How global banks can pull back from the brink

Marketing chiefs at HSBC, Wells Fargo and Citigroup reflect on the 2008 financial crisis
Sticking to its vision: Wells Fargo © Bloomberg

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Branding challenges do not come much bigger than those faced by banks in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The marketing chiefs at three of the world’s biggest banks give their perspectives, with expert contributions from Professor Priya Raghubir of New York University Stern School of Business, and Sana Carlton, managing director of banking and finance at market research agency Millward Brown.

Show your human side

Prof Raghubir says that “humanising” the brand can help in an imploding industry: “That can be done through showcasing your service competence; it could be done through a logo.

“The basic idea is that if you allow the brand to be human, then it’s going to take on some of those human qualities . . . the fact that it’s this money-making machine is likely to not occupy centre stage as much.”

Swiss bank UBS embraced this concept with particular vigour last year with its “Am I a good father?” campaign, which asked a variety of personal questions, in what the bank’s marketing consultants described as an effort to be “increasingly human in their approach to today’s banking customers”.

Focus on the customer

Wells Fargo has weathered the bank branding storm better than most. “[We are] continuing to do what we’ve been doing for many decades, which is sticking to our vision,” says Jamie Moldafsky, chief marketing officer at the bank.

Strategies include showcasing how the bank helps its clients, with ads portraying Wells Fargo helping individuals, businesses and communities.

Chris Clark, head of marketing at HSBC, says good customer experience is essential. “The fundamental shift in brands is not really around whether the marketing or the advertising is the right thing to do,” he says. “It’s how those marketing activities can highlight the positive experience and the proposition for the customer.”

The experts agree. “The relationship banks have with their customers is critical,” says Ms Carlton. “How customers experience the bank’s services . . . needs to be consistent and relevant locally if the bank is to stand out as different and good enough for them to choose.”

Review your spending

NYU’s Prof Raghubir says there are good reasons to cut brand spend when the going gets tough: “You probably don’t want to be investing too heavily at a time when a greater mention of your brand is only going to backfire and remind people that you exist, when you’re trying to just weather a crisis.”

However, the bank marketing bosses disagree. “If you don’t tell your story, nobody is going to tell it for you,” says Edward Skyler, in charge of sponsorship and branding at Citigroup. “Hiding is never an option.”

Ms Moldafsky says Wells Fargo increased its branding spend slightly during the crisis. “We felt the need to ensure that our customers knew that we’re here for them.”

Consider a name change

The most extreme way to break the link between your bank and a tarnished brand is getting rid of the old name.

Yet name changes have been relatively rare in the financial crisis.

One example was AIG, the insurer, which rebranded its property and casualty arm as Chartis in 2009 after AIG’s traumatic $180bn rescue. In 2012, it reversed course and brought Chartis back under the AIG umbrella.

HSBC’s Mr Clark would not have recommended that approach which he dismisses as “absolutely ridiculous”.

“You wouldn’t want to go and hide behind some flag of convenience.”

Let your brand evolve

While the marketing bosses agree that axing a brand is not the way to go, they do see a case for evolution. HSBC dropped the “world’s local bank” tagline in the wake of the financial crisis.

“It wasn’t true any more,” says Mr Clark. “We were selling businesses all over the world in an effort to rationalise our spread, which was the right thing to do.” The tagline — so successful other banks privately coveted it — was not replaced.

Issue an apology

“Apology ads” divide opinion. Prof Raghubir says they are a “brilliant idea” but notes that “very few banks do that”.

HSBC ran such an ad in the aftermath of the 2015 Swiss private banking scandal. “Where you think you’ve got an opportunity to explain yourself, you should take it,” Mr Clark says. “By doing nothing you can make things a lot worse.”

Mr Skyler says that Citi has publicly acknowledged its mistakes in the past and that “people want to know . . . about what value you provide. An apology doesn’t answer that.”

Are we there yet?

Eight years on from the financial crisis, experts agree that the battle to restore brand values is not yet won. “The data show that we made progress, but there are really strong headwinds that have been challenging this industry since the crisis,” says Mr Skyler.

The marketers know, as well, that good branding is not enough. As Prof Raghubir puts it: “You can never make an apple look like an orange. Unless they actually change their proposition, messaging will only take them so far.”

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