Banks are all about money, aren’t they? Shareholders want returns; regulators want capital; and customers want their money (or their debts) looked after. Some politicians – and significant sections of the public – think banks should be a form of public utility; since the banking crisis they clearly can’t be trusted with peoples’ money in private hands, the argument goes, so they should be nationalised or at very least have the highest possible level of regulation.
Money is undeniably what banks’ business is about. As a result of the crisis, that function was (usually unfairly) equated with selfish greed. The recent appearance of archetypal, braces-wearing banker John Varley and his fellow Barclays executives in court on charges related to the crisis is a reminder of the opprobrium heaped on others who were seen as responsible. Trust in bankers and banks was devastated in 2008; without some level of trust, banks cannot carry out their primary function of looking after money.
Establishing trust is the primary reason for banking brands to exist and most have been trying to recover it since, with varying degrees of success. A YouGov poll this year showed that customer perception of banks among consumers is turning increasingly positive, with more customers saying they are happy with the experience they have of their own bank (even those who are still negative on banks overall). That suggests something’s working; and the banks doing best are, generally, those who are talking about their heritage, ethics and ‘purpose’.
According to Keith Moor, the purpose of a bank is something other than being a utility for the management of money. Banks, he says, have a social value – a purpose – which Santander describes as to “help people and businesses prosper”. It’s supported by a consumer-generated marketing campaign, seen as more ‘authentic’ than the highly-polished ads of old. Moor says Santander have been quietly preparing the way for a discussion about purpose for a long time with careful delivery of better customer experiences, better value and support for communities at a local level.
Other banks are going the same route, like Nationwide and NatWest. Natwest ran an ad campaign recently that talked about the bank taking responsibility for what it does (tagline “We are what we do”) and inviting customers to hold the firm to account if it fell short. A cynical customer might feel this should not really come as a new proposition, but simply be what should be expected all along; although at least it does acknowledge that mistakes have been made in the past, a good first step to recovering trust.
Nationwide has arguably a better case for presenting itself as an ethical organisation, based on its roots as a mutual; an ad campaign featuring poets and poems talking about the emotional realities of life was an ambitious attempt to attach emotional resonance to the brand.
Some have said that purpose-led marketing is a short-lived fad, like the tear-jerking Christmas ads for big retailers that have proved highly effective over the last few years but have now morphed into less weepy, self-parodying versions of themselves. It’s easy to be cynical, but there’s a feeling in the industry that a new generation has learned from the mistakes of the past and is genuinely attempting to find a new way of giving banks and (importantly) their staff a better reason to go to work. One that fulfils a necessary function in society, but does it in a way which makes that society better for everyone.
Will it last? It would be encouraging to think that the banking crisis has, however belatedly, had some positive long-term social benefits. For now at least, looking for this higher purpose is having a good effect on the banks’ brands, on perception of the industry and on the value customers receive. So let’s hope so.
This article originally appeared in Chartered Banker magazine