Banking on trust

Naming and shaming in the banking sector. Has the first led to the second? Has naming, or, more specifically, renaming contributed to the shaming?

I’ve been with the same bank for half a century. Mind you, it doesn’t feel the same as the one I signed up with. And the name has changed – and changed. The branch of Westminster Bank occupied a majestic stone building which reflected the name’s solidity and heritage, an image of probity and trust. I felt privileged to be a client.

Those were the days of traditional, boring but reliable banking. Then came the first sign – and I use the term literally – of change.

Westminster merged with the National and Provincial Bank. The new entity was named National Westminster which struck me, not as a corporate merger compromise, but as a win for – a reinforcement of – my bank, now truly ‘national’.

Things became less comfortable when a handy abbreviation took centre stage. NatWest was promoted to the signage. No doubt meant to suggest modernity and efficiency, to me it was the name of a dodgy bookmaker.

Today, NatWest is part of RBS, the ex-domain of Sir Fred (‘the Shred’) Goodwin. I wonder if RBS would have acted so irrationally and irresponsibly had it shunned abbreviation and retained the solid reality behind the initials?

Royal Bank of Scotland – doesn’t that sound reassuring? Surely the Royal Bank of Scotland wouldn’t have plunged into toxic debt and would have conducted a thorough due diligence on ABN Amro?

OK, so abbreviations are convenient. The full name takes longer to say and write. But what’s the hurry? Shouldn’t a bank take time? Can you be cautious in a hurry?

That other redoubtable Scottish institution has totally lost its identity, its heritage down the plughole. The Bank of Scotland merged with the Halifax, was initialised and became three-quarters of HBoS, pronounced, at least by people of my generation, ‘aitch boss’. What percentage of its clientele (sorry, customers) were happy with that name, its look and especially its sound? How many clung to the Halifax and Bank of Scotland personae – and maybe will still attempt to, even with the additional prefatory ‘Lloyds TSB’?

In a penetrating essay in The Guardian recently, Ian Jack mourns ‘another casualty of the banking crisis/ the Scottish accent’s ability to inspire confidence’. He quotes author Simon Gray’s opinion in 2004 that it’s a ‘language in which it appears impossible to tell lies’.

Hence its use in call centres and ads for insurers and banks. Those days, says Jack, are over. He points out the errors of the Scottish banks were not imposed on them but were perpetrated by Goodwin at RBS and Peter Cummings, head of corporate planning at HBoS, both of whom ‘came from working class families in what was then still the industrial west of Scotland’.

Shall we witness a new accent of trust? Canadian perhaps, as that ex-dominion’s banks throughout the crisis retained a sense of proportion and remained cautious?

Type also speaks. My first advertising mentor advised me, ‘You can never tell a lie in Caslon.’ It wasn’t till later that I suspected another reason/ set your message in Caslon and people will believe whatever you write.

Maybe it’s time to forswear not only slick renaming but also veneer – visual and vocal.

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