Bank brands have always had a reputation for being dull, solid and reliable. But after the financial turmoil of 2008, financial institutions are finding themselves in a difficult position. They need to convince existing consumers that they are trustworthy and stable, while simultaneously appearing innovative enough to ride out a recession.
Joe Clift is former senior vice-president of brand management at Visa Europe and now works as an independent consultant for high street banks. He admits, ‘There have been some obvious examples recently where banks have clearly realised they need to focus on rebuilding trust. We’ve seen a fair few ads featuring singing and dancing drop off our TV screens in the past few months.’
Clift says that most financial institutions have curbed their marketing and design plans in the recession, unwilling to be seen to spend cash when they are being bailed out by governments. One bank hoping that highlighting its consumer-friendly strategies in a bleak time will mean it receives more trust than before is Virgin Money. It has appointed London consultancy Start Creative to overhaul its brand strategy, including a revamp of its logo, photography, online operations and direct mail.
The company will use a phrase developed in-house as its philosophy – ‘Everyone’s better off’ – as the basis for its design. Paul Lloyd, marketing director at Virgin Money, explains, ‘Despite a tough economic environment, we have to keep moving forwards.’
Lloyd says the bank feels that using design and marketing to illustrate how its brand proposition sums up the current consumer mood is important.
‘We identified 20 situations we felt were about “Everyone’s better off”,’ he says. ‘We called them “moments of truth”.’
After defining the bank’s strategy around these moments of truth, Lloyd commissioned 20 images to illustrate them. ‘It’s a conceptual thought – but we’ve found we now have a range of images that really tie everything together from a design perspective,’ he adds.
But Bob Bayman, partner at consultancy I-am Associates, which has worked with institutions from Abbey National to Turkish bank Garanti, says that the financial industry has not traditionally used design effectively to communicate its brands. He suggests there will need to be a major shift in mentality for this to change. ‘Banks are about as well branded as pieces of Lego,’ he says. ‘There is the blue bank, the red bank, the black bank, the other blue bank.’ Bayman says that banks need to stop thinking about design in terms of aesthetic appeal – for example, using a red corporate identity to signify ‘vibrant’ and a blue one to suggest ‘safe’ – and instead improve the customer experience. ‘Brands are about “standout” and “stand for”,’ he claims. ‘They stand for very little, so they spend all their time, money and effort focusing on standing out.’
There may be some examples of best practice already out there, however. Clift points to Jim Hytner’s use of design at Barclays in 2006 as a good case study. He explains, ‘He brought in a campaign to use plain English and this was carried through into design. So an ATM was called a “hole in the wall” and signs welcoming visitors simply said “Hi”. It was a deeply strategic move but manifested itself through branch design as well as other marketing elements.’
At the time, Hytner declared his intention was to try to change the relationship that consumers have with their banks. He cited standard bank branch design, with pens chained to the counter, as summing up the lack of trust between customers and banks – in effect, saying, ‘We don’t trust you to leave this pen behind after you use it, yet we expect you to entrust us with your life savings.’
However, while Hytner’s design might have ticked the right boxes, he also benefited from a stable economy. British banks would struggle to launch such a high-profile marketing campaign in the current climate. Any spending is likely to be heavily scrutinised.
Marketers and designers need not give up all hope of working for the financial sector, however. In Turkey, Garanti bank has been working for the past few years on a consistent ‘customer journey’ – assisted by I-am Associates – despite the often volatile economy there. Garanti has adapted everything from branches to paperwork in an attempt to appear more modern, open and accessible for its users.
Hulya Turkmen, who began the branding project at Garanti, claims that difficult times only make innovation more important, and smart companies can stand out by being bold. She warns, however, that banks must make sure that any marketing or design is backed up by genuine internal strategy and ‘human images’ to convince consumers that it is more than window-dressing.
Lloyd agrees that good branding is about ensuring that customers understand that any marketing is ultimately going to benefit them. His own ambition, he says, is to make everyone better off – customers, staff, society and shareholders.