Behind every over-familiar face is an ugly sister we all dislike

Barclays is on the well-trodden road of corporate chumminess, but its trendy signs could leave it looking like an adult disco-dancing at a teenage party

If Britain’s dwindling band of independent retailers are the Cinderellas of the High Street, the big banks are the ugly sisters. Haughty, spiteful, greedy, unloved are among the kinder epithets to surface at the mention of their names. All credit, then, to Barclays for acknowledging the pantomime role assigned to it in popular imagination. Last week it announced plans to apply a gash of crimson lipstick, pull on a blonde wig and stick a heart-shaped beauty spot on its huge, heaving bosom. Now it is our turn as members of the audience to catcall and pelt the stage with half-sucked gobstoppers.

But before taking aim and letting loose with an unboiled organic beetroot, perhaps I should explain what the bank is up to. Its marketing director Jim Hytner has divined, possibly with the aid of focus groups or perhaps during a revelatory dream, that the banks are seen as unfriendly. Speaking for myself I don’t want my bank to be friendly/ polite and courteous will do. In businesses, friendly means an impertinent familiarity. “Hi Iain,” warbles the cold-calling stranger down the phone, “how are you today?”

So, unsurprisingly, Barclays has chosen the well-trodden road of corporate chumminess. It wants to move away from “confusing acronyms and jargon” and use “more colloquial” terms instead. Henceforth its ATMs will be called “holes in the wall” and customers will be beckoned into branches with a sign reading: “Through this door walk the nicest people in the world”. People waiting in the personal banking area will be invited to sit down with the sign “Take the weight off your feet”. Customer service will have new signs asking “Can I help?”, while the bureau de change will be called “Travel Money”. And on entering and leaving the branch customers will see signs reading “Hi” and “Bye” respectively.

Will anyone be seduced by the smile on the face of the old tart? Will anyone feel uplifted by being described, along with every other poor sap waiting in the queue, as one of the nicest people in the world? Will that dreary row of “Position Closed” signs seem any less irritating when adorned with signs reading “Can I help?”

We all know instinctively what is wrong with this kind of corporate phooey. It’s phoney. It’s insincere. It comes from the same coffee-stained manual as “My name is Carol, how may I help you?” If Barclays conducted a focus group drawn from the citizenry for whom hurling ripe fruit is a way of life, they would commission signage of a different kind.

The plaque on the manager’s desk would read “Fat Bastard”. The glass screen dividing the third teller on the left from her public would read “Gum-chewing Airhead”. Standing orders would be redesignated “thingies”, a banker’s draft “wossnames” and mortgages “millstones”. An overdraft would be a “George Raft” and customers asking to sausage a Gregory would be instantly understood. (Sausage and mash – cash, Gregory Peck – cheque.)

There is a reason why banks acquired the solemnity that they now wish to shrug off. Money was a serious business, thrift was a virtue and indebtedness shameful. The banks, like churches, were institutions whose presence reminded us of a moral obligation to be upstanding and honest. The branch buildings were of solid construction, formidable on the outside, dark and sepulchral within. They looked that way because they wanted to be trusted with other people’s money. How quaint all that seems. Today, indebtedness is a way of life and carries no stigma. When the health of the economy is measured by taking the temperature of retailing, borrowing to spend is seen as a patriotic duty. The banks, once cautious about lending, implore people to borrow. Their staff are trained hucksters, taught to spot triggers for a sale. And bankruptcy cases soar.

Barclays, then, is doing no more than keep up with the times. We all run, coat tails flying behind us, one hand holding on to our hat, in pursuit of a goal that, just as we stretch out to grasp it, changes shape and slips beyond our reach.

The banks are making exactly the same mistake as the churches before them. In seeking to be happening, with-it and modern they merely make themselves look ridiculous, like an adult disco-dancing at a teenage party.

What next? Will the judge peering over his half-moon glasses at the wretch in the dock, say “Hi! Take the weight off your feet”? I shouldn’t bet against it. Now, where did I put that ripe tomato?

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