What can the financial services industry learn from a confectionery manufacturer? The parallels are not obvious. But having spent this morning on the production line of a leading confectionery manufacturer, it strikes me that bankers could do worse than spend some time examining the dynamics of an industry that few of us ever pause to consider.
Nobody needs confectionery. It is not critical to our future well-being. The pleasure it offers is transitory. Financial services, by contrast, should be the oil that lubricates the engine of the global economy enabling trade to globalise and deliver prosperity to billions.
But it is bankers not confectionery makers that have the image problem. Nobody is accusing confectionery companies of bringing the global financial system to the brink of collapse and they have enjoyed over a century of extreme brand loyalty that the marketing departments of beleaguered banks can only dream about.
What struck me this morning was how obsessively the confectionery industry works at understanding its market place and earning legitimacy. It is an industry that is constantly under pressure from a range of popular causes: obesity, children’s health, recycling, waste disposal, carbon usage – and so on. There is hardly a health or environmental lobby group that wouldn’t have an opinion on what they do.
As a consequence, they have had to work hard to understand not only their customers – with all their varied cultural idiosyncrasies – but also all the wider social and political environments that shapes their market. With little or no strategic necessity to back them up, they have had to rely on an intense commitment to the sustainability of every stage of their supply chain. In all the clients that I have visited all over the world, I can’t think when I last encountered one with such a clear understanding of the wider economic and social context in which they work, nor with such passion for their business.
As an apex predator at the top of the commercial food chain, the banking industry has – in the past – had to worry much less than something as seemingly peripheral as confectionery manufacturers about justifying its place in the world. That is all changing.
The Occupy Wall Street group, the 99% Movement and associated groups in different parts of the world may be confused in their precise aims but they reflect a broader concern on extreme wealth disparity and a growing anxiety that free market capitalism is no longer the tide that is lifting all boats. Rightly or wrongly, the banking industry will continue to be the focus of both popular resentment and more extreme minority hostility. They might be advised to look at the lowly confectionery manufacturers to figure out how to win back the respect they once enjoyed.