Article by Mike Symes, Chief Executive, Financial Marketing Limited.
Published in Business Money, January 2018.
Over the past 12 months, we have witnessed a rapid evolution in the commercial finance industry. The landscape has become increasingly diverse as traditional players, specialists, challengers, alt-fi providers and fintechs jostle for the attention of SME audiences. We are poised to see further change in 2018 as established brands seek to extend their reach into the commercial finance market.
With the myriad funding options in the market comes a new era of hyper-competition. The need for financial firms to differentiate has therefore never been greater.
There are four key marketing battlegrounds on which commercial finance companies must focus to sustain competitive advantage in 2018: Brand Purpose, Customer Experience, Channel Account Marketing and Visually Engaging Content.
Place brand purpose at the heart of business strategy in 2018
Early indications are that 2018 will be an exciting year for M&A funding, which could potentially spike as businesses consolidate, entrepreneurial buy and build strategies gain momentum and management teams find common ground as pricing aspirations align more closely. We may even see a growth in utilisation rates in 2018 as businesses seek a cushion against uncertainty or look to build a war chest to strengthen their market position. To take advantage of the changing environment, it is essential that financial services brands do not merely add to the noise but add value.
To do so, it is imperative that commercial finance firms are able to articulate a fresh, compelling and clearly differentiated purpose. Towards the end of 2017, Financial Marketing launched a new subsidiary, Brand Workshop (www.brandworkshop.com) to enable businesses from all sectors to develop brands that drive advantage and revenue, unite and energise teams and captivate their customers. We are excited about the potential of brand workshop interventions not only to bring clarity to financiers’ brands but also to enable them to extend this opportunity to their own clients, adding value to their relationships as they champion the growth of SMEs.
Customer experience (CX) will prove a key battleground this year
Today financial marketers are being tasked with crafting lasting interactions with customers instead of mere transactions. Customer Experience (CX) is emerging as a key area of potential differentiation as well as an important strategic enabler in boosting customer loyalty and advocacy. Whilst customer journey mapping and the development of personas are increasing in importance to help define the most relevant communications for specific touchpoints, the real value lies in orchestrating the entire end-to-end journey between a funder and its clients. Professional external Qualitative CX Research is a highly evolved method of delving far deeper than quantitative surveys will allow, enabling us to capture actionable and often surprising ‘Voice of Customer’ insights, informing recommendations many of which can be put into place immediately.
Using data-driven insight to power account-based marketing
Most commercial lenders will by now have made major advances in respect of their preparations for General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). So much has been written on this topic, that I do not merely wish to add to the volumes of column centimetres. Suffice to say that profiling and segmentation has never been more critical. It is also one of the greatest sources of potential competitive advantage.
For many years we have worked closely with one of the UK’s leading business schools on a variety of projects. By profiling the ideal client characteristics from a client base and using intelligent propensity score matching, their team is able to identify similar targets from the entire business population. The applications in direct marketing and market research are significant.
Intermediaries such as commercial finance brokers, accountants and solicitors play a pivotal role as trusted advisers to SMEs. Whereas many B2B organizations now adopt account-based marketing approaches for prospects, the move from financial organisations to apply these principles to intermediary relationships is long overdue. Instead of casting a net widely to build broad awareness via the ubiquitous one-size fits all newsletter, highly targeted, personalised and relevant messaging to carefully segmented key business introducers will make a significant difference in cutting through the noise in 2018.
Visually engaging content will create strong impact this year
Today, we receive our information from such a wide variety of sources that traditional media relations used in isolation has become a very blunt instrument in tackling a fragmented landscape. Financial brands that succeed in developing more visual, better integrated, cross-media content marketing strategies will dominate in 2018.
As Simon Sinek said: “Communication is not about saying what we think. Communication is about ensuring others hear what we mean.” Case studies are a critical aspect of deal flow marketing communications and form a crucial link that underpins the brand promise, demonstrates expertise, illuminates commercial appetite and approach and describes the scenarios, sectors and deal sizes that financiers most wish to fund.
Ask any good agency how they wish to be measured and they will say, “the work, the work, the work” and the ROI that this brings. For commercial funders, it’s “the deal, the deal, the deal” that defines them. That said, financial services companies and their agencies need to become far more visual in their representation of transactions and the innovative and intelligent use of video is set to transform the communications mix this year as clients tell their own personal and authentic stories.
Whilst there is rightly significant media attention given to the introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the positive impact of innovations such as Chatbots in serving the right information to customers at the right time, these technologies will also serve to level the playing field. Early adopters may have a ‘good run’ but this will not create a long-term competitive advantage or differentiator as the far-reaching benefits of AI become more widely adopted and mainstream.
This promises to be an exciting year for the commercial finance industry. The key to marketing success for individual firms in 2018 will be to set strong foundations in placing brand, customer experience, segmentation and content differentiation right at the core of their strategies.