Opinion

Cut the complexity: marketing in a post-Royal Commission world

What can financial services marketers learn from their sector’s annus horribilis? Copywriter Sara Howard believes choosing better words will help, for a start.

The Hayne Royal Commission has led to a year of hand-wringing and heartfelt apologies, of horror customer stories and broken reputations. But while poor governance, misguided culture and gaps in basic operational processes all share the blame, the very last thing marketers should do is retreat into vanilla, risk-averse language.

Here’s what we know. First, trust in the banking, finance and insurance sector is at an all-time low. That’s not a matter for debate: the latest report of the Ethics Index shows how confidence has been eroded by scandal after scandal.

Secondly, we cannot ignore the commission’s spotlight on financial literacy. Many consumers simply don’t know the right questions to ask a banker, broker or financial adviser. They don’t understand what they’re signing up for, or how that decision will affect the rest of their life.

There’s no doubt financial products are complex things to explain. But so are many other products – as anyone who writes for technology or industrial brands knows. These are big, life-impacting choices. Brands have a responsibility to communicate clearly given the link between low financial literacy and poor financial wellbeing – as well as the significant gender divide.

Without clarity in the language we use to describe product features, processes, or even business values and behaviours, both customers and staff become frustrated and confused. They inevitably make poor decisions. I believe better words can help.

Cut the complexity

Overly-complicated marketing takes many forms. It could be the use of long-winded legalese, rather than plain English. It could be ambiguous product names, or confusing pricing that makes it impossible to compare whole-of-life costs (I’m looking at you, stepped life insurance policies). Or it could simply be a long laundry-list of jargon-heavy features with no relevance to most people’s lives.

As PwC’s 2017 report into the future of Australian banking discussed, there really is very little difference between most banking products. So let’s stop trying to fake it with marketing spin. Instead, focus that energy on customer value – show (rather than tell) the difference you can make to their life.

In a commoditised industry, that’s the only way to avoid competing on price.

Fix the foundations

Does your brand have a tone of voice and written style guide? Great. But does everyone who writes on behalf of the brand know it exists? And does it do more than attempt to differentiate that brand with a quirky personality?

Imagine if every bank or super fund made sure one element of their voice was ‘clear’, ‘straightforward’ or ‘simple’. No matter what you do, or how intelligent you think your audience is, no one will ever thank you for making your message too hard to understand. Building in product complexity does not make your advice more needed, it just continues to disengage.

So if you commit to cutting out complexity, this is where it begins.

Get compliance and creative working in harmony

Many marketers, and their agencies, live in fear of the compliance team ruining their brilliant creative. But in reality, you need a robust legal and compliance review process for everything that goes out the door. Everything. Otherwise you risk fines for misleading claims, as millennial super fund Spaceship found.

If you can produce a PDS the average Australian not only understands but would bother to read, you’ve hit gold. It is possible – it just requires some clear thinking up front.

Create content that they can’t ignore

Financial services marketers are investing more than ever in content – and without it, we can’t help to fix that financial literacy gap. But how do you spark interest in things like insurance or (yawn) retirement savings?

This has to start with knowing your customer and what they really, truly care about. For example, Prudential is working hard to cut through to younger audiences with its video series and study into the 80-year-old millennial. Think about how you can share valuable, relevant, snackable, relatable content via video, podcasts, interactive tools or nurture journeys to empower current and prospective customers make smarter financial choices.

Solve problems no one else seems to care about

As major banks are forced to streamline their product lines, reduce conflict across business units and tighten their lending requirements, it’s likely we’ll see the continued rise of the smaller, specialist provider. And they’ll look for segments with unmet needs – such as gig economy freelancers, Generation Z, or people who have recently separated.

They’re not necessarily looking for a new credit card or super fund. Every conscious financial choice they make is part of a much bigger wheel of life decision: renovate or move, start a new business, re-think their career, retire sooner so they can keep ticking off the bucket list.

That’s what they care about. And if your brand really is committed to putting the customer (not shareholders) at the heart of every decision, you’ll show you care about that too.

But only if you also show you’re prepared to consistently, in everything you do, cut out the complexity. That’s the only way to rebuild trust in a post-Royal Commission world.

Sara Howard runs copywriting and content agency Writers Australia.

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