Hong Kong, says Suresh Balaji, is HSBC’s “spiritual home”. The bank was started here to help the people of Hong Kong succeed internationally, he continues. It even has a ledger in its archives with the entry of its first customer in Hong Kong, dated 150 years ago.
“It is like no other place in the world for the bank. I can’t think of a firm that has connections to a community that go deeper than HSBC in Hong Kong. When I first visited Hong Kong, I was thrilled, I even brought home one of our bank notes.”
So when Balaji—based in London at the time—was offered the role of Asia-Pacific regional marketing manager for HSBC’s retail banking and wealth management, he leapt at the chance. “Before my boss even finished the sentence pitching the job to me, I said yes. If you want to understand HSBC, you have to be in Hong Kong; this is my dream job.”
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But why does Balaji—who describes himself as being like a “kid in a candy store” when turned loose in HSBC’s archives—love the brand so much?
“HSBC is one of the very few financial-service institutions that truly believes in its brand and has always done so,” he responds. “In essence, the brand still stands for the same principles it started with in 1865: to help our customers achieve their hopes and dreams. We at HSBC love and guard it with our lives and if you speak to veterans they will rattle off our values and purpose.”
To support its brand, the bank has built a massive marketing team of 900 people worldwide. Asia’s retail banking and wealth management team alone has 235 practitioners. It was this team, says Balaji, which pioneered the use of the iconic HSBC-branded airbridges that greet travellers just before and after almost every plane journey.
Friendly and cheerful, Balaji’s enthusiasm for the bank is infectious and irresistible. When asked about the phasing out of the once-iconic tagline, ‘The world’s local bank’, he doesn’t miss a beat.
“We don’t have a tagline now, and rightfully so,” he says. “It is more important for us to have a unifying connecting tissue. For HSBC it’s the customer. Our brand strategy is focused on supporting human ambition and is extremely customer centric.”
What this means is understanding the human need HSBC is serving rather than the product it aims to sell. “No one wakes up and says, ‘Today, I’m going to get myself a mortgage.’ They think of homes, of a place where memories will be made— our role is to be an enabler more than anything else. This approach has been quite liberating.”
Brands, says Balaji, are no longer built by advertising. “They are the sum of all the experience you have. In that context needed something that will connect everything. For us, that’s the customer.”
The claim of being a customer-centric brand has become so used it’s become industry jargon. But Balaji insists that the bank’s leaders believe in the approach so much the support it even when “it’s painful”. “We encourage all our employees to ask two critical questions: How will this affect our customers? How will this impact our staff? We want our people to speak up when they see that a policy or product isn’t right for our customers. If it doesn’t make sense for our customers and for our people, we don’t do it or we’re willing to stop doing it.”
The new normal for marketing is that no one department owns the brand, says Balaji. A marketer since university, he has been in the industry for more than 15 years and spent a decade of that time with HSBC. “Any point of contact with the customer creates the brand. The role of marketing is no longer about communicating the brand, it’s building clarity around what we stand for and ensuring that that purpose is expressed inside-out.”
This is the direction Balaji believes service organisations need to head towards. Nevertheless, he doesn’t believe marketing, or the definition of a marketer, has really changed over the years.
“The ‘first principles’ of marketing haven’t changed, despite the evolution of the customer-buying journey. Good marketing has always been about relevant products and services developed (and communicated) for a certain segment of the population through a deep understanding of customer insight.”
What has changed is the tools, the technology and the reach that a marketer is enabled with.
In the case of HSBC, Balaji believes it stands ahead of most brands in the financial services category with its faith in brand building.
“Financial Services brands as a category are going through a slightly protracted period of equity haemorrhage in recent years,” Balaji says. “Trust parameters for the category are at an all-time low in many markets. I am proud to work for a firm that believes in our brand, develops talent and most of all puts customers at the heart of decision making comes to our rescue.”
Recent initiatives launched by the bank that make full use of technology and data, include two digital marketing hubs in Singapore and China, set up with WPP, called ‘Vulcan Hubs’. The hubs, presumably named for the Vulcan (of Star Trek) ability to mind-read, are aimed at mining customer data to reach audiences when they most need financial products. The two in Asia are just the start, says Balaji, with more slated to be launched around the world.
“We have also just set up a virtual marketing test-and-learn platform which we fondly call Madtech Labs [short for marketing and advertising technology]. The idea is to have marketers test new technologies without fear of failure.”
The programme invites startups, partners and agencies to bring nascent ideas to be tested as part of marketing campaigns. “Smaller budgets, customer focus and tight governance allows them to play within a safe sandbox,” explains Balaji.
The past six months have turned up both successes and failures, he adds. “The ones where we failed fast, we are tinkering with them before adding investments or walking away from them to spend time and effort elsewhere.”
Another tech-fuelled marketing idea was to launch a WeChat profile in China. “We’re the only international banking service that has one and we have more than 140,000 followers.”
The result of the bank’s unified and comprehensive customer-centric brand strategy is a rise in both consideration scores and market share in Asia-Pacific. “The reasons behind it are complex. Advertising alone won’t change brand perceptions. It’s every touchpoint, every experience, no single department can take credit for this.”