Noel Edmonds is not a man to fuck around with. Separate your early memories of the TV presenter with the mellifluous voice and extravagant knitwear from the crafty entrepreneur who built a multimillion-pound media empire. Edmonds had the smarts to parlay a 70s career as a DJ into mega stardom in the 80s on TV, then into a wildly lucrative production business.
But that company, the Unique Group, fell apart a decade ago after Edmonds claims it fell victim to a rogue group of bankers working for HBOS in Reading. They classified numerous small businesses as credit risks before referring them to a turnaround consulting firm, which loaded them with huge additional debts and fees, forcing many into administration. The bankers and consultants used the financial proceeds of the fraud to fund luxury holidays and prostitutes, with six of them ultimately jailed for a total of 47 years.
Now Edmonds is threatening to sue Lloyds Banking Group, which bought HBOS in 2008, for up to £60m in damages. Edmonds accuses Lloyds of being the UK’s “most toxic bank” and its chief executive António Horta-Osório of being “cunning, treacherous and totally untrustworthy”. Lloyds is adamant that Edmonds’ allegations are unfair and will contest the case if it comes to court.
While it is a salacious tale, former customers protesting about companies is hardly a rare or particularly interesting event. There is a long and angry history of customers uniting outside the local branch of an offending organisation with placards in the rain. Every topic from animal testing to tax avoidance can attract a small, significant, but ultimately ineffectual voice of dissent.
But Edmonds is not your average consumer and his voice carries a lot more amplification than your typically dissatisfied protest group. The HBOS saga took a toll not only on his personal finances but also his mental health and his marriage. He has recovered from the dark days of 2005, when he attempted suicide, but he is clearly angry about his experience and now he is seeking his revenge.
That passion combines with the natural talents of an astute business mind who has a lifetime of media experience. Edmonds knows how to engage the public like an old pro and build a business like a successful entrepreneur. That means that, aside from an axe to grind, Edmonds has professional grinding skills to bring to the challenge. And Lloyds is certainly starting to feel it.
His campaign offers a textbook approach for activists looking to effectively target a large company and elicit a response. Rather than standing outside in the rain with pointless placards Edmonds has used media, marketing and brand positioning against Lloyds in an increasingly effective attempt to force the bank’s hand and secure his redress.
Professionally run campaign
For starters, Edmonds created an integrated communications campaign to target Lloyds. He has the usual campaign website but has bolstered that message with a radio campaign and a clever and very pointed use of public relations to drive top-of-funnel awareness of his cause.
Edmonds has set up the YouTube channel ‘Lloyds Victims’, which has shared a variety of messages such as ‘Evil Banksters’, a music track that reworks the 80s Paul Hardcastle classic ’19’. So far the video has garnered more than a million views – around 10 times the YouTube audience that Lloyds attracts for most of its own advertising.
The Lloyds Bank brand has an iconic and brilliantly executed communications campaign featuring the central code of the black horse and the strapline ‘By Your Side’. It’s wonderful work widely admired by marketers and other financial services brands for its combination of emotional appeal and the distinctive connection to the bank.
Aside from an axe to grind, Edmonds has professional grinding skills to bring to the challenge. And Lloyds is certainly starting to feel it.
But Edmonds, again no marketing dummy, has used the strength of Lloyds Bank’s advertising against the group. He has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority that the By Your Side slogan is hypocritical because of the original crimes committed by HBOS Reading against its customers, and the manner in which Lloyds has subsequently handled the fallout.
There is zero chance that the ASA will find in his favour – a fact he is almost certainly aware of. But the complaint and the surrounding publicity provides another burst of PR, keeps the case alive in the public mind and continues to damage Lloyds’ brand image.
Similarly, Edmonds’ recent special guest appearance at the company’s annual general meeting was not about getting answers from the (clearly exasperated) board of directors. It was about Edmonds making headlines, stating his case and attempting to once again position Lloyds as the big “fundamentally corrupt” organisation that he believes it to be.
Along with By Your Side, Lloyds Bank took an admirable and award winning stance on mental health issues with its emotive TV campaign ‘Get the Inside Out’. In the ads, a range of celebrities and members of the public are shown wearing a post-it note on their forehead with a mental health condition written on it, then asking for clues as to how it would affect their everyday life. The call to action, ‘Let’s get it out in the open’ merges with the tagline By Your Side at the end of the ad.
