What branding lessons can the financial services sector learn from tech companies?

After a decade in which phones were prized upon being as compact as possible, Steve Butler, CEO of Punter Southall Aspire, explores why in the age of the smartphone, it’s the bigger, the better

Smartphones are getting bigger. The iPhone 6 Plus has a screen size, i.e. diagonal, of 5.5 inches. The Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 gets to – you guessed it - 6.3 inches. Phones for the Asian market have no problem taking up even more space in your back pocket or handbag. The magical seven-inch threshold has already been reached by a handful, including my favourite: the CoolPad Great God (goes under the oblique name of Halo in western markets).

These devices are so big they have their own category: phablet. Ugly, I grant you, but the pensions and savings industry nevertheless has much to learn about branding and hooking clients in from faster-moving sectors such as mobile phones.

One firm that appears to be thinking along these lines is Mass Mutual. You may not know the name but you will have heard of Barings, its biggest subsidiary. Mass Mutual also owns Wood Creek, Cornerstone and an affiliate, Babson Capital but you don’t need to remember those ones because henceforth they will all be branded Baring.  After more than a decade of us hearing about boutique asset managers with all their specialisms, Mass Mutual has chosen to present itself under one name.

In the past, this kind of simplicity wasn’t important because these kinds of firms were only marketing to specialist audiences. But policy and regulatory changes, not least auto-enrolment, mean that employers are now expected to play a growing role in helping individuals save and plan for retirement. Pensions and savings businesses now need to make employers’ lives easier by communicating in ways that appeal and make sense to their employees.

Everything about saving has to appear simpler (even if under the bonnet it will become more complex). This heralds the return of superbrands in asset management. Other medium-sized managers with a number of boutiques will no doubt follow suit. Not just to appear on the first page of any Google Search or save space on documentation read by clients onscreen; but to compete with superbrands invading asset management from other industries. Virgin, Tesco and Marks & Spencer have all done quite well here in the UK but it is the likes of Google, Amazon and even LinkedIn that the industry really fears. And with good cause. Any internet company – or even mobile phone provider – is far more skilled at capturing people’s attention than cautious, slow-moving financial services. Silicon Valley looks to conquer fast.

To fend off these alien rivals, savings providers will have to get much, much smarter at communicating what they do with people’s money and justifying the fees charged for that service.