Personal finance, be it insurance products, credit cards, loans or mortgages, is big business. In the UK, there are around 1,500 credit card products issued by more than 50 companies. This April alone, the Council of Mortgage Lenders recorded 106,000 loans approved for house purchases.
The two major personal finance ‘brand families' are controlled by HBOS (which owns, among others, If, Clerical Medical, Bank of Scotland and Halifax) and RBS - which owns Mint, NatWest, Churchill and First Active.
Last week, PRWeek broke the news that RBS was in talks with consumer agencies to help differentiate its main brands, while competitor Virgin Money has briefed Frank PR to promote products such as its credit card, car insurance and the recently launched ‘Big V' cancer cover (PRWeek, 23 June).
Both companies want agency support to take the brands beyond the personal finance pages and engage the interest of those with little enthusiasm for the minutiae of interest-rate fluctuations. Only a third of British adults read the money pages, and that figure is believed to be much lower among the under-30s.
‘Getting young people to think about saving money is difficult, and that makes it a tough age range for personal finance products,' says Borkowski PR head Mark Borkowski.
Use a variety of media
Unsurprisingly, then, PROs believe that, when attempting to enliven personal finance, it is crucial for brands to deploy a full gamut of marcoms arsenal.
Scottish Widows customer and brand marketing director Mike Hoban says recognising that young people use more than one form of media must be the starting point for any campaign: ‘You need to make sure your message is online, on TV and on the consumer pages, and you have to take away the complexity of products.'
Bell Pottinger PR managing director David Wilson says personal finance campaigns targeting youth need to ensure they have a strong focus on guerrilla and online activity.
Wilson says: ‘It's widely accepted that 18 to 24-year-olds do most of their research online. Young people use sites such as guardian.co.uk and BBC News online to get a lot of their information. Campaigns that use modern, web-based techniques such as blogging, to cut through the hyperbole often associated with personal finance, should make a brand stand out.'
Virgin Money's appointment of Frank is described by the company's head of PR Scott Mowbray as ‘essentially a non-finance brief'.
The agency is approaching the Virgin brief by focusing on what it calls ‘an exciting and emotive platform' - money.
‘Personal finance on its own is a low-interest topic for mainstream media,' says Frank joint MD Andrew Bloch. ‘Marginal differences in APR rates might appeal to the money pages, but it's difficult to differentiate brands based on continually changing interest rates and offers.
‘Realistically, mainstream media might not write about a product - but it might talk about ways to save and spend money. If you want to get 18-year-olds reading about personal finance you have to ask: "how will this affect their life?". Spending big or saving for things are all subjects that can be used as a hook. There's no reason why personal finance couldn't get onto the pages of Nuts,' Bloch adds.
Asking Abi Titmuss to discuss her favourite mortgage lender might be a step too far, but linking a credit card to, say, a feature on footballers' spending sprees is more feasible.
Band & Brown Communications CEO Nick Band also believes that personal finance needs to be ‘spiced up', saying: ‘You are largely dealing with commodity products where the main difference is the repayment rate. But there are certainly opportunities to push the boundaries.'
‘Turn banking on its head'
When Abbey went through its much-criticised rebrand two years ago, its proposition was ‘turning banking on its head'. B&B built a mock ‘upside-down bank' in Euston, and used it for press conferences and public viewings.
‘Whether you're talking about housing, cars or kids, most things in life involve money,' says Band. ‘A good campaign should focus on these issues.'
The agency also ran a well-received campaign for the Egg card (see below) involving TV presenter Daisy Donovan. The agency used guerrilla marketing to promote an unbranded website advertising ‘husbands for sale', which only revealed it was promoting Egg on the final page.
After identifying property as something that appeals to the under-30s, a recent Norwich Union campaign by Borkowski PR positioned NU Direct as the ‘home champion'.
Jo Halbury, director at youth marketing agency ThinkEspionage, argues that young people are adept at seeing through stunts and that campaigns targeting them need to be well considered.
‘You see students being targeted with stereotypical images of baked beans and you know it's not going to work,' she says. ‘Money is a serious matter and, if the campaign comes across as too jokey, it won't work.'
A money brand has to be trusted. But that does not mean that PR teams should shy away from injecting humour in order to build and differentiate successful brand platforms.
Campaigns that burst out of the personal-finance pages
2006: Norwich Union Direct - MORI Home Study
Agency Borkowski PR
Aim position Norwich Union Direct as the ‘home champion'. Survey ‘Power of the Postcode' showed Brits will lie about their postcode to make themselves ‘look better'.
2004: Mint card launch
Agency Lansons Communications
Aim to give it a ‘fresh, vibrant feel' associated with the word ‘mint'. Part of RBS, but established in its own right via the ‘What's stopping you?' ad slogan.
2001: Egg card
Agency Band & Brown Communications
Aim to position Egg as a non-traditional credit card brand. TV presenter Daisy Donovan fronted a spoof campaign in which she attempted to ‘buy a husband'. B&B put actors in the window of hip store Urban Outfitters with prices around their necks.