First Direct repositions as it admits customer service is no longer a differentiator

Despite award-winning customer service being one of its most valuable brand assets, First Direct says it is looking to attract customers in a different way with its latest campaign.

It’s fair to say First Direct has no issues when it comes to positive perceptions around its customer service. Just last year, it was awarded the number one position in KPMG Nunwood’s Customer Experience Excellence ranking, reclaiming a title it lost to Lush in 2015.

However, being renowned for customer service can also been limiting, according to First Direct’s head of brand and marketing Zoe Burns-Shore.

“The reality is good customer service now comes with the territory – it’s just something people expect in the Amazon age. On its own, it isn’t enough of a brand differentiator anymore. The problem is if you spend too much of your advertising talking about customer service then unless you’re already a customer, you don’t have any real idea of the difference it makes. It’s a great way of keeping customers, but to gain new ones, repositioning the brand in a more modern way makes the most sense.”

That is why, for its new above-the-line campaign, the first in almost two years, First Direct is repositioning as a “modern, digital bank”. The new campaign will promote the wide range of features in the First Direct app, its £100 switching incentive, technology such as voice activated ID and mortgage schemes. The main hero ad, meanwhile, depicts an astronaut that’s supposed to symbolise First Direct’s uniqueness as a brand.

Burns-Shore says focusing on a wide range of services is necessary to improve a brand awareness score that is still “way too low.”

She explains: “The campaign and the series of ads is about moving us away from customer service. It’s brilliant that we index so highly on customer service scores, but our market awareness is still less than 5%.”

Losing its challenger status

Only 28 years old, First Direct remains a relatively new brand in the UK banking industry. But with new digital-only players such as Monzo and Atom Bank making waves over recent years, has First Direct lost its challenger status? Not according to Burns-Shore. She counters: “The emergence of Atom and Monzo has been helpful in a lot of ways. What they both do is get the basics right, but the reality is their offers are quite narrow.

“We’ve asked our customers if they’d prefer First Direst to be digital only and there’s actually resistance because around mortgages and complex banking issues people like to be reassured that there’s a human on the other end of the phone waiting to help them. Around 75% of all our transactions are now made digitally so it’s a huge opportunity, but we also have a great services proposition and that’s a real asset against the new players.”

People who bank with us, love us, but we are still banking’s best kept secret. That has to change.

Zoe Burns-Shore, First Direct

She also believes the major banking brands, including First Direct’s parent company HSBC, have now “largely come out on the other side” after a difficult few years following the 2008 financial crisis and various fraud scandals. “It’s been really tough and the banks have had a tough ride, but we’ve all done a lot to repair that image. People like Natwest and Lloyds are doing big societal campaigns and this work is making people view banking as something that can be pro-active in society rather than just a necessary evil.”

A changing approach to digital

First Direct’s new campaign is created by agency The Karma Group, which is now owned by consultancy Accenture Interactive following last year’s headline-making acquisition. Burns-Shore admits she was “worried” about the move at first but says having a consultancy perspective has brought a “broader tech” focus to its relationship with the agency.

READ MORE: What Accenture and Karmarama’s deal means for marketers

First Direct pulled all its advertising from YouTube following Google’s well-publicised brand safety scandal, and Burns-Shore says it now works with its digital partners in a less risky way. “We’re not relying on other people as much as we did in the past. We are more interested in putting out content through the social media networks of our influencers, which we are doing with actress Dianne Morgan, who is providing the voiceover for the ads, and putting stuff out on YouTube in a more controlled way.”

She pauses, before going right back on brand message: “Look, people who bank with us, love us, but we are still banking’s best kept secret. That has to change.”