Trust me, I'm a bank

In a year when some banks were taken under government control and others fought off collapse, the value of financial brands plunged.
After the collapse of Lehman Brothers, many banks are not only suffering from the financial after shocks that resulted from the failure of the 185-year-old bank, they are still shackled with negative brand perception.

Financial brands hardest hit

In a recent survey, some traditionally valuable brands normally associated with trust and stability, experienced a very bad year. Financial brands have had a stormy, if not disastrous year, with internationally famous names such as Citi and UBS seeing the value of their brand torn in half.

Re-evaluating relationships

The turbulence in the sector has meant consumers are re-evaluating the very nature of their relationships with financial brands and indeed how confident they feel these brands can live up to the promises they make. Consumers are putting financial services brands under the microscope and whatever they will see will duly effect 'stick or move' decisions.

'I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.' Bill Cosby

It has been said that financial services brands have simply become indistinct. Why is so? From a branding perspective, what happened to banks as they grew and merged is what's happened in other industries: the inverse relationship between scale and meaning takes over. The brand tries to become all things to all people and in the process loses its uniqueness, its edge, its soul, its reason for being. As Bill Cosby said: 'I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.'

Cola Wars

Being distinct can save you from becoming extinct. 

Coke and Pepsi discovered this in the 70s: In the cola wars the real battle is on the brand front, not the product front. Financial services brands are going through the same hurt. It will be interesting to see how Santander speaks to it's UK customers over the next year as its Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley brands disappear. How will essentially a brand conceived in Spain be distinctive and engage a UK audience?

Plugging the trust gap

In the year after the shocks of last autumn, a wave of reports have suggested that as perception and trust in banks has hit rock-bottom, many observers believe it provided opportunity for trusted brands from the retail sector and beyond to move in and plug the trust gap.

For example, O2’s pre-paid Visa cards initiative is likely to herald many more non-bank brands moving into the finance area. Unless traditional banks can quickly regain trust, customers will continue to seek new places to save and invest money and these places may well be trusted brands NOT in the traditional financial services arena.

A tarnished reputation or a golden opportunity?

You could argue that now is the time to re-think, re-evalue and re-invent how financial service brands connect with their audiences. This type of opportunity has arisen before...

First Direct. Direct hit.

You may remember the birth of First Direct in 1 October 1989. The launch featured different adverts run concurrently on different ITV and Channel 4, one offering a negative view showing the aspects of normal banking and the other a positive view of First Direct. The First Direct brand and the bank's operations broke the mould for financial services twenty years ago.

No frills logo helped position the brand

Even the logo made waves. It was (and still is) in no-nonsense, lowercase white Helvetica on a black background. No frills, just who we are - direct and to the point. To complete the messages, the strap line in those days was: 'Black and white banking'. We’re not advocating ‘mould breaking’ feats, but we could turn the threat banks and other financial services face into a golden opportunity.

Soul searching

Maybe it's time for banks to do some real soul searching. If you are responsible for steering a bank's brand through the rough seas ahead in 2012 you may want to consider the following:

  • Keep in touch with how households and businesses change their relationship to money. They're going to be looking for partners to match their level of attention...and raise it.
  • Re-examine what your brand stands for and how that 'stand' makes both commercial sense (financial benefit) and emotional sense (relationship building) to you, your organisation and your customers.
  • Communicate the refreshed 'you' in refreshing ways. Always play the same 'brand tune' but change the tempo and the instruments.
  • Be in touch with the zeitgeist. Consumers are in a hugely sceptical mood. Any sniff of not 'being in touch' with the needs (and fears) of savers, investors or those making transactions will mean ‘no deal’.
  • K.I.S.S (Keep it simple, stupid)
    Not because your customers are simple but because the best brands are simple, the best campaigns and the best logos, brochures, web sites are all honed down to the core messages those brands need to communicate.
  • Be Open. Create a dialogue, a two-way conversation between the brand and the customer. Brands that open up an honest conversation with consumers by using online channels to encourage positive and negative feedback are best placed to build trust and ultimately improve sales figures.
  • Co-create. In some sectors customers no longer will be satisfied with making 'yes' or 'no' decisions on what a company offers. Co-creation is a powerful practice of developing systems, products, or services through the collaborative execution of developers and stakeholders, companies and customers, or managers and employees.
  • Be distinctive with all the above.  It's a crowded market place out there and you will need to stand out, just take a look at

 Let's look at some examples of how some financial services brands are facing 'the new reality'

Trust me, I’m ethical: How the Co-op is doing it

In the last six months The Co-operative Group has seen a surge in demand for financial services as consumers desert the larger high street banks following the recent financial crisis. Applications for new current accounts have soared by 50% in the last six months.

This is what Peter Marks, Chief Executive, has to say...
'People have lost trust with banks, understandably so, and we've seen a very substantial increase in people opening new accounts and taking out mortgages. They want to be part of a company with an ethical approach, especially after the events of the last couple of years.'

Trust me, you already wear my undies: How Marks & Spencer is doing it...

In October 2009 M&S revamped its financial services brand - M&S Money - to leverage the trust consumers have in its retail brand. The high-street retailer has been keen to realign M&S Money with the quality and value associated with its retail operation. With headlines reading - 'Cover and support in all shapes and sizes - just like our underwear.' Ads for travel insurance will read: 'Gluten Free. GM Free. Now try commission-free.'

Trust me, I'm helpful: How NatWest is doing it...

Nat West summer advertising campaign runs under the banner of 'Helpful Banking'. One advert features a charming picture postcard scene of how NatWest keeps remote villages moving. Of all the current bank campaigns, NatWest's are the most human, by relying on locality, story telling, dialogue and on-screen personalities. OK, they got into trouble using the wrong postmistress though.

Trust me, I'm already your phone: How 02 is doing it...

The telecoms brand believes the diminishing reputation of traditional banking and finance brands has opened the door for non-banking brands to take the sector in a new direction.

Mobile operator’s launch of pre-paid Visa cards marks first step on a journey that aims to take the brand in a new direction. O2 is hoping to inject some “fresh thinking” into the financial services sector with the launch of its first payment cards.

Trust me, I'm new (in an old sort of way): How RBS is doing it...

The Royal Bank of Scotland is considering reviving the dormant bank brand Williams & Glyn's, a long-disappeared high street bank that first began life in Manchester in 1836. In doing so, RBS is reversing a recent trend in financial services of old names disappearing fast. 

Breathing life into an old financial brand enables RBS to distance itself from the fallout created by the banking crisis.

Trust me, I'm big: How Santander is doing it

The Spanish giant Santander is in the process of phasing out the names of its British acquisitions in a concerted effort to consolidate the power of its brand. The Santander flame logo is blazing a trail through the high street and familiar brands such as Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley are about to disappear. 

In the insurance sector, Aviva has scrapped the Norwich Union brand, as it pools its resources 
around the main brand.