Nationwide CMO Sara Bennison: ‘Evolve or become the next Woolworths’

Nationwide is in the midst of a brand overhaul, with CMO Sara Bennison suggesting it will have to keep on evolving if it is to avoid becoming ‘the next Woolworths’.

Sara Bennison

Sara Bennison started her role as chief marketing officer (CMO) at Nationwide earlier this year after completing a seven-year stint at Barclays – weathering the storm after a major financial crisis. Even though both brands operate in the same market, Bennison admits going from a PLC environment to a building society, where members actually have a say in the business, was a welcome change.

“At Nationwide it’s less about fire fighting and rehabilitating a brand [like at Barclays] and more about giving a voice to an extraordinary society with an amazing history,” she says.

She is also Nationwide’s first ever CMO. While she was initially worried about other executives’ reactions to “this strange being” at the boardroom table, her qualms were unfounded as the business was “very open” to new ideas.

These new ideas have resulted in a new TV campaign and rebrand, which was unveiled today (14 September). Nationwide is including ‘building society’ in its brand name for the first time ever in a bid to better articulate what makes it different, while using poets to communicate its brand values.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Bennison explains what challenges the brand still has to overcome, how it wants to become a leader “in a market that has become so tarnished” and the role it can play post-Brexit.

What have you been up since starting at Nationwide?

Immediately after I arrived, I launched a campaign featuring a little girl handing out cupcakes called ‘Life’s better when we share’. This was an interim measure to start articulating what makes a building society different. We also started thinking about what we want to stand for as a brand and how we articulate that more powerfully than we have in the past. This has obviously been a lot of work and is now seeing the light of day.

Why was the brand relaunch needed?

While Nationwide is a loved brand, the people that don’t know us, don’t consider us as an option. For many good reasons our best brand story had not yet been told. During the financial crisis Nationwide had to hunker down and protect the business and its current membership – which is the right thing to do. Now we want to raise our head above the rest of the category. That’s really for me, the biggest opportunity we have.

There is an opportunity for a building society to be particularly relevant in today’s society. So we want to start to establish a leadership of this category that has become so tarnished. Normally when you’re dealing in these markets, you are trying to find a point of difference between you and other brands. Us being a building society is a massive point of difference, but it’s quite hard to articulate. We are a member-owned organisation so we need to get across how it translates into how we make decisions in difficult, and post-Brexit, times.

How do you think Nationwide is currently seen by consumers and how would you like it to be seen?

Those who know us love us. But as I said, if you don’t know us you don’t necessarily think about us at all. It’s been quite quiet [from the brand’s side].

“We don’t want be slightly old fashioned and dusty – if you’re not careful you’ll end up like a Woolworths; much loved but not used.”

“While we’re obviously not anywhere near that position due to our scale in the markets we operate in and our rude health, we need to make sure we continue into the next generation.”

In the campaign, we wanted to portray our roots of being a building society and the power of the collective. The ad has no music, no razzmatazz, it’s shot in a simple and raw way. It’s very different from what we’ve done before and from our competitors.

What role can marketing play in helping consumers understand the financial implications of Brexit?

It is really difficult, and we’re facing an uncertain time. Being able to be a beacon of trust to people, so that they believe your values are good and that you can make the right decision on their behalf is really important. As is being able to give them advice through marketing channels and people in branches, which goes against the current trend. However glorious our mobile app is, many people still want that face-to-face contact.

What was it like working at Barclays during the financial crisis?

I suppose no one would want the crisis to have happened, but as a marketer it was fantastically interesting and challenging. All bets were off in a way. Being in a crisis teaches you resilience and way of being able to take stock of difficult situations and navigate a way out of it. You need to focus on what’s special about your brand and what the right thing is for your customers.

Is there still more to do to improve customer perceptions of the financial sector?

I think overall, and I wouldn’t include Nationwide in this necessarily, financial brands have a leading role to play in this in important bring trust back. But I think the sector has definitely improved. Maybe it’s because of the organisation I’ve worked for, but I don’t think people were trying to do evil to customers and I think financial brands are definitely learning from their past mistakes.

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