Why bank brands are taking a more purposeful marketing approach

With negative consumer perceptions persisting, banks are changing their marketing efforts to take a more purpose-led approach.

Financial services brands are overhauling their marketing strategies, going from functional to emotional by showing off their quirky history or their efforts to make the world a slightly better place.

Santander is the latest to change approach. It has turned to user-generated content to launch a campaign that it hopes can speak to customers in a more authentic way than could be achieved with a glossy, highly polished campaign. The new campaign, which was created in partnership with WCRS, also represents the public launch of Santander’s purpose: ‘To help people and businesses prosper’.

Keith Moor, CMO at Santander, says: “We have had a purpose-led strategy as a business for a number of years now from way back in 2013. We always knew we wanted to talk about our purpose, but we wanted to be in a position where we could substantiate it and talk about it in a more eloquent way.”

Santander is not the only finance brand to go down this route. Last September, Nationwide unveiled a new ad to emphasise what makes a building society different from banks and to articulate what it stands for “more powerfully than it had in the past”. The new campaign saw spoken word artists perform a poem based on different themes, including ‘being a mum’ and ‘loneliness in a connected world’.

CMO Sara Bennison said at the time: “During the financial crisis Nationwide had to hunker down and protect the business and its current membership. It was the right thing to do. Now we want to raise our head above the rest of the category. For many good reasons our best brand story had not yet been told.”

Recovering from the crisis

Ever since the financial crash in 2008, most bank brands have not been in the public’s good books and have had to battle a strong sense of distrust among consumers. Most have also recently dropped interest rates for savers.

“Most of the time banks are on the front pages because of a fine for some sort of dodgy behaviour. A lot of communications is trying to do a reputational job where they are trying to prop up how they’re seen as caring and ethical organisations,” says Julian Douglas, vice-chairman at creative agency VCCP, which worked on Nationwide’s new campaign.

RBS Group’s CMO David Wheldon agrees this is the case. One of its brands, NatWest, launched a campaign late last year to promote the slogan ‘We are what we do’. That was part of a strategy aimed at showing that the brand recognises banks should be held responsible for what they do as well as what they say, and inviting customers to hold NatWest to account.

“Over the last nine years, I cannot think of a single financial brand that has even nodded at the fact there were serious problems in the past. It annoys people,” Wheldon explains.

“We know we made mistakes in the past, but we have learned from them and won’t make them again. But we must acknowledge those mistakes and the ‘We are what we do’ slogan really summarises that.”

Distrust in the banking sector

You might think a cynical British public would question this new approach, but the data would suggest otherwise.

YouGov brand tracking figures indicate that the recent trend in the banking sector is one of improving consumer perception. Over the past year, almost all the major banks have seen their impression score, which looks at whether someone has a favourable impression of a brand, increase.

Some banks have performed particularly well, with both Halifax and Nationwide showing strong scores. They have managed to make use of their heritage and status as building societies and combine that with aggressive advertising strategies.

And despite the negative headlines from the financial crisis, YouGov data shows satisfaction scores for financial services brands have been largely positive since 2008. YouGov Profiles data also shows only 4% of people switched their current account to another provider in the past 12 months.

“This suggests that when it comes to the personal interaction people have with their bank, they can separate the news from their day-to-day experience,” says Jake Palenicek, director of financial services at YouGov.

“Our data shows that while banks will have a tough job to return to pre-crash levels of perception, they have made significant strides in terms of rebuilding their reputation. And while consumers may not think too highly of the banking sector, they continue to have faith in their own banks.”

A still from the NatWest ad featuring the ‘we are what we do’ slogan

Evolving their strategies

Although it seems a good idea for banks to focus on their positive contributions to society, the trend to push out ethically-minded campaigns could potentially lessen their impact.

“It’s a bit like the emotional John Lewis Christmas ads that worked for a few years until everyone else copied it and it lost its impact. Last year’s ads were a bit funnier and the game had moved on,” says Douglas at VCCP.

If competitors are mimicking a certain approach of advertising or communications, brands will inevitably want to stay one step ahead by evolving. That is not to say, however, that they should not remain consistent.

As Douglas concludes: “You have to be consistent in terms of what you stand for in your values, beliefs or the common thread of what you’re trying to get across. But the way in which you deliver it needs to be constantly changing.”



There are 6 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Nick Tate 25 Jan 2017

    I agree with a huge amount within this article, but I also think there’s another angle here.

    A purpose is useless unless it manifests itself in something tangible for the audience. In the case of banking, purpose should be fueling new products and services designed to answer genuine customer need – and this goes far beyond the hygiene factors of being honest, transparent and essentially “a good business” (and saying so in comms). After all, shouldn’t all businesses be good? The elephant in the room is the question whether banks value purpose over profit (?) I’d argue that as consumer trust is at such an all-time low with institutions (politics, religion, banking, insurance etc) that it’s revolution, not evolution that’s required to make consumers really believe in purposeful banking.

    Nick Tate

    • Zbiggy Ucinek 25 Jan 2017

      Congrats, really good comment, but being a Nothern lad and therefore far less diplomatic than you, no amount of quality marketing can polish a turd. Sadly too many large organisations that are doing just OK, have no need or desire to enhance and improve. The banking industry is one of the worst. But then again when you are too big to fail why bother?

  2. Chris Arnold 25 Jan 2017

    The term “purpose’ has been nicked from the ethical business community and is used to describe ethical brands purpose. For a bank to hijack this term makes me trust them even less as it is pure lip service.

  3. Nicola Carey 25 Jan 2017

    In some ways the current trend amongst the fs brands isn’t a new trend at all, purpose creep has been a part of these brands strategies since the financial crisis. When you’re all the bad guy you all have to reset your approach.

    The reason I think we are seeing a slew of new creative strategies coming through is that these organisations have very few functional/product levers to pull at the moment, creating the need to build an emotional connection like never before .

    Suppressed interest rates are creating a race to the bottom making flagship propositions incredibly difficult to justify. Santander made huge strides in advancing their purpose driven approach under the 1.2.3 strategy but that being descoped makes a new brand story a necessity.
    ‘Helpful Banking’ again for Natwest was tangible , but now against the cinema of others feels like a hygiene factor.

    I feel like ultimately now is no different to 2010 or 2013, we are just seeing new creative executions of the same strategy.

  4. Jonathan Cahill 26 Jan 2017

    Purpose in this context just seems to be another word for overall umbrella benefit.

    ‘To help people and businesses prosper’ doesn’t seem to take account of the greater potency of addressing a claim direct. ‘To help you and your business prosper’ isn’t too far away from this, but takes the individual into consideration. Don’t understand why they want to be general rather than particular

  5. Joanna F.E 26 Jan 2017

    It’s interesting that the banking industry is trying to collectively rebrand themselves so that they are seen in a good light by consumers. The type of advertisements that they are choosing to be a part of, “user-generated”, is something that I have seen a lot recently. Companies want their consumers to be part of their ads, having them contribute to the brand. The example that I always think about when there are situations like these are the campaigns that Doritos launches, having their customers create their own ad and sent it into them, the best being picked and aired during the Super Bowl. It creates a nice relationship between the brand and the customer.
    However, seeing it now with banks, especially after the financial crisis as the article stated, it gets a little tougher. Having to “rebuilt the reputation” of the banking industry is a heavy task but I think that having ads like the ones shown in the article will help move the general perception of what banking institutions want their customers for. I’ve always liked the idea of brands making their customers feel a part of the brand, having a connection of some sort whether it’s interaction via social media or even rewards programs. To me, it seems to be very effective. I like these types of ads and definitely want to see more of them.

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