Brand Audit: Santander UK

In August 2010, influential financial services review website declared unequivocally that Santander was the “worst bank for customer service”. The birth of the bank from the remnants of acquisitions Abbey National, Alliance and Leicester and Bradford & Bingley at the start of that year had taken its toll with administrative problems leaving perception of the then relatively unknown brand at a low ebb.

Fast-forward four years, however, and the transformation of Santander is what marketing studies are made of. The bank recently announced it was attracting one in four customers switching current accounts and has been crowned the winner in the switching war that broke last September when the process of changing bank accounts was simplified. All of this helped push UK profit at the Spanish-owned bank up 26% in the year September 2014.

The passing of time has obviously helped the bank put in place the structure necessary to deliver better service. However, for chief marketing officer Keith Moor, it was a process that began with a top-down, root and branch review of what needed improving, as well as the introduction of a little imagination in product development.

Internal marketing

The bank introduced its “simple, personal and fair” proposition in March this year, which heroes its 123 current account. The strapline was the culmination of a more than one-year-long internal marketing exercise by the bank’s then UK chief executive Ana Botin to find out from staff what service enhancements were necessary.

“She attended roadshows up and down the country hearing what we wanted to change and improve on,” Moor says. Lots and lots of small changes were made which when added up make the internal people more satisfied, which reflects externally. It’s not rocket science. It’s one of those classic bits of marketing – do the inside bit first and then go external with it.”

Brand health robust

Along with current account openings, perception of the brand has also risen. According to YouGov’s BrandIndex, Santander’s Buzz score – a net balance of the positive and negative things people have heard about a brand – currently stands at 1.3. This puts Santander fourth in a list of 27 high street bank brands, up from 23rd just a year ago. It also puts them ahead of all established high street banks and behind only mutual Nationwide new challenger M&S and a brand untainted by the financial crisis NS&I.

Elsewhere, its Index score – a balance of six key measures including quality, value, satisfaction and general impression of the brand – is 1.1. It currently ranks eighth, up from 22nd a year ago, again ahead of the rest of the high street pack and behind a group of new entrants and challengers.

Santander performs best for value and satisfaction, where it sits third in the list. Key to this and one of the tenets of its turnaround was the launch of the 123 current account – which rewards account holders by giving cashback on water or council tax payments, for example – in March 2012.

Rewarding customers

The rewards strategy was ramped up last month with the launch of a 15% cashback programme for credit card customers. The Retail Offers scheme offers cardholders a choice of personalised deals each month.

Moor says that both 123 and Retail Offers are key to improving customer satisfaction levels.

“This year has been littered, in inverted commas, with reward schemes but they don’t necessarily add to the bottom line, like ClubCard, for example. Then there are others, not naming names, where points don’t get redeemed and people go collecting crazy and don’t get value out of them. This is about people living their day to day life and then effortlessly in the background this [current account or credit card services] is earning them money in terms of cashback or interest.

“It’s just rewarding people for living their lives as normal but the important thing for us is getting loyal, satisfied banking customers.”

Work to do

The last four years have not been an unequivocal success, however. According to credit industry regulator the Financial Conduct Authority, Santander’s current account services were the most complained about of any bank in the first half of 2014.

The bank received 91,158 complaints in the six months to June. However, this was about 25% lower than in the same period a year earlier.

Moor also wants an industry-wide effort to raise trust levels decimated following the financial crisis and PPI mis-selling and rate-rigging scandals in order to generate even greater growth opportunities.

“Ourselves and the sector need to get trust levels back. It is no good if only we grow, the whole sector needs to in order to benefit all. We need to stop doing things that erode that trust.”

Elsewhere, business banking is a priority. Last month, Santander launched its biggest commercial banking push including, press, outdoor and digital activity as well as case studies of the help it has offered businesses that aired across several video-on-demand channels. It also included experiential activity, namely the “Breakthrough Box” – a hub that debuted during a branded SME summit in Liverpool.

Moor says its aim is to “match the resonance” and awareness levels enjoyed by personal banking in business banking. He claims the bank’s share of commercial banking has grown from 2% to 6% in the last couple of years with “aggressive targets” in place to grow further. “We want to be the bank of choice in business,” he adds.