Think brand experience not bankers’ bonuses

Banks and financial services companies have a hard time getting themselves onto lists of consumers’ favourite brands. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some great brands with distinct personalities out there in the financial world. But we tend to align ourselves with one financial services brand or another because they are a necessity in our lives. None of the brands are welcomed warmly at the heart of consumers’ lives in the same way as a Nike, a Google or a Heinz is.

However, the word ‘sorry’ will have gone a long way this week when the embattled former chiefs at Royal Bank of Scotland, HBOS, Barclays et al faced the Treasury Select Committee. There is no limit to how much a little humility can douse a growing public anger.

But the banks now have an almost impossible job to convince disillusioned taxpayers how sorry they really are. Taxpayers, who have bailed some of these institutions out of such a gaping black hole will take some convincing that there is a need to pay seemingly obscene bonuses to executives that played their part in the current economic chaos. The banks’ arguments that cutting or capping bonuses would risk the status of London as a global financial centre now and going forward should not fall on deaf ears. Nor should we choose to ignore that there are many bankers whose fine work deserves contractually agreed reward.

But there has to be some recognition within publicly-owned institutions which are measuring losses in billions of pounds, that serving up ludicrous sums for failed executives while numbers of jobless people increase by the day is close to unforgiveable. Even if just from a brand point of view.

Surely better to use the same money elsewhere? The banks’ marketing departments have had their budgets, and with it their ability to engage with consumers through effective communications, slashed in recent months, sometimes by 20%. Is it simplistic and self-indulgent for a magazine for marketers to suggest bankers’ bonuses be reallocated to marketing? Of course. Would such a scheme even succeed in helping regain consumer trust?

Probably not according to a former marketing director of one of the UK’s largest banks. Why not? Because, he says, there never was any consumer trust. He told me that in his time at the bank, consumer trust and satisfaction were consistently low no matter what he spent on marketing – his only consolation was that all his rivals had the same problem. If that’s your perspective as the chairman of a large bank it is easy to see why you might rather spend £100m on staff bonuses than blow it on marketing communications.

But the same marketer offered another view. The money could be used in other ways that could perhaps be classed as marketing in the wider sense. More money pumped into retail branches and customer service would be well spent in regaining brand affection among consumers says my source. Paying for more faces to serve behind counters to reduce queues would add customer value. Offering free pens for each customer or Sky television to watch while waiting would be an instant fillip to the brand. A banker would say it isn’t possible, that I’m confusing different pots of money but, ultimately, it’s the same pot of money, it belongs to shareholders. Actions speak louder than words. Brands only get one shot at giving customers a brand experience so why not?

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