Mark Ritson: Will Barclays betray its brand purpose now it’s bonus season?

You’ll remember that just over a year ago Barclays embarked on the latest in a long line of brand transformations. After a raft of scandals engulfed the bank, new chief executive officer Antony Jenkins and branding boss David Wheldon went on a media offensive in every sense of the word.

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They completed a strategic review and committed Barclays to becoming a “values-driven business”. Specifically, the bank would adopt a corporate purpose of “helping people achieve their ambitions – in the right way” and focus on five core values of respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship.

It all looked a bit generic and, more importantly, highly unlikely, given the bank’s past indiscretions. But Wheldon claimed it was the most excited he had been in his 30 years of marketing and Jenkins even assured us that employees who did not conform to the new approach would be out on their ear.

Twelve months later and Barclays’ new brand promise is facing its first big test. Under European legislation all banks are now forbidden from paying bonuses in excess of 100 per cent of base salary. In special cases the bank in question can seek approval from shareholders to increase that to 200 per cent but that is the maximum that can be paid to any banker.

Bearing in mind a recent survey revealed that the average London banker took home a bonus of 370 per cent of their annual salary last year, it’s not hard to see why the legislation is proving troublesome for all the big banks. Most are already struggling to explain why they have increased their bonus pools despite wide-ranging profit and dividend declines and the legislation has presented them with the additional headache of not only justifying the unjustifiable but doing so in a manner that allows them to bend EU law without actually breaking it. It’s a legal, moral and financial minefield but one that must be navigated if our overpaid, over-incentivised financial giants are to have their way.

But there is a silver lining in all this cloudy talk – what better time could there be for Barclays to demonstrate its new brand values and transformed operations?

Too often, marketers throw differentiation into the conversation without appreciating what it really means. At the heart of any great brand is the ability to not only devise a clear position but execute it in such a way that it enables the brand to step aside from its competitors. Great brands do things differently and they use their brand values as the engine for that difference.

For Barclays there is the double advantage of a newly minted brand strategy and a horde of competitors so ingloriously awful and generically appalling that even a tiny step in the right direction could deliver genuine branded differentiation.

If Wheldon and Jenkins are going to walk the branding walk they have a clear and obvious path ahead of them. Surely, the bank that prides itself on “integrity” and “respect” will abide by the new legislation and not allow its top executives to break through the bonus barrier. After all, if a brand’s steadfast corporate purpose is to help people achieve their ambitions “in the right way” it will surely pay its people accordingly.

Don’t bet on it. Barclays is expected to follow the hordes and ask its shareholders to approve bonuses worth 200 per cent of base salary later this year. Even worse, according to The Guardian the bank has also already told its investment bankers it will also top up their salary and 200 per cent bonus with a third payment in the form of a “role-based allowance”. This monthly allowance, which will be paid alongside but separate from a regular salary, effectively allows Barclays to abide by the letter of the legislation while completely eroding its actual purpose.

Clearly, nobody expected capitalist titans like Goldman Sachs or RBS to do anything other than flout the legislation and find a way to keep their bankers in the style to which they have become oh-so accustomed. But if Barclays follows suit, its much vaunted brand purpose and values will appear to be simply lipstick on the gorilla. It may be a different shade from that applied to the corporate lips by previous incumbents but it’s lipstick none the less.

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