Bank Branding’s Magic Bullet – Another CxO

This will be short but definitely not sweet. Then again if you are reading one of my articles expecting the latter your segmenting is off.

After all I’ve been writing in the last two weeks about Banks becoming brands before the brands beat them to the punch and become banks, I had a flurry of insightful conversations. Everyone seems to agree the intentionality is inexistent. With the exception of the handful of banks I mentioned starting with CheBanca! no bank honestly wants to become a beloved brand.

Some people will either excuse them as corporations “Forgive them for their are a monolithic structure and can do no better” or accuse them as corporations “Lloyds is big but is i the size of Apple?!? –Judging by revenue – Bizarrely they are nearly as large in terms of employees- How come they can work hard to keeps us in love with them?”.

“Love me or love me not?!?”

The reason why banks have historically done no better in branding is complex and most of it has to do with the evolution and history of these organisations and their relationship with the consumer. Every other band we are quoting has given its relationship with the consumer much more thought and importance than banks have done or even allowed themselves to do.

On the other side, the reason why we get up in arms about this lack of brand as a consumer, is that we feel horribly taken for granted by organisations we already are not prepared to be detangled from and that hurts our feelings.

We can break branding into as many layers as we like and discuss all the departments of a bank and the history behind deposits till the purple cows come home (anyone ever seen one in banking btw?) but it boils down to one major thing: banks don’t value the relationship and consumers feel it.

A bank CxO that’s needed – for a change

How many banks do you know who have a Chief Value Officer? Someone who is in charge of protecting their belief in their customer focus and their real goals and who would zap anyone from teller to CEO when they do stuff against the intrinsic value of the brand? In some cases a Chief No-BS-Officer would do. Note I am not proposing a Chief Brand Officer because that ought to be the CEO and everyone else who ought to be invested in the soul of the company to make it happen. I’m just asking for someone high enough and invested enough to remind everyone in the bank about the ethos behind the fancy mission statements. Someone to say “We lost our religion around here. Our religion was to serve the consumer. To even help if we can. To make their experience enjoyable, preserve their value and create more value for them. Their value is our value. Get back to protecting and making it.”

Some banks have de facto CVOs – most are the Experience Supermen I was talking about here, just last week Saxo Bank created a new role-a Chief Experience Officer and went outside of the organisation to get the best person for it, and some – very few- banks have other CxOs who understand the value of talking about value (sic!) such as the legendary Michael Harte who speaks about creating it every chance he gets and whose personal religion about this has made CBA the immensely profitable bank it is today but most are infuriatingly far from comprehending why getting a CVO would help.

The Magic Bullet of Bank Branding

Building value means a lot of things and is a major task but for someone with enough IQ and drive and a the heart in the right place it can be done. Not alone, a CVO would need each and every of the other bank employees to pull this off. A CVO would not do away with the Business Prevention Department just build more bridges. A CVO would not ease the immense IT and Ops back-logs, just vehemently point to which of those are value building. A CVO would not stop the incessant, utterly disconnected from consumers and sometimes reality discussions about divisional P&L but would show the bonus worriers how to create value first then watch the rewards pour in.

Get a CVO banks and try to get one of the “Empowered Few”, maybe even an “Eager Beaver” and even better an “Outsider” and not a “Deadwood”, “Incompetent” or definitely not a “Retired-to-Be” (as per David Brear’s genius classification on the Financial Brand) because if you get a CVO you’ll magically grow a brand.

Irrational Bank Loyalty – Part 2: Banks and the Accidental Brand

(Continued from Part 1 which can be found here.)

“Oops I guess we have a brand” –  Accidental Branding

The opposite of intended branding -Awareness, Identity, Advertising and PR as we discussed in Part 1- is what I call “accidental branding” and this would be the total experiences and emotions that a bank has created, and responses it has elicited in its customers without meaning to, over time. Some of it is intrinsically positive but most is not. Stands to reason that the former should be amplified and the latter minimised as soon as we dissect which one is which.

