Should Which? launch its own product range?

A number of recent media reports suggest Which? is going to launch its own product range. I must admit the concept fills me with fear for an organisation I admire.

The work Which? does is often complementary to MSE – though from a different angle. Where it takes a stance, we link to it – as with its great work on endowment misselling – and recently we’ve discussed joining forces on some projects.

Yet of course that doesn’t mean I always agree. I still think the rebranding of campaigning arm The Consumer Association to the same name as its paid-for magazines, Which?, wasn’t necessarily the best move and risked a reputational impact – and I have similar worries if it launches its own product range.

Currently details are scant, and the idea seems nebulous, but I think the impact depends on exactly what the products are…

  • The Nightmare: Active products e.g. credit cards, insurance, washing machines.

    The best way I can explain my worry here is the fact that in the past I’ve been asked if we wanted to launch an Martin Lewis/MSE credit card and even an Martin Lewis mortgage. The first I simply turned down, and the second – during the mortgage height – the company asked ‘just tell us how you’d like it to be structured?’ and my reply was roughly as follows…

    “I would love to set up a Martin Lewis mortgage product, providing the interest rate is 0% and it comes with 100% cashback. Do that and I’ll be confident it can’t be beaten, if not then I won’t put my name on it.”

    And that’s my worry for Which? It is impossible for it to be the best buy on every product, so what will it recommend if other products are better? How will it deal with that clash? This would be the major nightmare and I hope and presume it’ll stay very clear.

  • Not bad at all: Advice services.

    If the products are services building on Which?’s campaigning reputation and expertise the worry is diminished. For example it already has a legal hotline. Things such as will writing or even claims handling, that were reliable and competitively priced, aren’t such a bad idea.

  • A strong concern: Which? comparison services.

    This for me is the halfway house, still quite a substantial cause for concern, but not as bad as actual products. Which? has been highly critical of many comparison sites itself and the way they operate – yet these are big money companies with resources that easily outgun its own. They can be rapid and technologically advanced in their development.

    Can it truly compete and be better? In some of the less complex areas with fewer providers, such as energy, this is less of a problem and it may succeed, but then let me rephrase the question…

    Can it truly compete with and be better than ALL THE OTHERS COMBINED? And that is the nub – often combining comparison services is the best result – it’s what we suggest people do for car insurance and home insurance for example. Is Which? going to be better? Perhaps even more importantly, if it isn’t the best will it tell people – will it recommend others alongside itself?

There is a great deal of murky water here and I think it needs to be very careful.

While of course innovation is always important and I know these ideas stem from Chief Executive Peter Vickery-Smith, a man with a great reputation who once worked for high-end managment consultants McKinsey, I think it is important to urge caution. Trying new things can be good, but once you let the genie out of the bottle…

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