Has Nationwide fluffed a marketing opportunity?

The notion of correct client/agency etiquette came under the spotlight this week after Marketing Week revealed that Peter Gandolfi, Nationwide Building Society head of brand strategy, made an abrupt exit from his role of head of brand strategy (MW last week).

At the same time, Nationwide’s half-year results, reported at the beginning of this week, reflect an organisation which, despite being in a seemingly strong position as the UK’s biggest building society, has seen its mortgage book decline to £1bn. This is a fall from £3.6bn a year earlier – a result of its “prudent” lending policy. Nationwide chief executive Graham Beale insists: “Nationwide is well-placed to provide a safe haven for depositors and investors in uncertain times.”

Gandolfi’s departure comes just a fortnight after he called a pitch of the building society’s £10m advertising account, culminating in the resignation of incumbent Leagas Delaney. In the fall-out that ensued Gandolfi departed – after 28 years’ service – although those close to the marketer say he has been planning an exit for some time.

The agency had worked with the brand (on-and-off) since 1987, creating the long-running advertising campaign fronted by comedian Mark Benton. Meanwhile, the review is on ice and Nationwide says it is back in talks with the agency.

Effective campaign

One industry observer who works with another financial brand tells how the campaign routinely topped awareness studies and tracking research. “It was very well-known, very well-recognised and very well-liked,” he says.

Interim marketer Rob Rees, who has worked at the likes of Scottish Widows and Barclays, agrees: “Nationwide’s positioning was good. It hit the issues bang on the head. We’re all fed up being schmoozed by the banks then being horribly let down by them.”

Yet, as financial services look to tone down their messages, some feel the time has come to refresh Nationwide’s advertising. Rees suggests a “tactical need” to look again at the message, perhaps as popularity starts to wane. A new marketer – the building society is also looking for a board-level director – is likely to do just that.

The changes come under the stewardship of chief executive Graham Beale, who was promoted to the post in April last year after joining the society as a chartered accountant in 1985.

Some suggest that a lack of clarity from Beale regarding changes planned for Nationwide’s marketing structure – with various high-level roles being mooted in the last year – has bred insecurity in the marketing department. One expert says: “When there is doubt about changes it can sow the seeds of confusion and perhaps paranoia. It only takes a couple of weeks of that for a marketing department to fall apart.”

Nationwide denies any problem in its marketing function and describes Gandolfi’s departure and the exit of sales and marketing director John Sutherland in September following the decision to bring in a board-level marketing specialist (MW September 11) as “simply dynamic people moving about”.

Staff unrest

The problem for Nationwide may be that key people are “dynamically” moving out of its employ at a time when it could be moving to capitalise on its position. With more than 750 branches, it has scale, but there has been criticism that its approach has a “parochial feel” to it.

Another industry executive, however, feels that, given so many of the society’s core personnel are “Nationwide lifers” – new blood can only invigorate. He says: “Bringing in someone with a traditional brand and marketing background will give it the impetus it needs to establish itself as a more powerful brand.”

With consumer trust in banks at an all-time low, many feel Nationwide, much less dependent on capital markets than other major lenders, is well-placed to emerge from the economic gloom a big winner. However, the marketing department, which insiders say Beale is “keeping control of pretty effectively behind the scenes” will have to be fully functioning before that can happen.

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