The implosion and disappearance of major institutions and the previously unheard of scenarios we are experiencing are mind boggling- unprecedented bail outs and overnight deals, financial dynasties carved up, nationalised or allowed to die. As I write this, governments are moving quickly to protect their own national interests but at least talking about global
It was ironic, then, for me to be presenting last month bank at conference in Moscow on branding strategies for mergers and acquisitions. The fall of the Soviet system came to a fast track end when it became clear reality could not be controlled and the financial system collapse is similarly in melt down mode as realities of an unfettered free market based on ‘unreal’ assets become only too clear.
Ten years ago the rouble crashed in Russia and banks were seen as key culprits never to be trusted again. The euphoria of market-led development will certainly now be tempered by the lessons being learned once more in every country affected by the spreading toxicity of repackaged and remarketed ