8 July 2021
By Robert Kilconner
“The investment manager formerly known as Aberdeen Asset Management” may not be exactly zippy but it is probably preferable to the new name of “abrdn” which Standard Life Aberdeen have just adopted. “To be pronounced ‘Aberdeen’,” they announce sententiously. I dare say that it will be pronounced in a number of other ways before they are through and serve them right too.
I hate to think how much this well-respected firm has spent on its rebranding exercise but if they think it will be an improvement I am afraid they are mistaken. What, after all, is the point of a brand? It is not a work of art to be admired in abstract like, say, a Picasso or Beethoven’s fifth Symphony. That people from the marketing industry may say “cool, man” as they bump elbows in the street matters not a jot. The important question from the business perspective is whether it encourages punters to buy services from the organisation.
Put yourself in the punters chair, then, and ask what features would attract you to a particular asset manager. Obviously you would want it to be clever and knowledgeable. An organisation with the history of Aberdeen has always ticked those boxes so one message that it should stress is that the present firm is a continuation of that history. Does an apparent misspelling with asinine remarks about how it can be corrected in speech suggest a continuity of excellence? No, it gives the impression that a steady organisation has lost its mind. Minus 1 point.
Then you want your investment manager to have its mind on the markets. The less it fools around preening itself the better. You would hope that when executives meet in the corridor they talk about indexes and exchange rates and do not waste energy talking about themselves. When I was in practice I dealt with a number of organisations, and their premises came in different shapes and sizes. Some had large austere city offices, great factories of finance in which decisions were made by large and expert committees sitting round boardroom tables. Others had a West End flavour, plush intimate rooms in which concepts could be discussed with the knowingness of the industry insider. But the organisations which impressed me the most were those who carried on their business from scruffy offices where sleeves were rolled up and meetings took place among the screens and old coffee cups. Here it seemed that the focus was all on the work and that the analysts couldn’t care less whether the offices looked nice or not, provided their judgements proved correct. Another minus point then for silly names.
Another requirement is modesty. The best firms are quite self-effacing in that they allow their clients to take the credit and are themselves happy to fade into the background. That isn’t just good because it avoids grandstanding but, more importantly, it recognises the relationship between client and agent. It is for the agent to recommend, advise and, within its mandate, to manage: the strategic decisions are for the client and to the extent that the agent unnecessarily stresses its own identity that relationship is undermined. Another minus, I’m afraid.
So let us look at the positive side. If branding can do damage to goodwill, how can it serve the business? The answer here goes back to the point made above about maintaining linkage with the past. There are of course companies, and in particular German companies, where that is the last thing you want, but in the case of most businesses, and certainly in the case of Aberdeen, there is a proud history – and a rebranding which hides that should be avoided. There are some truly terrible examples. When the Royal Mail changed its name to Consignia in the early 2000s they no doubt thought they were being clever. Away with 19th-century branding and in with a word worthy of the new millennium. Unfortunately they didn’t think about their customers. The Royal Mail was a well-trusted organisation and experience said that if you gave it a parcel you could expect it to be delivered. Consignia? What was that exactly and were they really the same people? The name was changed back pronto once it was realised how much damage the change was doing.
There are plenty of horror stories of this sort and the fact that so many company names are now initials simply shows how profligately long-standing goodwill is cast aside when a board has a budget and not much idea what to do with it. And of course there is always the attraction to management of making a change. It enables them to talk about repositioning and revitalising without having to provide substance, but what they are really achieving is weak decision-making and a failure to properly control marketing consultants. No marketing consultant ever made a fortune out of telling a company that its brand was just fine so it is no surprise that they almost always recommend change, preferably something fundamental like the name but at the least in the font or punctuation used in the business cards. I remember a firm of accountants pointing to a full stop on their letterhead and claiming proudly that it was the most expensive dot in history. I peered at it with an expression of great respect but actually I was thinking “what a collection of clowns”. If only they had spent the money on improving the service.
It isn’t just brand consultants who feed off marketing spend. There are interior designers as well and I once knew a firm of lawyers who moved into new purpose-built offices. It was an expensive move and there was some discussion on the purchase of art to enhance the new premises. Needless to say the art consultants lined up. They each had a plan and each plan had a six figure price. The partners sat in baffled silence around a huge table trying to decide which way they should go when one of the more sensible spoke up: “What I don’t understand” he said, “is why we don’t give a hammer and some picture hooks to the office maintenance man and get him to move all the pictures from the old building into the new one.” That is what they did and it looked perfectly good too.
Aberdeen are a fine business and when they come to their senses, as they surely will, and decide to change the name to something more practical, I have a piece of advice to offer them. Ignore the consultants. Just an item on the agenda for a board meeting and a little common sense. That is all that is needed.
tile photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash