For do-it-yourself (DIY) American tax filers, April has long meant days of paperwork and pain. And as our tax code keeps getting more complex, there would be every reason to expect our misery to grow.
For many Americans, though, it hasn’t.
Why not? The trend of DIY e-filing, which has grown significantly for filers with simple tax returns since its inception in the early 2000s. And when it comes to DIY, two leaders stand out: Intuit’s TurboTax, which helped around 30 million individuals file themselves in 2015, and H&R Block, which was used to file about 7 million returns last year.
But here’s what we want to know: how do the DIY offering and supporting communications live up to the brand’s larger promise? And, to take it a step further, does the e-filing experience help each company go far enough in accomplishing its business goals?
We asked our experts to evaluate the brand experience across four categories—Brand Identity & Expression, User Experience and Social Presence—in key touch points.
BRAND IDENTITY & EXPRESSION
TurboTax’s brand promise lives under Intuit. It’s a company that does much more than sell accounting software, it simplifies the business of life. By extension, TurboTax alleviates the stress of tax time, making taxes as easy as possible.
That brand message is well-reflected in the more professional but still approachable identity that launched in 2013 to significant praise. TurboTax smartly brought back its association with Intuit, which was previously missing, and introduced a cleaner typeface—removing italics that Brand New noted “made it look like a discount piece of software.” The more professional mark aligns with a more premium offering: while TurboTax is not prohibitively expensive, it’s not selling on price (there are other options out there that clearly are). And given the controversy around recent price increases, the company needs to justify a higher-end offering.
Even more on-brand is the clean, red checkmark. As we said above, TurboTax isn’t trying to sell a tech platform; it’s selling stress relief, and a sense that you can complete a seemingly daunting task with ease. The checkmark, then, is a nod to the “I did it” feeling. It’s an identity that is fully on-message.
TurboTax’s website—the brand’s “digital front door” for customers—lives up to its simplicity promise. The home page is incredibly clean, with approachable graphics white space that has a calming effect. In addition, there’s a helpful “Why TurboTax” page summarizing all the reasons to choose them.
H&R Block’s stated promise is to “look at your life through tax and find ways to helpyear-round.” Values-wise, they are very much about humility, and doing the right thing.
Like TurboTax, H&R Block’s identity has also has gone through a shift. Its “green block” dates back to 2000; back then, the company stated that its development was meant to “remind customers that we offer products and services to meet all of their financial needs, in addition to tax preparation.” The green was praised as a departure from the “stodgy blue logo [the industry] had become accustomed to.”
And now, the company’s name has moved inside the block: a move that some have speculated is a nod to their continued emphasis on a “year-round” operation. Despite the simplicity of the mark and the literal tie-in the name, it’s a more abstract message that doesn’t as clearly convey the value to the customer.
Overall, the H&R block website is less aligned with its brand message. While similar in much of the content and approach to TurboTax, key differences make for a less customer-friendly experience that isn’t aligned to its stated values. The “Relax, we’re open year round” is the most-on brand aspect of the site; many other elements feel discordant.
For example, for a company that puts an emphasis on humility, the Emerald Card is a distracting product push in not one, but two places on the home page. When selecting “File Free Online,” there’s a confusing experience direct to a sign-up or login page that contains no further information about the product (unlike TurboTax, which has a helpful landing page to collect more information and appropriately direct the customer). And the “File Online” landing page, while similar in functionality to TurboTax, has an corporate-sounding and promotional message about “H&R’s online tax filing product” that is again jarring when it touts a humility message. In contrast, TurboTax’s messaging is customer-first.
In contrast to the website, the journey through the H&R Block “basic” package reveals a strong, on-brand experience that lives up to its promises—in fact, the organization is so confident in it that CEO William Cobb praised an “outstanding user experience” as the driver of the company’s DIY growth in the 2015 Annual Report.
The user’s home screen is divided into three sections:
Organize My Tax Life, through which a user can upload receipts and other tax documents you’ve accumulated throughout the year.
My Tax History, which takes you to a clean, simple summary of every year you’ve filed with H&R Block.
The H&R Block Emerald Card, a promotion for a prepaid card and app.
Again, the Emerald Card is at first blush promotional and slightly distracting, but it may be defensible in the context of H&R Block’s larger business push—to ensure consumers know it’s a year-round, more than just one month a year, business.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, H&R Block also requires a valid Social Security number to begin any part of the process—not an issue for those already committed to using the service, but it may turn off users looking to try before they buy.
Throughout the experience, various features do a strong job of working for the user:
- · Sections begin with a list of relevant documents you’ll need to have available.
- · Tool tips appear when a user rolls over a red link that explain each step in layman’s terms.
- · The user is offered the choice to upload key documents to the cloud for later.
- · Each time the refund trackers change, whether federal or state, you’re offered an explanation as to why the shift happened.
In short? It’s a platform that aligns well with H&R’s brand: an experience built on humility, speaking to its users with approachable language and never talking down to users as it guides even the most inexperienced filer through the filing process.
TurboTax applies many of these same principles and filters them through their brand lens to deliver an experience that feels fundamentally true to every other element of the brand.
Consider its recent, widely-celebrated ad campaigns: this year, the spots center around real-life geniuses assisting your average DIY tax filer with complex questions such as, “Did you get married this year?” They’re perfect testaments to the brand’s core promises: to remove stress from your life, to make the process as simple as possible, and to help you almost have fun in telling your year’s story to the Taxman.
The platform’s experience delivers across the board on these ideas. The uncluttered design of the initial Q&A—complete with supporting iconography—give the interface a clean feel as you answer basic questions about the last year of your life.
TurboTax personalizes each page, referencing your filing state, and even offers on-message video explainers for why a taxpayer might make a certain choice. Coupled with nice treatment of the standard features—federal and state refund trackers, a clean overall progress bar—it’s an excellent experience. Of course, filing taxes is serious business so they don’t bring in the sense of humor from their advertising campaigns, which makes sense.
Finally, we took a quick look to see just how well these brands translated their messages to the wide space of social networks. Both companies see these channels as tactical places to really express their promises—and, perhaps not coincidentally, they have strong, quite similar social profiles. Both are closing in on 30,000 Twitter followers, and post relevant content 5-7 times per day. Both use Facebook to directly reply to queries, and share thought leadership. And both are impressive in their recent forays into Instagram, boasting a few thousand followers each.
For H&R Block, each channel is a different way of expressing the company’s key message: they’re more than just last-minute support on April 14th. On Twitter, this manifests itself through tailored thought leadership that overwhelmingly does not talk about April 15th; one post, for example, highlights a year-round tax calendar by asking: “Do you have moving expenses? Send the kids to summer camp?” Its Facebook channel primarily operates as a support center for inquiries, along with sharing of similar thought leadership. On Instagram, its description smartly condenses the core message: “Helping you navigate taxes more than one day a year.”
TurboTax similarly has looked across channels to support the notion of celebrating the customer as hero. Its Instagram description begins, “It’s amazing what you’re capable of,” and across channels it frequently touts the hashtag #YouDidIt to further the notion of accomplishment. TurboTax also uses social to serve one of its secondary goals: sharing its broader relationship with the Intuit network, as it posts thought leadership from Mint.Com, another Intuit brand. Each channel is a strong representation of the TurboTax promise, and above all is spirited—balancing professionalism with the idea that taxes, when approached from the right perspective, are a powerful way to reflect on your year.
The bottom line? Both platforms and communications stand up well to their brand stories and promises—though to varying degrees. TurboTax announced 2016 results that show it’s continuing to grow, while H&R Block stumbled, assisting with 5.8% fewer returns this year.
The experience counts: TurboTax does a great job of a putting forward a unified experience across its channels, and staying true to its simplicity message. H&R Block hits hard on its year-round messaging and has an incredibly user-friendly platform experience.
But each also has significant opportunities: How can H&R Block do more to make its year-round message contextually relevant to customers beyond tax time? How can they do a better job of drawing new users to the platform, and make some of the early-touch points better live up to the brand? How can they stake out a more differentiated part of the market, and better define and play to the right kind of customer?
On the other hand, how can TurboTax continue to celebrate the process of filing, and continue to play on the emotional side of taxes to increase engagement? How can they parlay their success in the tax space to build engagement with other relevant Intuit services?
As long as both companies focus on how the brand experience extends to every customer touch point, they’ll continue to see success.