holidays.
At a moment in history when the reputation of financial services companies of all colours and flavours remains laid low after the ravages of the last financial crisis, the simple stick of rock offers us a port in a storm, a life raft on rough, open seas and a lighthouse for calmer times.
Simply stated the ‘stick of rock’ is a great metaphor for trust, integrity, a good business and a brilliant brand: a cohesive, sticky body, wrapped around a clear ‘message’, consistently expressed no matter at what point or indeed stage you ‘break’ that stick of rock.
A good business is a clear, cohesive and consistent force, like a stick of rock: an arrangement of resources and assets all sticking together through a unifying culture and values, in the collective pursuit of a driving purpose.
A brilliant brand is also a collective force of consumer and company employee aligned and engaged with the same compelling and competitive meaning of that company, in their hearts and minds.
Financial services (FS) businesses and brands that are truly sticky are few and far between (although I have been lucky enough to work on a few crackers like Artemis — The Profit Hunter, Threadneedle, Avantia Insurance and NatWest).
But the sad truth is that many FS businesses/‘brands’ are more like Mr Whippy than a stick of rock … highly aerated confections, sitting precariously atop a bog-standard, generic and flimsy base, constantly at risk of melting at the slightest rise in emotional temperature. Financial services, as we all know, were for too long hooked on the rationalities of product, performance and process. And whilst some companies evolved their ‘propositions’ (a very rational notion in itself) into the warmer climes of emotional positioning and CRM, many did it badly — like Dad dancing on a crowded dance floor.
There was also too much focus on frothed-up communication and too little attention paid to the fundamental, underlying importance of the depth and substance of the organisation, its people and what they actually do. They largely ignored the important, day-to-day business of what the company did, how it did it and why it did it in the first place.
“Simply stated the ‘stick of rock’ is a great metaphor for trust, integrity, a good business and a brilliant brand: a cohesive, sticky body, wrapped around a clear ‘message’, consistently expressed no matter at what point or indeed stage you ‘break’ that stick of rock.”
It was style over substance, and still is in many cases. It’s so much easier to communicate than to be. Communications have become such a key part of the way that FS companies do business and ‘connect’ with their audiences. But the problem is that whilst some communication, at the frontiers of creativity and imagination, is actually able to connect with consumers, most of it falls short — communications peppered with stereotype and littered with facts masquerading as ‘insights’.
Communications have become pieces of Nike-like legislation … Just Do It! Not based on the fundamental desire to share the business and promote engagement.
Communications, I often quip to clients, are actually what you do if you fail to make enough friends and impact by actually doing interesting and valued things in the first place. Many ‘cult’ brands in many sectors, from Innocent in drinks to Octopus in finance, have been built through their actions not communications, deeds not words. They have a point of view and they do things to bring that point of view to active life, through their business deeds. They’ve understood that to be a brand is to share an idea with people inside the company and outside. It’s about offering a shared agenda that is furthered through the collective actions of its participants, rather than a raft of one-way communications plans, ostensibly designed to try and control a relationship between company and consumer.
Relying on just communications in a financial firestorm, such as we inherited post 2007, is a bit like trying to put out fires with a petrol-sozzled beer mat.
When the meltdown enveloped the industry, company credibility and trust burnt up in seconds. Leaving just the badly charred remnants of ice cream cone business after ice cream cone business.
Brands are trust and trust is fundamental. Trust was damaged because money was lost. Personal relationships built from decades of expensive communications campaigns vaporised. The shutters on the front desk of consumer confidence in banks and others came down and stayed down. Consumers were put back in their box and exposés of back-office dealings filled the media. Fragile trust, which requires openness, accountability and fulfilment of expectation, had buckled and burst.
Glass box business
And so all FS companies can be considered glass box businesses and we can see right through them. And this has made us all more cynical and more demanding than at any point in history. Consumers are the empowered ones in crowded, commoditising markets like financial services, increasingly democratised by technology and new ‘outsider’ competition.
We expect companies to do what they say, and only then say what they do.
We want them to mean something that they really truly mean.
We expect focus and truth to ooze from every corporate pore, cohesively. From how the business operates day-to-day, to whom they hire and promote, to whom they do and don’t do business with as business partners.
We expect them to exhibit consistency in their behaviours, which express their centre of gravity time and time again, not changing carousel-like with every new campaign, new agency hiring or company CEO. People want sticks of rock not Mr Whippy.
Stick of rock brands
Businesses that have achieved superior self-awareness, been asked provocative questions and developed truthful, compelling answers, are the ones that transcend into stick of rock businesses and brands — financial brands you can trust with the holy trinity of integrity, depth and substance. Brands that are verbs.
How to make rock? It’s surprisingly simple …
1) First, you need to identify the sticky core of what will sit at the centre of the business and cause adhesion of all parts of the company to it. This is what the company is all about and here to do. What do you stand for? It’s not a confection, it’s the core truth of who you are, what you do and why you do it.
