Does equity release need its own ‘Starburst’ moment?

Stuart Wilson misses Opal Fruits (among other rebranded confectionary items) and argues, despite continued calls, equity release doesn't need its own rebranding exercise...

In the heart of my hometown of Reading, there is a shopping centre – it’s called the Broad Street Mall.

To me, and I imagine for many other Readingites of a ‘certain age’ it will forever be known by its original moniker: The Butts Centre.

St Mary’s Butts, from where the centre’s name originated, is an ancient part of Reading (once known as Readingas), a town which can trace its heritage back to the ‘ingas’ (followers or people) of a Saxon tribal leader called Reada – meaning quite literally ‘The Red One’.

Quite why a perfectly good name with strong historical links to our town’s past had to be rebranded to the insipid, Americanised ‘Mall’ is beyond me.

But perhaps that is just the grumpy, things-aint-what-they-used-to-be attitude of a 40-something seeping to the surface.

Image problem?

More often than not, when I am talking to people in our industry about the equity release market, the subject of rebranding crops up – equity release, many claim, has an ‘image problem’, so is the answer to rebrand equity release and call it something else?

This issue interests me because branding is important. Rebranding with a completely new name can have positive and negative outcomes.

For example, does anyone remember the disastrous – and hastily reversed – rebranding of the Post Office to ‘Consignia’?

And I’m still finding it hard to forgive Mars for rebranding Opal Fruits as Starburst.

By now you might have guessed which side of the rebranding fence I come down on in respect of equity release. And you’d be right, but not because I think rebranding is a bad idea but because I don’t believe it is the panacea to our industry’s issues.

For a start, equity release is not a product per se but an umbrella term for all sorts of products, some of which no longer exist.

Indeed, much of the cynicism and negativity towards equity release dates back to the mis-selling of Home Income Plans (HIPs) in the 1980s, a product which has long-since disappeared from our shelves.

Today, the equity release market consists almost entirely of sales of lifetime mortgages.

These products have their own trust issues, stirred up by negative press articles and the occasional high-profile complaint.

Interestingly, complaints to the FCA and Financial Ombudsman Service about lifetime mortgages are among the lowest in the whole of the financial services market, but latent negativity persists.

So, should we rebrand equity release or lifetime mortgages? Or both?

Equity release, despite all its HIPs baggage, is a great ‘Ronseal’ term – it does exactly what it says on the tin.

In a world of often confusing financial services jargon (Uncrystalised Funds Pension Lump Sum, anyone?) the term ‘equity release’ is universally understood by anyone who has owned a home and paid a mortgage on it for the last 20-30 years.

I’d also question just how long it would take to achieve this rebrand. A year? Five years? Ten?

I still say I’m going to the ‘Butts Centre’ sometimes out of sheer bloody-mindedness but also because it’s the name that springs to mind. It’s snappier, it trips off the tongue.

Imagine the thousands of web pages, the acres of space dedicated to discussing, explaining and reviewing ‘equity release’. Would all of this change overnight simply because the industry insists everyone else call it by a new name?

I dare say some of its detractors might even accuse the industry of a cynical ploy to “hide” the product sector’s murky past.

A more positive tack would be to reference the wider ‘retirement lending’ market, of which equity release is a part. The retirement lending market is huge with those aged 65 plus in the UK controlling around £1.4trn of housing wealth, much of it outright.

Our own research shows that retirees are keen to see more lending solutions provided for them as traditional lending options dry up.

Tapping into this potential would require new funding and product innovation, much of which would fall outside of the parameters of what we currently know and badge as ‘equity release’.

So I say a hearty ‘no’ to ‘doing a Starburst’.

Let’s focus instead on improving our industry’s image through education and transparency in product design.

Let’s reinforce the positive outcomes equity release can have on the lives of today’s often ‘asset rich/cash poor’ retiree. Because the grumpy, 40-something marketer in me says it would be a distraction, a waste of time, a bad idea.

And don’t even get me started on Snickers.

Stuart Wilson is technical director at more 2 life