Credit: Bank of Bird-in-Hand

What we talk about when we talk about money

Here’s a wee little challenge. Name something we talk about all the time — but not necessarily directly and full on. Something that dominates our thoughts, allows us to live fuller lives — and yet we struggle to talk about it transparently, instead settling for ambiguity and abstraction.

Love, yes. But also money.

Think about it a bit, and you start to see the way that any conversation about moolah is… see look, I’ve done it already… any conversation about money is almost impossible without using some sort of slang or idioms — familiar, funny, fulsome — to ease it along.

Now, of course there are some places where straight talking about the spondulicks is par for the course. In Sweden and Norway, the income people and earn, and the tax they pay is transparent (I can hear the Anglo-Saxons amongst you shuddering from here), but the very rarity of this type of arrangement makes it notable. And that’s even without railing against the jargon-filled blandishments that most financial services brands seem to delight in bamboozling us with.

So instead, we rely on turns of phrase to help us power us through chats about cash. I’m not saying this is a bad thing at all, not least because it can lead to some interesting places for financial services brands.

This line of thought was mostly recently prompted by the discovery of a bank in Pennsylvania, set up to serve the specific needs of the Amish and Mennonite community, and it takes its name from the particular town in which it based: The Bank of Bird-in-Hand.

Yes, it does that traditional thing that banks and building societies often do, being named after the place it was founded — Hello Halifax, Royal Bank of Scotland and please please please HSBC, Midland — to remind potential customers of the support that it can give to local businesses and other institutions.

But there’s a deeper thing being referenced here, of course: the proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” And then stop and think the last time that a bank reminded you, through its name or indeed any other communication, that it might be better for you to keep what you keep what you have than risk it for some more.

And, at least in my view, there is some charm to that name too; and charm is a much under-rated commodity when it comes to financial services communications. Clear and rational is fine, but we are perhaps suspicious of charm when it comes to money — is it that charming people liberate money from our wallets and purses more easily?

Compare and contrast this, dare we say it, olde world attitude with the vigour of the name and the language of a new bank called Atom. Immediately the name suggests an organisation fizzing with energy — you’re greeted with a ‘Wooohoooooooo!’ when you arrive at the home page — and it is promising an experience that isn’t just mobile and everyone, but also ‘telepathic’. A claim you can’t help but admire, even if you raise a quizzical eyebrow.

Naturally, we’ve seen attempts to liven up the name of financial services brands, and the language they use, before, Egg and Smile being the most famous of the former. Of the latter, Barclays grappling with Cockney rhyming slang at its cashpoints, sorry Holes in the Wall, is perhaps best forgotten — certainly, no one has tried something as bold since. And maybe it was inevitable that Wonga would eventually run into trouble, a case of brand nominative determinism, perhaps.

Which suggests a deeper truth: that there are limits to the creativity that can be delivered in this space, and that people don’t necessarily want too much monkeying around when it comes to how their money is discussed; that we are pretty hard-wired to expect trust from families (Barclays of course, being an upstanding Quaker family business when it first started) and demand language that speaks of a reassuring solidity, rather than fashions and fads that might disappear tomorrow. I’m not sure, for example, that you’d want to deposit your money at a place called Melmotte or Nicker.

So what other proverbs, idioms or folk sayings might be a source of inspiration when it comes to launching your new bank? I’ve always hoped that someone might be brave enough to call their offering ‘Deep Pockets’, or maybe even ‘High off the Hog’ — now, there’s a purpose for a bank, with no abstraction or ambiguity at all.

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