By Seb Joseph | News editor

September 24, 2016 | 8 min read

As its 2020 deadline to become the UK’s most trusted bank nears, beleaguered Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) launches ads to bring clarity to its switch from a branded house to a house of brands with RBS and Natwest.

In other words, it’s “one of the world’s most impossible marketing tasks” admits chief marketing officer, David Wheldon. And he has a point: a rebrand in Scotland to Royal Bank; a repositioning of the Natwest retail bank in England and Wales; a revamp of the Ulster brand; and a new marketing strategy across the business - each part working to erect a fictional firewall between the battered perceptions of the RBS brand or, as Wheldon puts it, “this is the beginning of the real focus on the brands that will get us to number one”.

That RBS feels its own corporate name can no longer deliver that ambition belies just how radical Wheldon’s strategy is from what came before. Gone is the relentless pursuit for global awareness that saw the iconic acronym slapped on Formula One cars a decade ago, leaving what Mark Ritson, Melbourne Business School associate professor of marketing and Marketing Week columnist, has called a “disconnected house of brands” that “begins and ends in the UK and Ireland”.

It’s a step change that will be for all to see this weekend when the banking group debuts the ads for both RBS and Natwest. Each will reveal the new logos for the brands, with FutureBrand creating the new identity for the 'Royal Bank for Scotland' and Natwest bringing back its 3D symbol.

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Scottish audiences will see the 60-second spot (see above) for the “Royal Bank” during Saturday’s (24 September) edition of X-Factor, with the slogan the “Royal Bank for Scotland”. Customers in Scotland already refer to the bank as the “Royal Bank”, claims Wheldon, who wants more of them to do so rather than recall RBS, a name forever tied to the financial crash. Consequently, the ad stresses the values and purpose of the brand, following a RBS ten pound note as it journeys through the country, passing through the lives of its people.

It’s a very different tone to the moody, black and white images of the highs and lows of humanity that make up Natwest’s M&C Saatchi-created ad (see below). Viewers in England and Wales can judge for themselves during Sunday’s (25 September) X-Factor when the ad will bear the tagline “We are all what we have done, and what we will do, so we all have duty to do the right thing, we are not different, we are what we do”. “Those words are a nod to the past,” explains Wheldon.

“We know that we got things wrong and made mistakes but we won’t be making them again because we’ve learnt our lessons and are inviting you all to hold us to account of what we do…Even though it’s a brand ad, it’s directly attached to what we do day in, day out,” he adds.

Part of that shift in tone is down to Natwest’s push for new customers. It’s why Wheldon will be keeping a close eye on the brand attribution and is why it’s taken time to land on a “consistent idea” for the brand, through “consistent music, a consistent voice and a consistent use of its logo”. “There’s a straight line relationship I can see from the historical data we have between brand attribution and brand consideration,” he continues. “There’s also straight line correlation between consideration and [bringing new people to the bank]…we want to get more than our fair share of new account openings and advertising is one of the ways you can help do that.”

Mindful of how easier it can be for these campaigns to slip into redundant rhetoric, Wheldon is introducing a more reactive way of measuring and responding to Net Promoter Scores to show the nbank means what it says. For example, if a customer has provided feedback about the level of service or the quality of facilities in a particular store, then customer service teams are following up these claims “immediately” to try and resolve as quickly possible.

Getting back to the basics may not be revolutionary but the stripped back campaigns for RBS and Natwest spotlight the long-term view of the group, guiding its attempt to build trust in a market many people are suspicious of. To that end, Wheldon talks about the actions of both banks having to speak louder than words and the need to take action on the things customers care about.”

Having that customer-centric attitude has slowed the bank’s rush into the world of automated advertising. The merits of being able to personalise ads at scale aren’t lost on Wheldon, although people should be made aware of how their data is being used to deliver that type of engagement. A “good use of ad tech” he argues would be if a customer with a “great credit rating” is looking for new car online and they received an ad explaining that they could borrow a certain amount of money at a competitive rate.

“Anything that we do like that [with ad tech] we want to make sure our customers are comfortable with it and are aware of how we use their data to their benefit,” Wheldon cautions.

“We don’t just want to leap into [ad tech] and what worries me about it is the fact that customers aren’t aware of what’s being done to them… I don’t think companies that use ad tech are transparent enough about the upside. Data used well is massively useful and data used badly is really offensive. We have to protect our customers and their data first and foremost.”

Wheldon’s unwillingness to rush headlong into the digital space is also affecting how he works with the banks’ media agency. Admittedly, a “challenging client”, the marketer and president of the World Federation of Advertisers reveals he has been “delighted” with the support from Zenith Optimedia, which has handled media planning and buying for the group’s retail banks since 2011. However, he did admit that the group could follow in the footsteps of other advertisers and insist on more from transparency and openness from the agency should the need to arise, particularly in the wake of separate revelations from Facebook and Dentsu Aegis that there have been “irregularities” in what they have delivered to advertisers.

“I challenge them [Zenith Optimedia] on whether they’re appropriately transparent; are they sharing the ways they make money; are they telling us everything they do and are they kicking the tyres of all the digital channels appropriately?” he explains.

“They are well aware that that’s a challenge for them to be accountable and to be honest… for the time being I’ve been delighted with the support we get from Zenith Optimedia.”

In a little under four years, RBS will know whether its house of brands strategy is the right one. It hasn't reported profit in the last seven years but the situation should improve in near term after non-core assets are divested and regulatory supervision is eased. Beyond that there’s the threat of an almost imminent UK economy slowdown following the Brexit referendum that could be a spanner in the works.

Unsurprisingly, Wheldon is confident the plans for both brands can take it to the summit of the sector. He will have expected some of the reaction to the campaigns, particularly for the RBS, to be negative as shown by some of the posts from those who have watched the ad early on Facebook.

A disgruntled Paul Keating posted: "My tenner should tell me why my local branch has just been closed down, a branch which was always busy, and why my bank is "saving money" in all the wrong places! Slash your bonuses, not your branches!"

Wheldon believes the strategy can convince the naysayers in time: "We want to do the right thing but we want to make people feel good too,” he adds. “We’re actually beginning to remake an emotional connection in an emotionless world.”

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