It’s a bit like Marmite. You either love it or hate it.

It’s a bit like Marmite. You either love it or hate it.

10 minute read

No, it’s not what you might think. I’m not talking about what I like to spread on my toast. I’m actually talking about our approach to communications. After picking the brains of some of the people I work with, I’ve discovered that most of our prospective clients sit in one of two camps: they either love what we do or they hate it. Let me explain.

We’re not a ‘sit on the fence’ kind of agency. We don’t create wishy-washy communications. We tell it how it is. We’re not afraid to disrupt the status quo and do things differently. And let’s face it, a lot of trustees and employers are risk averse and afraid of change. I think that’s why the majority still insist on using the ‘P’ word when they’re communicating with their employees about their retirement; pensions is a universally accepted term and coming away from it would signify change. But I think that if companies want to genuinely engage and encourage a response from their audiences, change has to happen. There needs to be less focus on ‘pensions’ and more of a focus on ‘saving for life’ and the bigger picture of rewards and benefits. Why? Well, when you hear the word pension, what kind of image does it conjure up for you? For me, it’s an image of being in a weekly queue to collect the State offering. It’s a bit depressing isn’t it? If our research is anything to go by, pensions is a term that undeniably results in this kind of thinking, so it’s no surprise that many employers are left with little to no engagement when they talk about their schemes in this way. It’s not really an image to get excited about.

A pension can also seem so far away, but by making small changes to how we talk about the topic we can begin to tap into present bias and get people to think about how what they do today can impact their overall quality of life. Of course it’s about more than just terminology - it’s about the channels we use to communicate too. What might have worked years ago (printed booklets with reams and reams of text) will most certainly not work today. I’m not saying that traditional written communication needs to disappear altogether, but providers need to think about how they can use them to complement the evolving digital landscape.

A lot of employers seem set in their ways and it’s something we like to challenge people on; we try to encourage people to get out of their comfort zone because that’s when truly great things happen.

Clearly, we don’t know of a one-size-fits all approach when it comes to getting people to think about their future (everyone’s different after all) but here’s what we do know: there are different groups within the workplace and all will overlap at some point. There’s Gen X (born 1960s-1980s and already representing over 50% of most employees), Gen Y (also known as Millennials, born 1980s-1990s) and Gen Z (born around the Millenium). Despite the fact that all of these groups are different, a report by Great Place to Work found that they all want the same thing in a job. Their top priorities are pay and financial benefits. So if benefits are the most important factor, why are people still not really interested in maximising their benefits for their future? I think a lot of this is down to the way we communicate ‘pensions’ with employees, and actually the lack of engagement could be a direct correlation with that word.

Many companies see employees through a single lens and not as either an advocate or a consumer. But we’re all consumers aren’t we? Some of us might be employed but fundamentally we are who we are. Our behaviour might change slightly in a professional environment but our wants, needs and motivations remain the same whether we’re in or out of the workplace. So why don’t organisations recognise this when they’re talking about benefits?

If you look at any other area of consumer marketing you’ll notice most advertising strategies adopt a chatty tone of voice and use personalised content to get their message across - some might even push boundaries. Pension communications on the other hand are usually generic, formal and quite difficult to understand and relate to. I think companies that communicate in this way are a bit lazy. They’re reluctant to change. They want to stay safe and produce ‘comfortable’ communications. But companies have to change how they talk about pensions and try new digital platforms in order to create a change in consumer behaviour.


Einstein summed it up perfectly: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’.

We adopt a consumer-first approach and we’re also big advocates of being experimental and thinking of new ways to reach and engage audiences. I think businesses have to be that way in order to not just survive but thrive.

The employment landscape is changing and more and more people are relying on technology and different ways of consuming data - it feels as if this sector is getting left behind. Think of a time when you might want to communicate with a brand and access a service, like when you go on holiday and download your boarding pass to your phone or when you check live service updates on the Trainline app or when you order a cab through Uber. Now think about how vastly different the experience is when you want to look at your pension savings. You’re far more likely to spend your time on some frantic Googling or at worst, trying to dig out that long lost paper statement! The point is, the whole experience is much more difficult.

It takes weeks, sometimes months, for administrators to communicate with their members. You’d think that, given the amount of time it takes, administrators would be delivering groundbreaking communications or at least something a bit different to a standard letter. But I think many are living in the dark ages, producing archaic communications, so it’s no wonder many schemes fail to engage with their members. I know the way the pensions industry is structured means that there are barriers to live manipulation of data and being able to instantly talk to consumers. And I know there are system constraints that prevent us and many administrators taking communications to the next level. But I think it’s time for change - there needs to be a balance between control and what consumers need.

Just imagine how much more engagement you’d get if people could use their phones to control their contributions. The statistics speak for themselves; according to Tech Crunch, global app downloads exceeded 175 billion in 2017 and it’s clear we all rely on our mobile phones. The Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey 2017 revealed that 91% of people aged between 16-75 had used their smartphone in the last 24 hours to go online and 55% look at their phone within 15 minutes of waking. If that isn’t convincing enough, just over half of all respondents used their smartphone for at least one business related activity and 19% use their phone outside of working hours for business purposes. Clearly this shows there’s a real gap in the market when it comes to pensions communication - people want to carry out business activities on the go but the facility just isn’t there. Employers also aren’t leveraging the power of social networks to understand their audience, create real-time engagement and improve internal communication. Facebook for Business now has millions of users and a wide demographic of people using the platform (predominantly Millennials) so it’s a channel that is yielding some great results and employee interaction.

There’s obviously still a need for long-form, written communication (we create this regularly for our clients) but I also know that in the digital age consumers react to short and snappy messages and easy to digest information, like video content. This is only going to become more prevalent as our reliance on mobile phones and the download of digital applications continues to increase.

A recent report by Growth Business predicts that by 2020 Millennials and Generation Z will make up over half the global workforce. We know that these generations are multitaskers and they crave instant gratification and knowledge. They want regular check-ins and reviews with their employers and they like to constantly be in the know, probably because they’ve grown up with social media. We also know that they’re reliant on technology - 93% of Millennials say up-to-date tech is one of the most important factors in the workplace. A report by HBR also revealed that although Gen X and Millennials think their employers’ digital capabilities are important, only 40% think their companies digital capabilities are high.

So clearly there’s a real need for employers to create data-driven, digital communications but there continues to be a real gap between the pensions sector and what others are doing. It’s also clear that as the landscape continues to shift, this gap is only going to get bigger.

We’re already working with our clients to help them change the way they communicate.  The focus is on talking to consumers in a language that they understand and producing relevant, personalised communications. I think that’s so incredibly important when you’re talking to someone about their future - we need to tap into people’s aspirations and dreams to motivate them to take action and start saving.

The statistics reveal that employees think financial benefits at work are important so it can’t be a lack of wanting to save for retirement. People just don’t engage, so how do we change that? The way we talk to people and the channels we use to communicate surely play a part in this.

Digital apps, social media and mobile phone marketing are all accepted ways of communicating with consumers but they’re not really being used to talk about pensions and we have to ask why? That’s where we come in. When a client works with us, it’s not our job to guide them to the same destination they’ve been before. It’s our job to challenge their perceptions, to get underneath the skin of their audiences and deliver communications that will cut through the noise and drive action. I think to do that we need to leverage the knowledge we have, use the technology that’s available and explore the platforms and opportunities around us to create fully-rounded campaigns that make a difference. Either way, love it or hate it, it’s what we do.

It’s a bit like Marmite. You either love it or hate it.
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Nigel Ferrier
Nigel Ferrier
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