Now is not the time for laughable communications in financial services

Humorous marketing campaigns are rarely deployed in Australian financial services. With the industry under intense scrutiny by government inquiries right now, it’s probably not the time to have the clowns jumping out of the box.

Putting the Royal Commission and other things aside, the issue with humour in marketing is that really edgy stuff with cut-through is terribly hard to do for a mass audience, just ask any stand-up comic.

Years ago, this was brought sharply into focus for me when I was teetering on dismissal for a comedian I hired for a corporate media function. The comedian later became quite famous in Australia but, on that night, it was clearly on a verge of being overshadowed by my infamy.

The audience was all-male, typical of the times in automotive, a mix of quite conservative corporate types, my bosses, and journalists from around Australia. What was quickly apparent that an inebriated comedian telling some pretty course and inappropriate jokes was thoroughly enjoyed by about a third of the audience and detested by the rest. Unfortunately, the executive team was in the latter group.

This was an extreme example, but highlights the issue when trying to hit the right spot with a mass audience of diverse cultures, generations, life experiences and, at its most basic level, tastes.

Recently, humour in financial services advertising in Australia has been pretty much confined to start-ups, companies focused on rapidly gaining customers from niches on the fringe. Examples include payday lender, Nimble, and superannuation start-up, GROW Super. Humour and irreverance have picked up younger customers willing, maybe even wanting to challenge the status quo, but these customer bases appear to have quickly plateaued.

Making people laugh is rarely an extension of the culture or brand values of the organisation. No one expects to contact the call centre to hear someone in convulsions over their financial future or immediate crisis. Friendly and empathetic conversation is fine, cracking jokes is usually not. It often creates dissonance between messaging and customer experience that you want to avoid.

Humour is problematic because most people see their money as serious business. It is risky because institutions cannot afford to look like they’re trivialising it. It equates with ‘irresponsible’ for some.

Public scrutiny aside, customers today are feeling the pinch as they experience wage stagnation, declining real estate values and a likely federal election result that could whip away some of the tax benefits of negative gearing and franking credit refunds.

The temptation in this environment is to revert to safe, even if ineffective territory, and to haul out the time-honoured, cliched images with which we’re all familiar - too-good-to-be-true couples sharing a coffee in a friendly financial collaboration over the laptop, elderly couples still feeling the first flush of love as they almost skip worry-free in an impossibly perfect sunset. How do they have those flowing white linen clothes on hand when the sunset looks like that?

No. Please don’t go there!

Now is the time to dive deep into your culture, really understand your heritage, the positive attributes that made your organisation what it is today. From this, evolve smart ways to articulate those attributes. This process will result in positioning and messaging that is authentic and, hopefully, customer-oriented.

I hate quoting this because it makes me decidedly unoriginal, but the context presently find ourselves in makes Peter Drucker’s ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ very appropriate. Public exposure of toxic cultures in some of our financial institutions will make any sort of customer-centric messaging truly challenging. It will be a long time before consumers see and, more importantly, believe the alignment between the message and the practice. This will require more than a messaging solution.

For organisations that have remained truly customer-focused and acted in their interests and can provide proof points of it, this presents an enormous opportunity to step forward.

To succeed, the message doesn’t have to be captured in the sexiest or funniest campaign, but simply resonate with your audience and be consistent with their perception and experience of your business.

Humour is just one way to create a laugh. Putting out messages inconsistent with customer experience is also laughable.