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This is where things become truly interesting and banks really should make it a serious to do to explore this in painstaking detail. A really serious to do. Not one of the “P.S. tasks” at the end of long strategy execution and implementation plans after all regulatory, compliance and security to dos and at the end of the unattainable “fluffy” digital and cultural change goals but top of the list: “To find out why our customers won’t leave and how to make them love us”. Below are a few examples of this but this is by no means exhaustive, it should simply be seen as a teaser list to start us off.

A lot of the banks’ brand capital has to do with “tradition“. The definition of the term in this context is worth exploring as it includes key terms such as “respect”, “identity”, “safety”, “nostalgia”, “heritage, “reputation” and the all-star-term of banking: “trust”. Tradition is of course not intentional branding but it can become so – brands are studying tradition and the smart ones are capitalising on its huge potency to bridge with new generations.

Some of the banks’ brand capital has to do with “fear“. Sheer loathing of going through the process of change. It cannot be underestimated despite the great lengths switching campaigns have been through to both make the process simple and to communicate its simplicity effectively to the public. Realistically, to overcome the fear of change when it comes to something as life critical as one’s bank account, most people need to invest upfront, a disproportionate amount of ad-hoc trust in the competing offering being exponentially better and that’s a huge ask. I can only hope that Challenger Banks have taken this issue to heart and have done all the homework they can on this.

Paralysis” is for better or worse part of the brand capital a bank still has today by nature of the service. In banking services are bundled and securely tie consumers to one provider. It’s a beautifully captive consumerism model high street brands can never ensure. While I can sometimes cheat on my intense relationship with Ted Baker by buying the odd Louboutin on eBay or even by nipping into Next or Primark on a whim, I can’t as readily decide to save my money for the day with someone other than NatWest. This is changing, if you look at payments as a behavioural issue and you see people electing to use PayPal, Venmo or even Apple Pay over their bank’s app or card, the fact that the rails are the same is irrelevant as the brand loyalty coins fall in the jar of these brands not that of their banks.

Golden service hacks” – it’s sad that this is accidental but it’s one of the few positives along with “tradition” so it’s worth mentioning. Whether by wanting to be innovative or by wanting to show change some banks have sometimes hit on improvements so grand that they’ve have been transformative to people’s lives and have boosted their brand capital. At times it’s been as small as Bank Simple’s famous “Free-to-spend” feature allowing people to see what’s left that they can spend when they do a balance enquiry, or as complex as offering consumers the ability to see all of their bank relationships in one place as Bank of America pioneered in the US. In other industries, offering a disproportionate amount of value or extreme ease of use is intentional and designed as brand addictive (the other night Alton Towers sold me a “no questions asked, in case it rains or you no longer fancy it” cancellation policy on a vacation for seven quid, I’m in love despite the maiming potential!).

On a great comments thread about this someone mentioned “entanglement” as a part of the branding. This can mean so many things – everything from an unhealthy Stockholm syndrome where we hate our bank captors but we won’t leave once the doors unlock to a positive mishmash of attitudes and feelings that are interwoven in our life fabric, and add to the positive brand capital pot. Bankers: if you’re too busy with whatever else is on the list of “serious stuff” – at least mandate someone else to explore this, it will only pay off.

“We’re doing just fine, thank you!” – Measuring Brand

The examples we talked about last week are built from near-scratch – in the grand scheme of things even ING Direct is a challenger let alone mBank and CheBanca. Smart, bold visionaries decided to start with the emotional connection in mind. With the excellence in engagement as the first brick. At building a lasting brand. Their Net Promoter Scores and other measurements no less those of their ever growing coffers demonstrate this was the correct strategy. No contest.

What of the giants though? What of the old school incumbents, of the oldest banks ever, what can they do to correct course? There are many voices to ask for them to spawn brands. And they have done so all over Europe (see Hello and Consors banks and BNP, Comdirect and Commerzbank, etc) and aside from the sad story of Egg there’s a successful example in the UK: FirstDirect.

