If a lion could speak

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously discusses in his 1950s book ‘Philosophical Investigations’ that ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’.

Wittgenstein’s theory is that even if a lion could somehow speak our language, or a ‘Lionese to Human’ Google translate app was developed, the lion would still struggle to clearly articulate his point of view to a human being or tell us a compelling story. But why would this be?

Wittgenstein explains this potential breakdown in communication is because lions do not have ‘any conceivable share in our world’. In other words, the lion’s utterances would be meaningless to us, because they would not be based on a shared sense of context. The way a lion thinks about - and views - the world is so different to humans, or indeed other animals, that they would be coming from a completely different frame of reference or context to the human they wanted to chat with at the watering hole (or pub!).

Had Wittgenstein pursued a career in marketing rather than philosophy, would he have made a similar observation about today’s marketing communications? As marketers, are we effectively falling into an ‘if a lion could talk’ trap by not first creating a shared sense of context with our intended audience? Are we too focused on getting our side of the story out, without framing it within the audience’s context or world view?

Marketers can significantly enhance how we communicate by creating connections to a specific context. All customers, including those in a B2B situation, have a context in which they approach a product or service.
This is both a practical context, such as specific deliverables they need to complete during the week, and an emotional context, such as the desire to succeed, earn a promotion, or to continue to provide for family. If we first understand the practical and emotional context of our customers, we can then more effectively communicate with them, rather than at them.  We can use that sense of context to describe how a product or service creates an enabler, or removes a barrier to meeting their practical and emotional needs.

At Ideas and Action, the first thing we do when working with our clients, is to understand their target audiences and the latter’s practical and emotional needs.  This gives us a frame of reference upon which to base all subsequent messaging and communications.

It may be tempting to leap straight into a discussion on the technical aspects of how a solution works.  If, however, we are unable to establish a meeting of minds up-front, our audience will struggle to grasp its relevance to them, and why they need it in their lives.

Wittgenstein went on to somewhat contradict himself by adding to his theory, that if a lion could talk ‘he just would not be a lion anymore; or rather, his mind would no longer be a lion's mind’. Perhaps Wittgenstein was making the point that even with a shared language, to effectively communicate, marketers need to truly get into the minds of their audiences, and view the world from their context.

Beyond bottled water & detergent: Value propositions in financial services marketing

During my time at the frontline of financial services marketing, I had often observed a distinct lack of differentiation in the positioning of financial services firms – a homogenisation that is carried through into marketing materials and websites. If you took the logo and brand colours off the marketing collateral of many firms, I think you would be hard-pressed to determine which bank they refer to. Here are some typical marketing messages on banks’ websites:

“Global reach, local insight.”

“Bespoke solutions.”

“Scale and expertise”

“Trusted advisor.”

“Connecting you to opportunities.”

What is clear is that the way financial services firms describe what they offer clients has become generic, lacking clear and distinct points of difference. This, I think, is a symptom of the commoditisation of financial services.

Increasingly, individuals and businesses perceive the services provided by financial services firms as undifferentiated, comparable, and substitutable commodities – much like bottled water and detergent. It’s easy to see why this is the case. It can be argued that a payment is a payment, or an FX transaction is an FX transaction, regardless of which firm’s logo and brand colours are on the payment instruction or transaction platform. And where there is no perceived difference between products, decision makers begin to choose on the basis of price.

This is not new, and is already widely recognised by the financial services industry as a challenge to retaining and growing their client relationships, and ultimately, profitability. In a recent survey by consulting firm Roland Berger, approximately 70% of financial services respondents expressed the worry that their firm’s products and services are at risk of getting caught in the commodity trap of heightening price and margin pressure.

A price war serves no one – not the financial services providers, and perhaps counterintuitively, not even their clients. If margins continue to be compressed, in the long run, firms may have to look to other areas where they can reduce costs in order to maintain profitability. This will potentially eat into investment in other crucial areas such as service and innovation – eroding ability to improve client service, deliver new products or capture new revenue opportunities.

If no one wins a price war, what then can financial services firms do to escape the commoditisation trap? Achieving differentiation in a highly commoditised industry like financial services requires a strong understanding of the client, what they value, and how the firm uniquely delivers this value. It means having a solid client-centric proposition that goes beyond mere high level platitudes. It also means having a client proposition that goes beyond simply describing what a product does (“process 100,000 transactions per second”) or how it does it (“using Distributed Ledger Technology”), to what it will enable their client to achieve.

Defining the proposition

A strong proposition talks about how a financial services firm solves a problem or creates an opportunity for a particular client segment. This necessitates a good understanding of the target client segments, and their core needs – both at a business and a personal level.

