August 14, 2000
NEW YORK - U.S. mutual fund companies might want to take the lead from a handful of U.K. financial institutions that are merchandising and marketing funds, credit cards and stocks in a hip, irreverent style, as if they were consumer packaged goods.
That was the message of an Internet executive who spoke at a conference here on mutual funds and the Internet, sponsored by International Communications for Management Group of Chicago.
Financial companies have traditionally taken a stodgy, conservative approach towards creating and selling investment products, said David McQuillen, customer experience officer at e-Invest of Atlanta. e-Invest is an online broker/dealer that sells mutual funds and stocks and provides investors with free advice from a team of customer service representatives especially assigned to them.
The growing importance of the Internet, which does not lend itself well to a conservative approach, is radically changing financial institutions' boring techniques, making it acceptable for fund companies to speak to their customers in an entirely new, friendly, imaginative tone, McQuillen said.
"Women and Generation Y are moving onto the web, and these consumers don't want traditional financial brands," McQuillen said. "They want clarity, trust, convenience, speed, humanity and fun - fun in the sense of an engaging experience. Non-financial brands are setting their expectations."
Examples of "some of the really interesting financial brands coming out of England" include the banks Egg.com and Smile.com, credit cards Marbles.com and Goldfish.com, and Richard Branson's company, Virgin, which offers everything from wedding gowns to balloon rides to mutual funds, McQuillen said.
"These brands stand for irreverence and counterculture and have been phenomenally successful. Egg has been the fastest-growing brand in history, attracting one million customers in just one year," he said.
Egg takes a creative approach towards offering investment products, online banking and credit cards, McQuillen noted.
Egg.com's home page currently has the blaring headline, "Mind Blowing," for example. It refers to an Egg credit card offer with a 2.5 percent annual percentage rate for the first six months.
Further down on Egg's opening web page is an "Egg Shop," where Egg sells other goods. Egg's current offer is for a "satin push-up plunge Wonderbra," which is sandwiched between a link to loans and a link to Egg's investment supermarket.
ReliaStar Financial of Minneapolis has also created a financial planning web site that takes a humorous approach, McQuillen said. Called ihatefinancialplanning.com, its home page shows people pulling their hair out and biting their nails.
The site can walk people through a variety of exercises ranging from budgeting, to dealing with a divorce, to planning long-term care for elderly parents, to getting out of debt. Befitting its facetious tone, the ihatefinancialplanning.com site also includes a soap opera story line about "a bunch of zeros and their financially depraved lives."
McQuillen said these are prime examples of youthful, unorthodox approaches that are attracting and retaining customers and their assets.
While not all of the approaches might be befitting of an established mutual fund company, McQuillen admitted, fund firms might want to take at least a few lessons from these approaches hitting home with investors, particularly the younger crowd.