How much do you trust your bank? After subprime, Libor, intentionally mis-selling products, 'dark pool' activities – all in the past ten years – this is perhaps a silly question.
Of course, this is not a challenge solely experienced by brands in the financial sector. Society as a whole has been steadily losing trust in big business – as well as government, media and even NGOs – but 2017 was the first time in 17 years that public trust declined across all four of those institutions according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. That said, few would disagree that banks have had provided more motivation for mistrust than most.
As a result, the banking sector has been hard at work over the past decade to repair the damage done. Part of this has included refreshing their visual identities (TSB relaunched theirs in 2013) and advertising, in an attempt to appear more open, empathetic and considerate. Many play up shared benefits with customers, putting them first, and doing right by them. You might have hoped this represented real change in thought and deed inside the banks as well. Sadly, the current TSB IT meltdown suggests otherwise.
It appears that red flags were raised during its IT migration but the decision was made to prioritise the bank's own reputation, rather than to be honest with customers about the extent of the problem. This perceived lack of honesty and transparency from the CEO on down has led the Financial Conduct Authority to publicise its investigation – a rare decision in an active case. This is striking, and points to the potential damage that one player can do to trust of the industry as a whole, and particularly one with such a chequered past.
An honest account
Some people point to the closing of brick and mortar branches as fuelling the lack of trust in banks – that removing face to face interactions has made banks seem less human, less personal and less authentic, but looking at disruptors like Monzo, whose proposition is purely digital, this seems misguided.
The difference with a business like Monzo is that it is clear about what it does, how it does it, and why – core tenets of a strong, authentic brand strategy. People are savvier than ever and will interrogate the stated intentions of any business (and fill in the vacuum themselves if motivations are not made clear). Monzo then lives this strategy, 'showing' people that these are the things it believes in as a brand in its actions rather than just 'telling' people in its marketing.
When Monzo makes a mistake, it also makes an apology (as it did following card outages in March and August 2017) and crucially, its customers believe it. This isn’t just because the apology is issued quickly and without attempt to shift blame (although that undoubtedly helps). Firstly, Monzo showed it put its customers’ interests first, going so far as to advise them to carry a card from a different bank, and secondly the apology is not in isolation, it is viewed in relation to all of Monzo’s previous words and actions.
Reputation is often used as a synonym for brand, and while it’s not quite like-for-like, it’s true that both brand and reputation are built through people’s experience. Whether direct like a conversation with your mortgage lender, or indirect like the Libor scandal, every interaction adds up. Every point your brand touches your customer is an opportunity to provide a good experience, or a poor one – one that either lives up to the public persona you are presenting to the world, or falls short. Ensuring your brand strategy fully runs through your brand is a key area we support organisations in understanding and activating.
Reversing the public's mistrust of financial institutions starts, coincidentally, with honesty. Banks would be advised to ask themselves what the principles they hold themselves to are – that govern their decision-making and how they recognise success – and how well are they lived across their business. And if they're not aligned with their customer promise, change them, invest in them, support them and reward them. Then, when they tell us they've changed, we might believe them. Maybe.
Tom Adams is a senior consultant at Dragon Rouge London