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06 Sep 2013

Why Wonga is leaving media and critics behind

Posted on September 6, 2013 by

Most businesses routinely described as ‘predatory’ and ‘corrosive parasites’ and who’ve even had the Archbishop of Canterbury threatening to put them out of business, might have packed up and shipped out by now.

Or, alternatively, consumers might now be giving them such a wide berth due to the adverse coverage that they may have been forced to close.

But not the short-term lender Wonga, and its impeccably measured chief executive, Errol Damelin. Far from it.  This week the organisation released figures showing that its profits had leaped by a third to over £62.5 million, making it one of Britain’s biggest personal lenders.

Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth about ‘payday’ lenders and a host of knee-jerk reactions from the usual MPs and consumer groups, promising to do ‘something’ about it. Six Yorkshire councils have blocked access to payday lenders’ websites from all their public computers.

But how, in the face of such acrimony and criticism from such a powerful lobby, is Wonga managing to win the communications war? How has it managed to impose its brand so powerfully on the UK and defy those same critics?

Clearly a large advertising budget allowing a non-stop presence on national TV, and the headline sponsorship of football teams Blackpool and Newcastle United, partly accounts for awareness.

Equally, there is a consumer need for short-term lending facilities, and that need is not being met by high street lenders. But does that really equate to Wonga’s £1.2 billion of lending in 2012?

What Wonga has realised, and what its critics haven’t, is not to treat your audience like they are stupid.

Wonga has remained open, addressed industry issues, such as standards, but more importantly it has realised that in Damelin’s own words, consumers are “savvy” and increasingly “digital savvy”.

Critics of payday lenders are quick to defend the poor people that have become unwitting victims of the exorbitant interest rates, but slow to realise that the victims are, by and large, not unwitting at all.

The fact is, consumers get it. They understand what short-term lenders offer and they know that there are consequences for not paying it back. Whether they understand the full implications is another matter.

It’s all very well MPs painting Wonga as the pantomime villain, but not only are consumers “digitally savvy”, they are savvy to political sleight of hand. They understand when mud is being slung without a solution being proposed.

And that is because those critics aren’t willing to tackle the need for short-term loans in the first place – a long period of recession, salaries not keeping track with inflation, benefit changes and ultimately the remaining hangover from people being allowed to live on credit and beyond their means.

The triumph of Wonga’s communication is that whilst being criticised for being misleading or unclear about its products, it’s actually precisely the opposite – it keeps it simple.

Damelin described the company he co-founded in 2006 as a “private company operating in a public way” and that is precisely what it is doing. It provides a solution whereas its critics don’t, they just point the finger.

The opposing lobby aren’t setting the communications agenda, they are reacting to it, and that means they are always going to be playing catch-up.

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