Banking on its image

Tom Bawden talks to the head of brand communications at NatWest Ian Schoolar to find out his strategy for the brand and what the current marketing roster review holds in store

NatWest is in the design industry news at the moment, with brand communications head Ian Schoolar about to complete his review of the bank’s marketing roster. NatWest has no in-house design capability.

This is the latest stage in a sustained evolution of the NatWest brand, set in motion after Schoolar took up his position seven and a half years ago.

In that time he has observed a sea-change in the way the banking sector brands itself. Traditionally a “conservatively branded” market, Schoolar has endeavoured to keep the bank at the forefront of a rapidly evolving financial sector.

“There is new competition now from insurance companies and supermarkets, as well as new channels of communication like telephone and Internet banking,” says Schoolar.

Supermarket banking is on the increase, with Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Safeway and Morrisons all involved in banking ventures. The supermarkets now account for 2 per cent of the retail banking sector, according to Verdict Research, with considerable growth expected in coming years.

“There was a definite need to strengthen our brand when I joined and there still is room for improvement – there always is. Increased competition means there is a greater need to create a coherent identity in order to be recognised,” Schoolar continues.

Schoolar came to NatWest from National Power where he was corporate communications manager, having previously worked as a planner and account handler for a number of ad agencies. When he joined the bank, he and his colleagues set in motion a restructuring plan to centralise the hitherto disparate brand management process.

“Although our insurance arm is based in Bristol and our mortgages operation in Birmingham, we now have a centrally controlled brand. Decisions may be made by these individual operations, but they are now based on a central branding strategy,” says Schoolar.

The resulting structure sees the brand management operation broken into three areas: advertising, sponsorship and brand management. The latter comprises design and brand personality.

Schoolar’s task is to ensure the brand is communicated consistently across all three areas.

Having set the restructuring process in motion, he turned his attention to the bank’s name and identity and brought in Wolff Olins. This resulted in the bank changing its name from The National Westminster Bank to NatWest and launching a new identity in February 1995. The new name was purely a communications device, with the bank still officially trading as The National Westminster Bank.

“The old name had been a bit of a mouthful and since [much of the branding building exercise] was to project a more human face, it made sense to shorten it,” says Schoolar. “The use of the unusual corporate colours [black and white] and typeface helped to make the banks stand out in the high street.”

With competition from brand-sophisticated supermarkets, the decision to increase the consumer appeal of the brand appears to be a wise one. But Schoolar is keen that the brand works across a much broader range.

“The supermarkets are coming in at the transactional level, with a fairly narrow product range. We work in the corporate marketplace as well and have a wider product range. And we are planning to expand it further,” he says.

With the new identity in place, Schoolar brought in The Identica Partnership to work on the bank’s design strategy. The group has now been working with NatWest for three years.

Other initiatives overseen by Schoolar include a new website, CD-ROM, PC banking facility and automated teller machines by Ammirati Puris Lintas; a new format self-service bank by Minale Tattersfield and a new staff livery.

An interactive kiosk, NatWest Direct, created by 20/20 was also tried, but scrapped after a trial period (DW 17 April).

And, of course, there is the current matter of the roster review. At the moment it is eight-strong and includes design consultancies Minale Tattersfield and Smith & Milton Original. These sit alongside two ad agencies, three direct marketing groups and one media buyer (DW 12 June).

Schoolar says one of the groups on the revised roster will be designated lead agency, with responsibility for brand strategy. He says this task could fall to a design consultancy.

“Ideally, I would like to see ad agencies and design groups working more closely together, in tandem with us, on integrated strategies,” he says.

“Design is important because it is the point of contact where the customer touches the organisation. It has been used extensively to make our branches seem more customer friendly. Ten years ago they were like fortresses.”

Schoolar says he is “continuously striving to produce a more differentiated brand, through consistent brand evolution, rather than any dramatic changes”.

As branding projects become broader and more integrated, whichever group is appointed lead roster agency can be assured of wide-ranging strategic projects well into the future.

Company history

National Westminster Bank was officially registered on 18 March 1968, following the merger of three UK banks

The bank has 1750 retail branches throughout the UK

NatWest Group is the second biggest bank in the UK, based on total assets at the end of 1997 of 185 404m, after Barclays with total assets of 234 657m, according to research by Datamonitor. In third place is Lloyds-TSB, followed by Abbey National, Halifax, Midland, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of Scotland, Nationwide and Woolwich

Of the 14 businesses under the NatWest Group banner, seven fall under Schoolar’s banking and retail services remit: retail banking, corporate banking, card services, mortgages, insurance, Lombard’s finance house, and Northern Ireland chain Ulster Bank

Operations outside Schoolar’s remit include asset managers Gartmore, NatWest Equity Partners, Coutts Group and NatWest Life & Regulated Sales NatWest Group’s pretax profit (1997) was 1.01m

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