The search for global fortune

European financial giant Fortis is relatively unknown as a commercial bank in the UK. Grey, recently appointed to handle its global advertising, is expected to put it in the spotlight, says Catherine Turner

Fortis likes to do firsts, and it likes to do big. When Dutch insurer NV Amev and Dutch bank VSB merged with Belgian insurer AG Group it marked Europe’s first cross-border financial services deal. And as part of the Royal Bank of Scotland-led consortium buying Dutch banking rival ABN Amro, it is involved in the biggest banking acquisition to date – £49bn.

Now the Benelux financial powerhouse has appointed Grey EMEA to handle its £100m global advertising – the first time it has consolidated its marketing into one global account (MW November 1).

It is also the 20th-largest business in the world by revenue and last week unveiled a third-quarter net profit of €797m (£560m) “despite turbulent market conditions”. It’s a big player and a major brand name in Benelux, and has a big presence in France, Germany, Poland and Turkey. Yet the Fortis name is nowhere on the UK high street, although it operates in the insurance and investment banking sector.

Indeed, the average UK punter would be hard-pushed to associate the Fortis name with any of their transactions despite the company being the third-largest provider of private car policies; much of its business is through intermediaries and as a provider of white-label products for brands including Kwik-Fit Company List and Marks & Spencer Money.

As a result the company spends about £2m a year on advertising in the UK. The appointment of Grey, following a final pitch against Leo Burnett and Ogilvy networks, represents an intensifying of an increasingly global marketing strategy put in place early last year.

The brand strategy derived from its business strategy, aimed at creating one monolithic brand that represents all its activities.

Fortis launched an international branding campaign to raise its global profile in 2006. It wanted to increase public awareness of the Fortis name and advertise its new promise “Getting you there”, aimed at showing the “extra value” that Fortis believed it gave customers. The activity centred around international airports popular with business travellers, including London’s City and Heathrow airports, supported by targeted print and TV spots.

The strategy mirrors a plethora of other big financial services players that are increasingly looking to consolidate their brands under one umbrella and their agencies accordingly. Earlier this year Royal & SunAlliance appointed its first global network, DDB, while insurers such as Aviva are rebranding operations under the parent brand – even Norwich Union is said to be under threat.

Zurich and Axa too are spending more money and effort promoting the master brand. One rival says such strategies are “inevitable”. “In an increasingly global – and increasingly corporate – world, brand is a differentiating factor, and consistency of brand across markets is important.”

Grey is understood to have been tasked with continuing Fortis’ brand unification. Previously, the bulk of its corporate advertising was handled by Publicis, but the financial services institution also worked with a roster of agencies for local markets and for its different businesses – retail banking, insurance, investment and private banking. An integrated global advertising campaign is expected from Grey in January next year.

As Fortis general manager of global branding and communications Adrian Martorana says: “Grey will help us build brand awareness across Europe to mark our significant international growth over the past two years.”

The group was formally established in December 1990 but not named until July the following year. Fortis became the chosen name because of its Latin meaning: strong and determined. The name was intended to reflect the group’s stability, strength and flexibility as well as its experience and integrity.

The company says that brand is core to this because it becomes “especially” important when strategy and output depend highly on goodwill, often the case in the financial services industry because products are intangible and quality largely determined by people. Customers only buy financial services when they are convinced that the provider is credible.

As one observer points out, interest and engagement in financial services is low, particularly corporate facing brands such as Fortis, and its rivals such as ING, another Benelux powerhouse. He says: “Credibility is key when it comes to financial services, and having a brand is core to this.” The lack of a customer-facing brand in the UK – as opposed to ING, which has its ING Direct business, may hinder it, although the observer points to the Benelux region where Fortis is powerful.

Fortis is now active in more than 50 markets around the world and says it aims to be a top European financial institution while pursuing “selective” growth in the US and Asia.

Martorana says Fortis is now on a brand – and strategic – journey initiated by chief executive and chairman Jean-Paul Votron, who joined three years ago. Then, Votron described the brand as a “diamond in the rough”. Now, says Martorana, the brand represents “a spirit of growth and realistic optimism”.

Martorana adds: “The industry needs to think quickly and move quickly. We like to think that – despite our growth – we remain entrepreneurial, with something of the underdog about us.”

He adds: “If we want to be a major player and deliver what our customers need we have to have a stronger sense of acting as one and a strong single brand proposition.”

That process started with last year’s campaign, which put the brand on the map, he says, and will continue. “We are only two years into a brand journey,” he says.

The most recent high-profile realisation of Fortis’ ambitions was the company’s audacious bid, with Banco Santander and led by RBS, for ABN Amro. The companies will split the bank’s assets, with Fortis claiming its Dutch retail banking operations. The ABN brand will continue on the Dutch high street “because of its tremendous brand strength” for the time being. Other operations will be brought under the Fortis banner.

The move has also seen a realignment of Fortis’ management team with Votron resigning as chairman in January. He will focus on his responsibilities on the supervisory board of ABN Amro and on the board of RFS Holdings, the investment vehicle created for the acquisition, but he remains Fortis chief executive.

Fortis, which faces global and local competition in the markets it operates in, has big plans: it must hope such optimism remains “realistic” in a fast-changing, big money global market. 

Facts – Fortis

  • Fortis is a banking, insurance and investment management company. It is the 20th largest business in the world by revenue, listed on Euronext Brussels and Euronext Amsterdam stock exchanges.
  • It was formed in 1990 when NV Amev, a Dutch insurer, and VSB, a Dutch bank, merged. They were joined later that year by AG Group – a Belgian insurer – in Europe’s first cross-border financial merger.
  • The group was branded Fortis in July 1991. The name, meaning strong and determined in Latin, is intended to reflect the group’s stability, strength, flexibility, experience and integrity.
  • The company’s roots go back almost 300 years; its predecessors traded with Catherine the Great and financed the United State’s purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon.
  • Last week it announced a nine-month net profit of €3.6bn (£2.5bn), and a strong third quarter “despite turbulent market conditions” with net profit at €797m (£560m).
  • It is part of a Royal Bank of Scotland-led consortium that is buying ABN Amro in a £49bn deal. Fortis will take ABN’s Dutch retail banking business.

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