2) Second, you’ll need to be comfortable working and re-working the sweet, sticky stuff that can create cohesion between people, into a unifying culture of shared values, beliefs and stories.
What I refer to as “coadhesion” is at the heart of creating a stick of rock brand in financial services (as in any other market space).
It’s a set of strategic principles that foster internal brand alignment and engagement, to turn a business into a brand and employees into ambassadors, at every level, every day.
But for financial services, the concept is doubly apt and essential because of the superior deficit of trust and integrity amongst FS companies in recent times.
Re-building it will take time. It’s a fundamental review and re-invention of something as basic but powerful as purpose and culture. Increment list fiddling with the ice cream flavours or the shape of cone won’t be enough.
We are talking sticks of rock. And all that means asking some very uncomfortable questions of a business and its very raison d’être.
The process for that journey back to basics needn’t take forever or cost the earth, but it does need to be followed.
First look to define the ‘area of opportunity’ for the business, based on a thorough review of all the key areas of stimulus and influence for the business itself — the context of the market, the strategy, outlook and activity of the competition, consumer (or client) insights (needs/wants), and perhaps most critically, the internally and honestly assessed competencies and culture of the company itself.
This degree of facilitated self-awareness from within the business will prompt ideas and platforms on which to base the business solidly and with integrity for the future. Critically, because the phase involves understanding the current culture of the company, any emerging ‘positioning’ ideas will be supported by the reality of how things are done around here, as culture, providing some substance for the whole brand development process.
Defined precisely but with imagination, what will the brand you want to be, be about? Map out the basic purpose, values, idea, personality. Do it collaboratively. Marketing departments historically tend to own this because they get the lingo but share it. Brand should be a common currency shared amongst all parts of the company and its employees. Involve as wide a group of stakeholders from the business as you possibly can. From this approach comes greater representativeness and accountability. And better chances of human engagement from the outset.
Once the brand is nailed, it’s time to nail your colours to the mast, by re-appraising every aspect of the company and its people, in what they are doing for customers. How is and could the business be better ‘aligned’ behind the brand? This should take in everything from the basic structure of the business and how it faces the outside world (the brand architecture), products and services, HR policy, processes and procedures, physical environments, designed identities, alliances, partnerships, etc., etc.
Then there is the strategy for ensuring ongoing engagement of the company’s most important resources, its people, in the re-articulated direction and meaning of the business and its brand.
Not forgetting the customer in all this, attention turns to how each area of operation is stitched together to seamlessly deliver the brand and the customer experience that is itself cohesive and consistent. That takes a bit of effort and demands collaborative working across departments and disciplines as joined-up teams to craft a joined-up experience.
“Embarking on building a brand with stickiness and substance is a long-term, 24/7 commitment. It can’t be picked up and noisily run with, only to be put down quietly when another pressing priority is deemed to have arrived”
And finally … finally … there are those communications to plan. Well actually, more importantly, there is the content that the brand needs to deliver to engage with customers/clients, which is probably stickier stuff than traditional communications.
So where are we with our stick of rock?
We know consumers demand the depth and substance, integrity and trust symbolised in a stick of rock business and brand. We know what they look and feel like. We have some insight into how they can be built.
But the most important thing left is actually to start and commit to the journey. Making sticks of rock from financial services will be full of twists and turns. There will be sweet moments of truth but many moments of darkness and doubt with the potential to shatter the opportunity:
• Leadership never fully engaged in the idea of making rock in the first place
• People never had their say
• It was never a representative process
• Too much was attempted too soon/quickly
• Communications were still prized over observable behaviours (walking the talk)
• The purpose was not clear, the culture was not defined
• Nothing was measured, so success was elusive
• Another ‘initiative’ came along to take precedence
• Loss of momentum and energy and commitment
We should remember the prophetic words from the RSPCA: “A dog is for life not just for Christmas.” Embarking on building a brand with stickiness and substance is a long-term, 24/7 commitment. It can’t be picked up and noisily run with, only to be put down quietly when another pressing priority is deemed to have arrived.
The end of Mr Whippy
A stick of rock business and brand can be the ideal metaphor for how financial services companies under suspicion can re-discover their integrity and re-claim the clarity, cohesion and consistency of why they exist in the first place.
Such sticky thinking might allow them to once again bask in the sunshine of trust from the Great British public, whatever the financial climate.
This story is taken from the third issue of Poppy. Our print run is strictly limited but, if you are based in the UK, you can request a printed copy via the ReadPoppy.com website.
Mark Taylor has more than 23 years branding and business creativity experience, working with the likes of Unilever, Nesté, Rémy Cointreau, Artemis (The Profit Hunter), Standard Life and the soon be be reintroduced Great Western Railway. His independent company, Mr Taylor’s Brand Emporium provides counsel to big thinking boards and entrepreneurs needing to define and deliver brands with more inspiring difference and stronger internal engagement.