“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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