Everybody, whether they are day to day business contacts or the CFO or CEO, has something they need to achieve.  They have issues and concerns that keep them awake at night.  Start there, and define how your products and services may help them address these concerns – whether it is to help create an enabler or remove a barrier.

When you are talking about a single product or solution, this is pretty straight-forward.  When you’re doing this across multiple products and services for a full-service investment bank however, this can become quite a complex challenge. You will need to demonstrate the value of the full end-to-end service that is provided to clients, not just describe the bundle of disparate products being offered. And you need to be able to do this without falling into the trap of creating a proposition that is so high level, it becomes mere platitude.

Perhaps most importantly, financial services firms need to form robust hypotheses on future client demands and needs. By looking at current client behaviour, discussing evolving needs with clients, and scanning the macro horizon for the significant trends that are driving changes in client behaviour and demands, financial services firms will be in a better position to identify potential future bases for competitive advantage. They can then dynamically adjust their propositions so they remain relevant to evolving client needs.

While 75% of financial services firms recognise the sector is falling into a commodity trap, only around 30% feel they are currently taking sufficient action to escape it. This presents an opportunity for the bolder and more innovative financial services firms to revisit their propositions and messaging with one eye on clients’ current needs and one eye on future trends. Perhaps then they will be better able to stand out and cut through the generic noise from the rest of the industry.

Complements to Gender Diversity

Diversity of thought and approach is vital for marketing teams to generate innovative ideas and find new ways of implementing campaigns and communications. Seeing the significant business benefits that diversity brings, many sectors – from governments to manufacturing to financial services – are focusing on improving diversity in their organisations.

The current diversity agenda for many sectors and companies appears to be primarily centred on gender diversity. Certainly, there is more to be done to improve female representation in a number of sectors. In financial services for example, women represent just 19% of senior managers and just 2% of CEOs. Gender diversity is also shown to be good for business. A recent study by the Peterson Institute and EY found that a company with 30% female leadership could expect to add up to six percentage points to its net margin when compared with an otherwise similar business with no female leaders.

Focusing on improving diversity of teams needs to be done with a specific objective and purpose – to bring different thought processes and approaches to bear on business issues and opportunities. Certainly diversity of thought and approach can be gained from a more balanced gender split in senior positions and teams. For example, a study by McKinsey found that women tend to demonstrate five of the nine types of leadership behavior that improve business performance – such as people development and participative decision making – more often than men.

Gaining the benefits of diversity of thought and approach can also come from achieving diversity of culture and personality types, as a complement to gender diversity. At Ideas and Action, we find that the best creative ideas and the right course of action to deliver to our clients comes when different people on our team contribute from a different cultural or personality point of view.

We are fortunate to work with a culturally diverse team, with colleagues from the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Belgium, the Philippines and New Zealand. As we work with clients with a global reach, this diversity of culture helps us to view their challenges and opportunities with an eye on both universal truths as well as local cultural nuances. Being able to draw on, and combine, the strengths of different cultural approaches creates a powerful team. For example, a strength of the Philippine business culture is building professional relationships founded on genuine interest in colleagues and clients, and not merely the business of the company they represent. The New Zealand business culture on the other hand, focuses on respect earned by actions, not status, and is characterised by a can-do attitude that goes a long way towards solving problems and finding creative means of getting things done. Together, these different approaches enable us to develop solutions for our clients that not only solve for today’s issues, but are also positioned for the longer term.

We also have diversity of personality within the team. A common methodology for assessing different personality types that many of us would have completed is Myers-Briggs. This framework looks at the strengths of different personalities, and what they can bring to a business. Within our team, we have a good diversity of personality types. Some are ENTP or ‘Debater’ personalities, being smart and curious thinkers who cannot resist an intellectual challenge. This is balanced by others in the team who are ISTJ or ‘Logistician’ personalities, being practical and fact-minded individuals whose reliability cannot be questioned, and INTJ or “Architect” big picture strategic thinkers.

In order to operate effectively and efficiently as a marketing and communications consultancy, it is vital that a mix of personality types come together, balancing the need for keeping an eye on the big picture, and incorporating new insight and ideas with the ability to work through implementation challenges and achieve delivery for our clients.

Understanding that this diversity of culture and personality exists, and embracing the strengths in those differences, are vital to working together more harmoniously and ultimately, more effectively for our clients.

The diversity agenda is vital for all businesses, and needs to go above and beyond the easier-to-spot gender diversity agenda, to also building a team with diversity of thought and approach. Both of these can often come from achieving diversity of culture and personality type diversity, as a complement to gender diversity.