Yes it is head and shoulders above others in terms of customer satisfaction and people love it but at the risk of ruffling all feathers let’s call a spade a spade – they have “Best Customer Satisfaction in the UK”... for a bank not for a brand. Our expectations in banking as a consumer have been lowered by every other provider to the point that decent treatment will render us ecstatic.

More importantly, if you look at its model intimately and if you examine its total number of customers acquired in what is now tens of years the results are far from stellar. I personally think it’s a good example of why becoming a brand needs to be a transformative whole-bank process starting as a mindset at the top – HSBC has elected to do “Exceptional customer service as an experiment” not engage all its consumers but almost isolate those who needed to identify, belong and appreciate them in this corner of a design-led universe where services are the same as the mothership but the way they deal with problems exceeds expectations.

“All banks are the same” – Perceived Lack of Choice

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“All men are the same” is the well known adage of battered women who choose to stay in a bad relationship – why attempt change if you don’t believe in better and don’t feel that there’s an alternative? I bet a few of us instinctively thought that if we read the many “yet we won’t leave” of Part 1.

In the UK the rhetorics often goes like this “Go where?!? There’s no choice, just different names and they offer the same thing! First Direct is still HSBC, TSB is Lloyds and the Challengers are not exactly out there yet!” -but realistically there are notable differences between these, maybe not in current accounts but in savings, investments, etc. Then there’s nimble Metro, there’s the incumbent of challengers, Santander, and there are the many other services you would need to only download the app of to nearly construct your own bank between Nutmeg, OnTrees, TransferWise, LendingClub and others although I recognise doing so requires a level of FinTech Geekery blissfully unbeknown to the general population.

“So what’s the answer?”

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 08.49.35I don’t have formulas, there are great minds who struggle with how to understand branding intimately, and a lot of what banks are doing today will help even if again, accidentally, to improve the brand the don’t even know they have, I would just like to see a serious dialogue started in banks on “How to become a Brand? And Fast!”. Maybe the answer is to read more, explore more, copy more, dream more and feel more. Whatever it takes.

Irrational Bank Loyalty – Part 1

Following what was overwhelming response last week to my “Everything is a brand – everything but a bank” article I’ve decided I’ll explore this further and break down what being a brand in the Financial Industry really means and what it could become if we took this seriously, but this turned out to be a gigantic post so I’ve split it in two parts because I care about your time and want you to read it all and of course, because I’m hoping to gain some brand capital on the back of said caring.

Loyalty in Banking – as Irrational as it comes

Consider what these people feel strongly loyal to on this Reddit thread – forget the almost-religious Apple/Android debates and the Google and Samsung declarations of love – take a look at the other brands and the brief explanations for the likes of Cadbury, Nintendo or Vegemite. Do you see how emotionally charged the connections are, how strong the beliefs, can you imagine them talking about a bank that way?

Loyalty is rational if it matches how invested we are in a brand simply put: the more we like it, the more likely it is to stay put.

One of the premises I started with last week was that we have all instinctively known for a long time that there is a degree of loyalty in banking that doesn’t seem to correlate with our declared hate of the institutions.

This is an actual App designed to let you dislike - I wonder how many banks feature in there
This is an actual App designed to let you dislike – I wonder how many banks feature in there

While banks consistently rank lower than most other brands (we’ll discuss the FirstDirect exception in Part 2) in customer satisfaction we still don’t leave and switching never made a significant impact. It’s the equivalent of recognising you’re in a broken marriage and yet choosing to stay. In fact it’s worse than that, as in Britain people will more readily get a divorce than get another bank account.

Our loyalty to banks we hate – It’s fascinating, it’s worth exploring and it’s certainly irrational.

