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.”