Case study: First Direct

The internet and in particular social networking sites have changed the rules of handling a branding crisis, yet most companies – Toyota being one of the latest examples – are risking their brands’ reputations by failing to adapt their defence strategies to the real-time and candid nature of the online environment.

  • To read the cover story relating to this ’Bringing your brand back from the brink’ click here
  • To read about Toyota and Tiger Woods sponsorship click here
  • For Vikki Chowney, editor at Reputation Online’s expert viewpoint click here
One to bank on: First Direct gives its customers freedom to vent their ire or heap their praise through a social media hub, and comments are then quickly acted on

When a customer says something good about your brand, it makes sense to publicise this. But would you be happy making negative comments widely available on your brand website? Online and telephone banking service First Direct has developed a real-time feedback site called Live, for customers to relate the good, the bad, and even the very ugly.

Managing reputations online is becoming more difficult for brands as unprompted conversations about companies happen between customers. So First Direct has decided that if people are talking about it on various forums and blogs, then it might as well form a central hub to bring these views together.

The banking crisis of 2008-2009 prompted the brand to think about how to build a better relationship with its customers. It felt the general loss of trust in financial services didn’t reflect what First Direct’s own customers thought of its brand, explains Natalie Cowen, head of brand at the bank.

“When we speak to our customers, trust is something that they feel about us,” she says.

The bank has won several awards for trust in the last couple of years, and Cowen says it wanted to capitalise on this by opening up an online space where people could talk honestly about their experiences of First Direct.

The hub gives customers some control of the brand’s reputation, argues Cowen. “For us, the powerful thing about the live site is that it gives our customers a voice in a social media space.” With around a third of customers joining the bank following recommendations, the site is a place for this word-of-mouth to continue without the heavy hand of the brand, adds Cowen.

“People really value the opportunity to write and read reviews, and they look to reviews sites for guidance on products and services. It’s a powerful way of showing people what our customers think of us,” she says.

While First Direct has a more positive online glow than most banks, it still has to contend with unsatisfied customers venting their views on various forums. But this hasn’t discouraged the bank from creating a real-time response site, says Cowen.

“We were very clear from the start that it was going to be the good and the bad and that was the only transparent and honest way of doing things.”

Comments on the live site are also fed into First Direct’s advertising campaigns. Commuters on London Underground, for example, have been able to view real positive customer comments, but the marketing team hasn’t ruled out using more negative feedback in future.

Both the positive and negative feedback is important for any brand to understand and one of the additional benefits of the live site. The comments fed into the site are grouped into different themes so that the key issues get fed back into the different areas of the business.

A buzz tracker is available on the home page, which tells customers the percentage of positive, negative or neutral comments flying around. While this has stayed relatively stable since the launch of the site, Cowen says if it fluctuates wildly, it enables the business to find out what’s going wrong very quickly.

“From our perspective it’s about understanding what’s causing that,” explains Cowen.

“Quite often customers self-regulate. Someone might start a conversation and then someone else will disagree. The talk might look like it’s going down a negative path but then someone will say they’ve had a different experience.”
Natalie Cowen, First Direct

Continuing the conversation is becoming an increasingly important part of First Direct’s strategy. It is looking to engage in the social media conversation, but keen to understand when to jump in and when to allow the conversation to happen without its interference.

The brand doesn’t want to wade in at the first sign of a negative comment, says Cowen. “Quite often [the customers] self-regulate. Someone might start a conversation and then someone else will disagree with that. The talk might look like it’s going down a negative path but then another customer will come back and say they had a different experience.”

It is vital to remain credible to build up a positive reputation and brands can ruin natural word of mouth by being too keen, she warns. First Direct will soon be introducing a function enabling it to go onto the site to give information about products and services. But Cowen stresses that it doesn’t want to get too involved in contributing to the site.

First Direct is also looking at using Twitter as a customer services tool rather than simply a PR tool, which is how it is currently used. But as Cowen points out: “Once you start engaging in that space, there’s an expectation that you’ll continue that conversation all the time.”

She admits that maintaining and building reputation online is a constant learning process but this experience is part of the necessary reality of the social media space.

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