Brand as Identity

Truly valuable brand experiences are addictive and sticky (I’m fascinated with the medium echelon the likes of Ted Baker or even Top Gear and another post explores this theme on its own) but most important they become part of the customer’s own narrative and identity – who we wear, what we listen to, what we we watch – there’s never any pride in who we bank with.

Brands work hard to become part of the fabric of who we are – banks couldn’t be further from that yet we don’t leave.

Inbuilt Arrogance 

Whether they realise it or not banks are obnoxiously arrogant about our unwillingness to leave them. Consider this: if you call a mobile telephony company you will invariably have an option to “Press 3 if you are thinking of leaving us”! – how many times have you heard it when you phoned your bank?

No one advocates they take it to the Comcast extreme where people can famously not leave irrespective of how long them plead for it but what more clear sign of being taken for granted than not being fast-tracked if you are *that* upset?

Most brands care deeply about keeping us, banks do not – yet we stay put. 

“Intentional Branding” – Advertising and PR

Last week I was stunned to see there are still those who equate brand to a logo or a phrase or an ad on TV. To me, who sees brand as even more intense and complicated than Seth Godin’s excellent definition of a collection of experiences, expectations, stories and relationships, this is saddening but I can understand we come from different perspectives.

Advertisement is just one layer in branding and there are many other elements over time to reinforce or assassinate those efforts (consistency of perception is reinforced by everything from employees to digital interactions) which is why if bank marketeers stop at investing at advertising without really understanding brand, will fail.

(I won’t go into examples now, as a post on UK banking advertising is in the works because let’s face it, someone has to address the big black horse in the middle of the “Why would you think this is engaging?!?” room.)

Nonetheless, advertising along with PR are the clearly intended branding efforts for Financial Institutions and many times its sum total where some believe that using the right corporate colours (sometimes at frightening UX costs) is all one needs to do to uphold brand.

To create a brand it’s essential to create a positive emotional connection. To create a connection the interaction must feel intensely personal at one point and old school advertising has trouble achieving that because of its sheer mass. Social Media on the other hand has a more more intimate feel and good brands have immediately sensed its potential and capitalised on it – look at how Red Bull or Coca Cola use images networks to inspire the activities that would create the context for their consumers to remember their allegiance and consume them  whereas in banking, the big news is that we finally hired enough community managers that @BankHelp may answer our Tweet or Direct Message on the same day!

Some brands wow us with ads and interactions that go straight to our hearts – banks still give us vapid shinny happy people and yet we stay. 

(Come back and read Part 2 on Accidental Branding)

“Everything’s a brand.” – Everything but a bank

“What’s a brand and why do we want it?”

Have you seen Happyish? Critics have murdered it but some parts are absolutely worth watching. There is a scene in the pilot that says it all when it comes to branding and if I were not terrified of copyright laws I’d show it to you. The main character, Thom, is an ageing advertising executive with a cynical aversion to change not even his Prozac can mitigate. One day he finds his boss watching the news, in awe at how Isis are “excellent marketeers” having established themselves in the public eye in a few years and he objects “AlQuaeda is not a brand, it’s a terrorist organisation!” to which he receives the following response: “Everything’s a brand, Thom. I’m a brand; you’re a brand. God’s a brand. And a brand in trouble.”

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In my former job I was briefly our “VP of Brand Strategy” and I loved that title because to me that translated into “keeper of our soul” although the topic of “What exactly is a brand?” came up despite our agile, FinTech-y size. We too had investors and boards who wanted to know what brand really was. There are many definitions to show how it’s the sum total part of all the experiences connected to a company’s products, employees, physical presence, and so on and there are -thankfully- numerous studies to link ROI to brand development. In reality “Branding” is still a largely unstudied topic with psychological and sociological ramifications we have not yet fully explored in any industry but the best way to describe it in my opinion, is that your brand should be everyone’s perception of you and if you are authentic it will be a mirror of your soul. If that’s awesome enough – you get irrationally dedicated, loyal, fans. That simple.

And that pays.

“Are there banks who are brands?”

