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Words are just as important as numbers in the world of finance

By Anthony Earley, Commercial Director of Strategic Communications ConsultancyVerbalisation

The reality of the financial sector is that while numbers may define it, words matter just as much.

It’s been a decade since the financial crisis, and yet the financial sector, banking in particular, has still not fully escaped the throes of the savage media narrative that ensued. The media characterisation that followed of suspicion, mistrust, opacity and a perceived lack of accountability has still not been completely overcome.

This is a sector that needs to remodel itself and communicate its key selling points to the customer in a succinct and clear way: safety, trust, growth, knowledge and shared respect.

Anthony Earley
Anthony Earley

A new communication strategy could go a long way to catalysing a recovery from the hangover of the crash, to forging more meaningful long-term relationships with customers, and to shifting the narrative in the media.

Social media in particular has changed the game. The archetypal customer in 2018 is more discerning and has access to more information than ever before. As a consequence, customers want to be recognised as individuals and treated as equals. They are both willing and able to fact check online to ensure that they are. The financial sector needs to spend more time thinking about what the audience wants to buy rather than what they want to sell. An important aspect of this from the consumer perspective is not feeling that financial companies are trying to pull the wool over their eyes, or exploiting their expertise to disorient their own customers.

Personal engagement is key, and herein lies the challenge. The big established banks are too big to achieve the personal engagement that the modern-day consumer craves. So much correspondence from big banks is verbose and impossible for the customer to digest. Rather than targeting their communications, they will simply continue to flood the customer with information that is difficult to process.

Conversely, challenger banks have the capability to provide a more personal offering, but struggle to provide the full service that customers want. The market is congested, but nobody is standing out and there is an opportunity for somebody to adapt their verbal strategy and steal a march on the competition.

Every day we are bombarded with 5,000 branded visual images. That is too much information for your brain to process, and so marketing or communication that is led by visuals is actually working against the brain. Throwing visual information at consumers until something sticks is neither nuanced nor effective.

Instead, what banks can do is use data to target their verbal communication, and pattern-match their language with that of their customers. Most companies possess data on their customers, while plenty more can be gleamed publicly from social media. But the key is not simply collecting this data, but understanding how to interpret it. The best companies in any sector know that they must both listen to what their audience is saying, but more crucial still, to how they are saying it.

We call this‘deep-listening’.How do your audience distribute and receive information?Do they respond to metaphor or are they more receptive to direct language? What about the environmental factors such as politics, gender and religion that influence them? Even their geographical location. All of these have a bearing on interpreting the reason that people use the words that they do. Once you understand your audience’s language you can pattern-match your own communication to this to achieve greater cut-through.

What better way to stand out in a saturated market than to encode your language and speak with customers as individuals whose priorities are understood? You can use this data to develop a conversation between equals. That is what the customer wants, and there are three key steps to doing so: identifying and applying your Brand Essence, Power Word and Key Verbal.

Barack Obama did just this in his Presidential campaign. First he had to understand what the audience wanted. His analysts recognised correctly that vast sections of the US electorate wanted change, and this became his Brand Essence, the central theme that purveyed all of his marketing and communication. The audience wanted to buy change, so that’s what Obama sold.

The Key Verbal captures your audience’s attention and directs them to your Brand Essence. For Obama this was ‘Yes we can’. This dovetailed with ‘change’ and enabled Obama to position his candidacy as the instigation of his Brand Essence. Finally, the Power Word, which for Obama was ‘hope’. He harnessed the positive spirit of the change he was promising and positioned himself as the solution to it. People want change, Yes we can effect it, and in the process give them hope.

Once you have these three key tenets the rest of your communication follows naturally from it. These same techniques can easily be applied to the financial world, with banks the most obvious potential beneficiaries.

So what does the customer want to buy? Many of the words are obvious. Safety: you trust your bank with your money and expect a degree of control as a consequence. Growth: many challenger banks are pitching in with promises of faster returns on investments, this is attractive to people in an ever faster-paced world. Knowledge: the best way to build trust and rapport is to demonstrate your expertise.

But perhaps most important of all moving forward is: Clarity.People do not want to be confused and frustrated by their bank. This is a major communication mishap, and those that can pivot to speak in their customer’s language and take a pro-active approach will have a significant advantage.

The challenge for the financial sector is to capitalise on the opportunity to streamline their communication, and revolutionise their relationship with their customers.