Back in June, HSBC responded to the new legislation by announcing that its UK retail banking operations would be rebranded. CEO Stuart Gulliver promised a decision “sometime toward the end of the year”.
As we approach decision time four options sit on his desk.
Create a new brand
We all know how this works. The bank appoints a super-sexy, totally impractical creative agency. The need to find a name and digital hinterland that are both available leads to something brain-numbingly insane like Finalta or Banktrusteo. Alternatively, HSBC could conjure a strange new spelling to create Bank24U or go completely mental and call itself Spanners or Hello! or just use the Phoenician symbol Gimel. They are all equally implausible and yet possible in the trippy world of brand creation. Next the bank rolls out a ridiculous 3D logo that looks like a dog’s penis and then spends 80 million quid on ads featuring Jude Law crapping on about being a new kind of bank that uses digital blah-blah to achieve customer wha-wha in a way that has never been done before. I don’t think HSBC is this dumb, but I’ve been surprised before.
Bring back a dead brand
Another option is to revive the Midland Bank, which was culled back in 1999. It’s a brand with huge heritage having been founded in 1836, decades before HSBC itself was created. Its Birmingham origins also fit with HSBC’s announcement that its UK retail operations and many of its 22,000 employees will be moving there as part of the new ring-fencing. Midland once had plenty of brand equity too. High levels of unaided awareness and its positioning as “the listening bank” combined with its disappearance long before the banking scandals of the 21st century explain why HSBC chairman Douglas Flint refers to Midland as the “odds-on favourite”.
But there are drawbacks. It’s been over 15 years since Midland last cashed a cheque and anyone under 35 is going to struggle to recall anything about the bank. That includes most of the bank’s employees, who might bridle at HSBC’s global brand strength being deleted from their business cards and replaced with a bank that only Aunty Betty can remember. “The Midland isn’t a name that any younger banking consumers recognise,” one senior source inside the bank explained to Sky News this week. “That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have merit, but it looks unlikely to be the route that’s eventually chosen,” the source continued.
It’s an approach that has worked wonders for Unilever who operate more than 40 distinct national ice cream brands (including our very own Wall’s) under the same Heart logo. HSBC could attempt something similar with a new or pre-existing name for its British retail bank but continue to link it to the red hexagonal logo of the parent company. That might prove attractive because it now appears that HSBC will rebrand but won’t spin-off and sell its UK operations as was once thought. It also allows them a gentler brand transition for staff and customers alike with the option to remove the logo at a later date.
Again there are drawbacks. Given the massive re-focus on Asia and away from Europe that HSBC is about to embark upon, why bother anchoring any of the bank’s brand identity in the UK? Stuart Gulliver is also known to favour complete clarity for his UK customers and utilise a totally distinct identity. The CEO rarely takes an interest in this kind of stuff, but when he does he inevitably gets what he wants.
Expand a niche brand
Not as crazy as it may sound. Owned by HSBC, First Direct is a superb brand. Launched in 1989, it has attracted 1.25 million customers and has unbelievable levels of service and brand loyalty. Its current net promoter score is +73 – an incredible performance. That’s 30 points better than any other bank in the UK and a hundred points better than HSBC. Created as a “branchless” bank it is also superbly placed to handle the digital era ahead. The only snag might be upsetting the bank’s existing loyalists who are fiercely protective of the bank and its distinctive presence within financial services.
So where will HSBC’s marketers land? If they are smart they will opt for First Direct. If they are lazy they will use the shared identity approach. If they are risk averse they will plump for Midland. And if they are morons it could be Spanners.
Please God, let it be Spanners.