Strategic plans may point to Abbey National rebrand

Design groups working with Abbey National remain tight-lipped about the brand’s design and identity plans, following last week’s announcement by the bank of losses of £984m in 2002 and a change in strategic direction.

Luqman Arnold, Abbey’s new-broom chief executive, clearly thinks life has become complicated enough for Britain’s sixth-largest retail bank, which is pinning its future on a revival of the high street habit. Over the next three years, Arnold intends to revitalise Abbey’s core retail offer, while reducing costs by £200m.

Arnold believes that the brand is ‘under-leveraged’ and big banks in the UK all ‘look the same to the customer’. He sees an opportunity to develop a ‘new advice model for the mass market’, offering personal input to even the simplest purchase.

It’s tall order for a company often lampooned as ‘shabby Abbey’ and design and branding will be crucial to a strategy that focuses on basic banking and personal finance products.

An Abbey spokeswoman says it’s too early to say whether changes to the brand identity or branch formats are pending. ‘We’ve set out the strategy and now we’re rolling our sleeves up,’ she explains. ‘A thorough review of all our customer propositions starts here.’

In-house property group Covista has designed the overwhelming majority of Abbey’s 745-strong estate. However, Abbey’s most prominent outlets, featuring Costa Coffee concessions, as well as its most recent identity work (both are pictured), have been designed by First (DW 25 April 2002).

First partner Jonathan Blakeney confirms that the group is continuing working with Abbey, but would not comment further. Last year, First appointed former Abbey brand marketing head Bob Bayman as its managing director (DW 19 September 2002).

Question marks hang over the role of the retro-style ‘umbrella couple’ in Abbey’s identity. According to the bank’s spokeswoman, ‘they are still heavily used in our branch design, especially as people recognise [the marque].’ But many attempts have been made to pension them off and their time may finally be running out.

A senior source at a design group that has been working in the high street banking sector thinks concern about interest rates and mis-selling scandals preoccupy the market. With generally poor differentiation in the sector, she feels the Abbey couple should be retained.

‘It’s one of the few brands to have people in the logo. When financial services is so intangible, there’s definitely equity there,’ she says. ‘It isn’t a bad thing to focus on basics and financial advice. Customers go for things they trust. But it’s all about perception and not about reality at all. It depends how you position the offer.’

Cahoot, the Internet bank owned by Abbey, is integral to Arnold’s plans. Neville Portelli, creative director at Underground The Brand Laundry, has been working with Cahoot for almost a year and expects further announcements about both the on-line and the parent brand soon, but would not been drawn on details. ‘It’s a very delicate situation,’ he says.

Portelli adds, ‘Cahoot as a brand won’t be ditched or got rid of. You ought to remember it’s reached all its targets. Obviously it’s aligned and related to Abbey, but they’re different properties. Strategically, they’re on different planes.’

Arnold says his aim is to become the largest ‘pure play’ provider of personal financial services in the UK. Loss-making ventures such as wholesale banking have been split off into a ‘portfolio business unit’ of operations Abbey no longer wishes to keep.

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