Now surely, with the amount of Irrational Bank Loyalty TM that’s so clear in the Financial Services industry where switching rates are shamefully low no matter what we try, and the average UK marriage lasts 11 yrs while the average bank relationship 17, banks get how important having a strong brand is and invest billions in getting those fans, right? Wrong.

It’s undeniable that banks have a certain amount of brand capital despite their customers’ protestations, there is enough emotional attachment to keep us hooked for reasons I’ll elaborate on in another post, but all that’s accidental not intentional, cultivated and earned.

We all understand that being a brand pays yet how many of the banks in Europe even think in terms of being a brand? I can only see three. Yes you read that right – THREE. One of them is mBank who spent inordinate amounts of time wondering how to make their consumers truly fall in love with them when they built their golden standard in digital proposition from scratch, the other one is a constantly NPS (Net Promoter Score) obsessed ING (in particular in Spain) and the most successful one, the only one which recognises being a brand is valuable, desirable and necessary is CheBanca! where Roberto Ferrari’s team has achieved the impossible – became a Superbrand and won awards over the likes of BMW or Nike in Italy despite being a bank.

How did that video make you feel? A bit like you’re cheating on your dreary day job of being a serious banker, right?

“Despite” is the key word there. Banks are often mistaken for being arrogantly uninterested in making their clients love them because the cogs turn with our without their love, where else would they keep and get their money? I am not sure I agree it’s all down to arrogance.  I’m sure some eye rolling did happen when any bankers from the dreaded 3-4 top ones read the examples above as those are “new” or “digital” or “small” – all the excuses we’ve heard about brand-makers before so yes, there is some element of corporate inertia at play but I’d argue banks have an inferiority complex. The same one disallowing them from wondering about what it is that the consumer feels, a type of “I’m no Apple or Disney, what are the odds I’ll double my value just by having consumers adore me?”. The banks I cited above did not have this inferiority complex they found out what consumers love and gave it to them.

“But where would I even start building a brand?!?”

Granted it’s not easy. Marketing wise there’s only so much Pintrest you can do when you sell loans.

Physically – selling great tasting coffee in funky cups with some experience thrown in is indeed a far more addictive proposition than having someone come in to cash a check. Entering a Burberry concept store is indeed a day out and no matter which agency sanctions the walls’ colour, a branch is still a branch and short of offering people a champers glass, canapes, a massage while they wait and smart phone charging stations (which must be illegal somehow or all bank branches would give us more than lollypops and dog food) it’s hard to make it fun and memorable while still retaining purpose – just ask the creators of the de-facto Internet Cafe Branch of a few years ago.

Which leaves us with digital. That’s where banks can build the much needed Brand Esteem – it’s most important equity – the part that reflects how consumers feel about it. This isn’t new, it is instinctively why every bank worth its salt has been designing, implementing and transforming digital strategies nearly exclusively focused on the front-end reimagining what they package online and on the mobile in the past few years because it’s the one area where magic can happen at the experience level, but they’ve done so mechanically, on paper, without brand building at heart.

For many banks, in the absence of the deep cultural realisation that they need to transform from a faceless service provider to a beloved brand, this effort of redesigning the mobile and online offering has turned out to be an effort of doing what I call “Design-experience-by-numbers” instead of its much more powerful and lasting counterpart “Design-experience-by-feeling” where you create truly emotionally connected consumers – brand fans and not solely less dissatisfied users.

This needs to change. And soon. I need more of the Challenger Banks talking about being a brand (Starling has done so, a couple of others did too but it’s not enough yet), more of the big incumbents talking about passion scale and addiction potential and I need more FinTech to define itself as “Brand Empowering” if their offering is to banks and will indeed make consumers fall in love and get NPS to jump through the roof. (BTW if you’re a bank reading this and don’t use NPS stop making ridiculous excuses for why not and change that.)

While there is a lot more to say on this, there’s one thing we all know for sure – banks acutely need to become brands before the brands decide to become banks.

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