Edmonds, who knows plenty about mental stress, was quick to object to the campaign and hijack its message for his own ends. He started a very public feud with one of the celebrities featured in the campaign, Countdown star Rachel Riley, who Edmonds accuses of setting herself against “public opinion” by working with Lloyds.
The attack was perhaps unfair but it again achieved its aim, which was to turn a worthy, purpose-filled corporate attempt to link Lloyds Bank to diversity and mental health issues into a reminder of the HBOS scandal, and the damage that was subsequently suffered by customers of the latter.
In a further signal of Edmond’s marketing expertise he is using consumer data against Lloyds to make his point. He commissioned a survey of a representative sample of the British public using research firm ComRes. The data was another useful source for external public relations but it must also have deeply concerned Lloyds marketing team. It suggests almost half the British public are aware of Edmonds’ campaign against Lloyds and a majority of those people don’t believe its claims that it was unaware of the scandal when it acquired HBOS and is in favour of a public inquiry.
Lloyds has countered with its own data but, again, Edmonds has cleverly put it on the spot and it can only lose from the resulting publicity.
Targeting Lloyds’ brand value
Ultimately this is a war of marketing attrition. Lloyds Banking Group, which generated a net income of £9bn in the past six months, depends on two sources of revenue. The first is its ‘back book’ of existing customers who currently bank with its brands. There is tremendous inertia in this customer base and it is unlikely Edmonds has had any impact at all on this group. You don’t move your mortgage because of Noel Edmonds.
But banks must also recruit new customers to replace the inevitable churn in their books and hopefully grow revenues. To do that a bank must make it into the consideration set of the target customer and it is here that Edmonds is doing untold damage to Lloyds’ long-term financial performance. The longer he keeps the issue in the news and the more awareness he generates, the lower Lloyds’ consideration levels will fall. Less consideration means fewer new customers which means lower revenues.
Cleverly, Edmonds has not targeted Halifax or Bank of Scotland with his campaign, despite HBOS being the institution that caused the initial problem. By targeting Lloyds Bank, a more valuable brand within the Lloyds Banking Group, Edmonds has raised the stakes of his activism and increased the likelihood of achieving his ultimate aim of a settlement.
Lloyds has a very clear brand purpose to ‘build a stronger, more responsible business’ that will ‘help Britain prosper’. Edmonds’ concerted efforts are not just newsworthy and targeted at the main brand in the group, they are directly contradictory to this stated brand purpose. He is going after the branding jugular by constantly suggesting Lloyds are not behaving responsibly and that, as a result, they are hurting many businesses and people across the UK.
The bank must make it into the consideration set of the target customer, and it is here that Edmonds is doing untold damage to Lloyds’ financial performance.
That would be a horrifying association for any brand, but for Lloyds, which is attempting to convince people it is responsible and always looking after customers, it is incredibly damaging.
Edmonds knows what he is doing. Call it anti-branding or counter-marketing or whatever you will. He is a branding albatross that follows Lloyds around and refuses to fly away. He wants his money. He wants revenge. And it’s clear from every interview he gives that beneath the extravagant beard and bouffant hair, there is a man who has been deeply hurt.
The question for the senior team at Lloyds is at what point will a £20m or £30m settlement represent good value for their shareholders? At first sight a 69-year-old retired DJ is hardly a worthy adversary for multibillion-pound financial behemoth. But Edmonds is quite clearly doing increasing amounts of perceptual damage to the Lloyds Bank brand.
It’s hard for many British customers to see the beautiful black horse ads and not think of Edmonds and the others impacted by the Reading Six. Lloyds’ very positive recent financial results were prefaced in almost every media channel with a mention of the Noel Edmonds case. When your brand is valued in the billions and most of your media coverage continues to focus on a damaging episode from a decade ago that contradicts your brand positioning, a £20m payout might actually make significant strategic sense.
It’s clear that Edmonds will maintain his impressive anti-brand campaign. If anything he has intensified his work over the past 12 months. When will Lloyds realise that it would make prudent strategic sense to deal, rather than not deal, with the situation?