Why asset management comms are samey and boring, and what you can do about it.

Tom Knox, Executive Partner at MullenLowe

 

In asset management standardised communications seem to be a given.

Our recent semiotic analysis (a science of signs that explores how they communicate and generate meaning) unearthed some fascinating insights into why the likes of UBS, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs present a homogenous face to the world. Partnering with the OI agency, we were keen to explore the reasons behind this homogenous approach, in order to better understand the impact it might be having.

There are powerful forces at play which combine to make communications in asset management deliberately boring. You could say it’s a conspiracy of consistency.

Reinforcement of trust is the primary objective of brand communications in this category, not least because the decision to invest large sums of money is predominantly influenced by direct customer experience and personal recommendation.

Framing trust as the main category asset

Put simply, these are four immutable narratives which all asset management players deploy as building blocks of trust.

  1. ‘We have big knowledge.’

In a category where knowledge is literally power, the absolute price of entry is the assertion of global intelligence into markets. This is what leads to the presentation in most communications of maps of the world, intelligent people huddled over computers and visualisations of vast reams of data.

  1. ‘We can control the future.’

The category world view is entirely quantitative. Intense mathematical abstraction is the way to assert control over the future. Surprise and chance are the enemy. This is what leads to the conservative conformity of art direction in the category; the neatly delineated systems and boxes, and the abstract language that turns wars into ‘volatility’ and businesses into ‘opportunities’.

  1. ‘We have a moral compass.’

The category has a standardised and rigid moral code in which ‘good’ is always equivalent to financial value and economic growth. Modern concepts of stewardship of the planet, inclusion and equal opportunity have recently been grafted onto the enduring notions of Protestant hard work and duty. This is not just about making people richer, there’s also a higher goal of shared wellbeing.

  1. ‘We enable middle class lives.’

The specific purpose of all of this wealth generation, and the summation of the category worldview, is in the common depiction of the end consumer. There is a remarkably narrow and consistent consensus on the kind of life that is enabled by financial security, manifested in clichéd depictions of middle-class life: the hand holding with young children, the sports, the college graduations and the holiday sunsets.

In summary, the message is always, “We know a ton of stuff, which stabilises reality and makes the future controllable. We’re governed by a sense of good. And we do all this in the name of enabling good, middle-class lives.”

Or, looked at through the lens of communications, “We have stripped out all drama, surprise and colour from life!”

Unsurprisingly, this has a stultifying effect on creativity and suppresses differentiation.

Let employee brand be your best asset

This presents asset management brand marketing teams – and their agencies – with a huge challenge. How do you differentiate in a market that inherently suspects mavericks and deviations from the norm?

The answer is to let employee brand be your champion. Determine what your organisation, clients and workforce truly values, the essence of the culture that has been created, and distil that into communications: brand personality, tone of voice and art direction.

The result is that your asset management company tells potential customers what kind of people they will be when choosing the brand. That way, brands can attract an audience by meaningfully distinguishing themselves without necessarily trashing category conventions. It’s the basis for deeper relationships with intermediaries, institutional investors and individual consumers.

BlackRock is a great example. With its “Investing for a new world” stance, the largest global fund manager takes a moral and ethical position on the whole economic sphere. The company describes the whole system of modern capitalism, takes an intellectual overview of it, and acts as a gateway to share the power with ordinary people. So, the customer is an ordinary person who wants power collected by BlackRock and made accessible to them.

Without the four building blocks which our study found the category so readily conforms to you’re not even at the table. But harness the values of your organisation and push them out via distinctive brand communications, and you can make your mark in the category without upsetting the asset management apple cart.

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