Joseph Baladi
May 27, 2015

How one bank can rise above the perfect storm

Brand leadership in banking is up for grabs. Who wants it?

Joseph Baladi
Joseph Baladi

The typical branding journey—from zero to hero—is typically long and arduous. Contrary to the expectations of many CEOs, brands are not built overnight. Most of the time there are no magic bullets. No short-cuts.

Most of the time.

Every now and then a confluence of circumstances creates a unique environment that remains viable for only a specific and limited amount of time, like the proverbial window of an opportunity that closes before most people even realize it opened to begin with.

We have today one such window. And it is no ordinary window. Coming out of the latest round of banking scandals—this time involving no fewer than six international banks charged with rigging foreign exchange markets—a tipping point has arguably been reached. That point quite literally represents one of the biggest, most lucrative of all prizes in business: brand leadership in the banking sector.

It is possible. Today, now. Just like that.


In the capitalistic, free-market system where demand and supply are partly influenced by the relative appeal of a brand promise and how it matches that promise to behaviour, banks are an anomaly. Via ubiquitous advertising they promise to behave and do things they think people want to hear but, instead, do exactly and only what is in their interest to do.

Contrary to accepted norms of behaviour and, apparently, conventional sovereign laws, banks around the world are—again—taking turns to cheat, mislead, misrepresent and otherwise swindle customers with little to no restraint by regulators and law-enforcement agencies. They do it alone and they do it together. In this latest round to hit the front pages over the past few days, 'The Cartel' is how bankers from Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland referred to themselves as they colluded via coded language using an exclusive chatroom to manipulate benchmark exchange rates.

It is unsurprising that banks are, therefore, quite literally loathed by most people around the world. Given the scale and scope of the criminality involved, this behaviour is impacting far more than individual customers. It is adversely affecting entire economies, industries and no doubt even the stability of the odd government. What some bank CEOs are doing, what they are responsible for, is nothing short of a destabilization of global economies with the accompanying consequences.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the repeated scandals of the past decade and more, involving not only the outright theft of hundreds if not thousands of billions of dollars, but also the triggering of a full-blown global economic crisis, have contributed to the decline and extinction of companies and industries, fuelled political crises and ruined the lives of millions of people around the world. 

Beyond misconduct, banks have also rigged the game with a system that promotes “stickiness” and discourages brand switching. Because regulators and governments have allowed banks to grow not just upwards, but also sideways, banks have been able to infiltrate deep nooks and crannies of people’s lives, companies and government institutions with interconnected products and services that are difficult to disentangle from. So many aspects of people’s lives are not just interconnected by the banks, but also interdependent.

Banks cynically make up the rules of the game as they go along and break them when it suits them. As one Barclays trader wrote in a November chat: “If you aint cheating you aint trying….”

Ordinary individuals recognize the scale of damage banks are creating around the world but feel impotent and frustrated. On the one hand they can’t stop or mitigate the miscreant behaviour, and on the other they can’t even ditch the brand. What would be the point? The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming; the expressions of outrage are voluminous and easy to find on virtually all social-media networks. The anger most people harbour is not just aimed at the banks but also at governments who are unwilling or incapable of stopping what amounts to the world’s biggest organised crime syndicate. Banks have become too big, too intrusive, too invasive and too dangerous. And, apparently, too big to fail.

Nothing is all bad

Whilst it is tempting to believe that the entire sector is populated by people who have lost their moral compasses and are motivated only by greed in an environment that daily perpetuates a self-serving illusion that it’s OK to cheat, there are people—lots of them—who think differently.

Some people who work at the bottom of that food chain, all the way up to some of those who are empowered to make policy that recognize the morass that surrounds them, harbour the belief that it is not sustainable. Let’s call them the good guys.

The absolute reality is that working together, these good guys are, in fact, capable of changing the reality. And cynics who might dismiss the idea of transformation as quixotic at best, would be guilty of both a lack of conviction in the human spirit as well as something even more unforgivable by their own standards: a failure to recognize the purest of entrepreneurial opportunities.

The prize at the end of this particular rainbow is not a warm, fuzzy feeling. It is nothing less than market leadership of one of the world’s most powerful and richest of sectors. At a time when all banks are perceived to be dirty and dangerous, the first bank that stands up with conviction and proof that it is, to borrow a turn of phrase, 'here for good' will draw millions of grateful customers like metal to a magnet.

This is neither a plea nor wishful thinking. This is as strategic as business and branding gets. To use marketing-speak, it amounts to almost certainly the single most well-defined customer unmet need to be found in any category. This is the clearest of blue-ocean opportunities. It is a chance for a bank to be the industry’s Cirque-de-Soleil.

From hygiene factor to USP

Dispensing with the metaphors, the banking industry has gone so far off the grid of normal business constructs that it has created an inflection point that has suddenly converted what used to be a hygiene factor (a category “given”) back into the single most in-demand brand differentiator: trust.

That is the magic bullet. And it’s going to take more than truckloads of money thrown into advertising campaigns to do it. It is going to take a demonstration of solid, continuous and sustainable attention to doing things that are unambiguously in the interest of customers and society.

It would not likely work in most categories. But then again there are few if any categories that have created such equal measures of despair and contempt. If the right bunch of good guys can rise above what goes by the cesspool of the present banking industry with a defined purpose that delivers good and assures trust, we will witness the single biggest mass migration of loyalty from one set of brands to another in the history of business.

Joseph Baladi is a principal of BrandAsian and is the author of The Brutal Truth About Asian Branding (Wiley).


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