Financial services need to show people why they matter

Brand expert Michael Gough on how financial services can be more memorable.

On the Upfront podcast outspoken experts share their bold, frank and honest views on how the financial services industry can solve some of its biggest challenges and move ahead. In the first episode Out of the blue, brand strategy director Michael Gough of London-based design agency Sparks Studio told Upfront that financial services have become ‘generic, bland and vanilla’.


So how can financial brands be more distinctive? Michael has some tips including an acid test every financial business should take.

Fire your art until it emits sparks that warm or burn those it reaches

The words of the Canadian academic Calvin Seerveld have stayed with me ever since I first read his work as a fine arts graduate. So when I co-founded a design agency back in 2003, we knew what it should be called: Sparks. Like art, I believe brands are intentional. They should touch and engage the emotions. Brands need to show their audiences why they matter.

Iress worked with Sparks to update its brand

Financial services have become too complacent in how they present themselves to market.
They’ve completely lost sight of the difference, the benefit they can have on their clients. There’s a massive opportunity for these businesses to think about how they engage the market. The whole industry could do with a rethink.

The consumer doesn’t know who to choose because everyone is generic, bland and vanilla.
Businesses come to us saying, ‘Look, we’ve worked out what makes us distinctive. We know that we’re friendly, approachable, and professional. That’s why we exist. That’s what makes us different as a business.’ And then you hold up the mirror and say, ‘Well hang on a minute, would anyone in the market say they were unfriendly, unapproachable and unprofessional?’ The financial services industry is rife with this. There’s no clear point of difference.

There’s always something we find in the origin or founding story

Financial services need to stop talking about the obvious stuff that everyone else is already talking about. Companies don’t give enough time to work out where they fit in the market. What are they bringing to a market that is distinct from others? That needs thinking about much harder and more rigorously. They need to look at their existing materials work out what is still relevant and compelling for their target audience.

The sparks studio website, co-founded by Michael Gough

There’s always something we find in the origin or founding story.
We help brands with rich histories and complexity connect to a changing audience and spend a lot of time talking to senior leaders to understand the nuance and journey they’ve been on for the last 25 to 30 years. We help them think about how they can carry their heritage with them because you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater nor come across as the new kid on the block. We draw out what’s already there and re-express it for them.

I think financial services have relied too much on balancing a sense of trust,
that they’re dependable, reliable, a safe pair of hands. Important attributes but not distinctive. Instead, financial services businesses should be thinking ‘How can we make sure we’re going to be remembered?’

How distinctive is your brand?

A simple test. Find out just how generic, bland and vanilla you are with this exercise from Michael.

Grab your ‘About Us’ statement from your website.
Anomymise it. Take out any reference to the company.
Go and find nine other competitors in the same market and get their ‘About Us’ statements.
Paste them all into a Word or Google doc. Make them all the same type size and font. Take out any reference to the company names.
Forget about it for a few days.
Come back to it and re-read those statements.

I guarantee they will all say the samething. They will all talk about customer service, expertise, and being an industry leader in some form.

Listen to the 'Out of the blue' episode to hear Michael's assessment of the branding used in financial services and his advice on how to tear yourself away from the bland and the blue.

What I love about financial services

Its unrealised potential to help people see the opportunity they have to create personal freedom and liberty from financial constraints through good advice.

Michael Gough