Liz Doig, director, Wordtree
Liz Doig, director, Wordtree
A view from Liz Doig

Think BR: Trust you? I don't even understand you

Improving the clarity of its communications could help the banking sector to regain trust, writes Liz Doig, director, Wordtree.

The whodunnit of the Libor rate romps on. CEO Bob Diamond quit, chairman Marcus Agius will leave soon. And as this latest scandal to hit the financial sector began to unfold, most of us said: "The Libor what?

Agius has gone on record saying that Barclays is still "trustworthy" and that any sneaky shenanigans were the act of just a small group of people.

But trust in the banking sector is at an all-time low and it will take more than a clever campaign and a new strapline to put things back on track.

Because the sector faces a fundamental challenge when it comes to generating trust – and that is that it can be so incredibly complicated. Its products can be complex, and – oh boy – the way it communicates can sometimes make a casual reader lose the will to live.

To buy something, you need to understand it

At the beginning of last year – to mark the launch of Nest, the government’s new pension scheme – the BBC carried out a vox pop to get a feel for which financial terms people really understand.

They canvassed people leaving or entering the British Library – and understanding was not exactly comprehensive or universal.

Which may be why research published by Skandia last year showed that fewer than 7% of people in the UK read terms and conditions. The same research found that 43% of people don’t read the small print because they find it boring and difficult to understand.

More worrying statistics for the financial sector, perhaps, might be the numbers of people simply not buying into products like insurance, pensions and investments.

The challenge for the financial sector

Financial products can be hellishly difficult to describe. The regulator often doesn’t make it any easier, insisting that certain phrases and conditionality are 'given prominence' in communications.

To rebuild trust, the banks need to look beyond crisis management. They also need to speak in words that are straightforward and easy to digest – and that’s a sizeable task.  

Keeping language readable and interesting in financial organisations is a full-time job. The truth is that compliance officers like to stick to words and phrases that won’t lead to sanctions from the FSA. Yet these are often the bits and pieces of language that consumers find dull and confusing.

But some forward-thinking financial organisations are already putting serious resource and energy into making all of their communications clear – because they know how important the role of language is in winning hearts and minds.

Consumers trust consistency of tone

As brand language consultants, we believe it’s hugely important not just to get the views of communicators, but to listen to readers and get their views on what feels trustworthy.

Typically, they’re unhappy when a brand loses its happy marketing tone of voice and veers off into legalese and business speak. One chap recently brought us the packaging from a pizza brand. Its ba-da-bing Italian American tone of voice sang out from the box lid, but a tiny side panel containing the guarantee was written in pure business speak and started with, "We are committed to…"

"See," said our reader, "They’re just suits trying to pull the wool over your eyes." He believed that if it came to the crunch, the brand would revert to type and hide behind corporate words and policies.

Consumers don’t see business speak, legalese and jargon as a 'slip' from a tone of voice. They see it as a deliberate attempt to confuse and hoodwink.

Transparency and engagement are key to trust

The Edelman Trust Barometer in 2011 highlighted changes to the ways corporations need to act to gain trust.

The old model of trust, it said, was all about controlling information and rigidly protecting the brand.

The new model, according to the PR giant, is transparency and engagement. In fact, their research showed that consumers believe "transparent and honest business practices" matter more for corporate reputation than fair prices or returns to investors.

If brands in any sector want to be trusted, they need to invest in clear communication every step of the way.

Liz Doig, director, Wordtree