Q&A: Louise Fowler, business leader of brand and marketing for The Co-operative Financial Services

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Marketing Week (MW): The Co-operative Bank recently turned away £1bn of potential investment because the ethics of the businesses that approached you did not match your own. Is it difficult to make such decisions?

Louise Fowler (LF): In 1992 we introduced our ethical policy. If a business doesn’t meet those requirements then we won’t deal with them – not as a supplier or to lend to them. The kinds of companies vary, but obvious examples are arms dealerships. This makes commercial sense for us because over the same period we have increased our commercial lending 16 times. Working this way actually brings in business and strengthens our brand.

MW: The Co-operative Bank has reduced overdraft charges even though it sometimes costs the company more to process them than the fee charged. What was the thinking behind this?

LF: We used to charge £30 for every unpaid payment and we have taken this down to £15. The bank incurs costs to manage this so we have traditionally charged a fee based on those costs.

However, we then thought that it was responsible and fair to levy a charge that was in proportion to the crime so to speak, rather than simply what covered our costs. This is not a tactical promotion, this is our new fee level.

MW: How was this change communicated to customers and what has been the response so far?

LF: We haven’t promoted it heavily but we are going to start talking about it a bit more widely. From research group feedback, cutting punitive fees is certainly something they want us to do.

MW: What do you think consumers feel when brands go beyond the norm?

LF: Consumers know we work like this for the long term, we don’t just park our ethical policies when there is a recession on. As a brand it’s important to be who you are and not who you say you are, because this is when people see through it.

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