Helen Edwards: Creditable brand lessons from Wonga and BrightHouse

Helen Edwards
Helen Edwards

Disapproval of brands providing credit-based services to blue-collar customers fails to acknowledge consumers' right to choose them.

Imagine this. Onto Britain's drab high streets you have introduced a thriving retail format, growing fast and clearly serving a customer need. What's more, these aren't pound shops or pawnbrokers, with their tawdry reminder of the economic gloom; they are bright, optimistic environments selling high-tech leisure equipment and aspirational furniture. Yet, when you announce stellar results, with revenues up 17%, the acknowledgement from the press is tempered with a palpable unease.

The brand is BrightHouse, and the squeamishness about celebrating its success arises from its business model: rent-to-buy. Its blue-collar customers typically end up owning their smart TV or leather recliner set by paying weekly instalments over three years. What pricks the conscience of the commentators is their concern about the APR – running at just under 30%.

Mixed reception

For chief executive Leo McKee and his marketers, piloting BrightHouse must be like working in an ongoing good-news-bad-news joke. The good news is that your customers like what you do so much that you will open 35 new stores this year. The bad news is that busybodies, from The Observer to Barnardo's, think they know better than those customers what is good for them.

The charity Credit Action is typical in its dismissal of the chain, advising consumers to save for new goods rather than pay its high credit rates. Sure, people could put aside £4 a week at near-0% interest and get a new HD TV in time for the Olympics - but it will be the ones held in Rio, not London. Or they can choose – that verb is deliberate – to pay £5.80 a week instead and have it to watch right now.

'Right now' is the bit the commentators don't get about a cohort that chooses to live, not by middle-class modes of deferred gratification, but for the moment, willing to trade off a little long-term affluence for immediacy. It is a free choice in a free market; the customers have deemed the credit terms to be worth it. Why the angst?

Market misapprehension

Still, it could be worse: you could be a marketer at Wonga, the phenomenally successful payday loan brand. Your ad tops the recall ratings, and Marketing asks the cultured Richard Huntington, director of strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi, to comment – who tortures himself in trying to both praise the creative idea and express deep misgivings about the use to which it has been put.

Huntington falls in with the many who characterise the Wonga customer as 'vulnerable', rather than someone with a brain who could use a few quid until the end of the month and is quite able to understand precisely what the service will cost.

That precision is testament to the clarity of the Wonga website, with its interactive slider that shows you to the penny what you are in for. The representative APR of 4214% is clearly displayed, even though, by law, this must be arrived at by assuming a year-long loan and compounding daily – two things the business doesn't do.

Wonga and BrightHouse are brands that understand a cohort many businesses have lost touch with, pioneering a formula that combines immediacy, optimism and simplicity without patronisation.

They are successful and their customers rate them – Wonga's Net Promoter Score is up there with Apple's. Do they really deserve our disapprobation? Or is it time for a little credit?

 

30 SECONDS ON: BLUE-COLLAR BRANDS 1st edition of The Sun tabloid

  • The Sun was envisaged, in owner Rupert Murdoch's words, as a 'straightforward newspaper' for the people (first tabloid edition, from November 1969, pictured). Showbiz, TV and sport are given as much emphasis as the paper's accessible take on politics, which comes heavy on puns and light on jargon. It's Britain's biggest-selling daily, with two in three readers in the C2DE demographic - manual labourers, pensioners and those receiving benefits. Polski Sun editions were produced in 2008 to cater for Polish immigrants.
  • JD Wetherspoon started in the 70s with the simple proposition of helping conversations flow through cheap beer, long hours and no music - three things that struck a chord with blue-collar consumers, if the pub chain's £1bn yearly revenue is anything to go by. Founder and chairman Tim Martin, described in The Observer as 'the metropolitan elite's worst nightmare' - he calls dinner parties his 'idea of hell' - wanted to create a place to 'have a few pints and shoot the breeze'.
  • Dave, an everyman TV channel, was named because owner UKTV believes 'everyone knows a bloke called Dave'. Billing itself as 'the home of witty banter', Dave shows blokey comedy programmes such as Top Gear and Mock the Week.

 

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. Follow her on Twitter: @helenedw

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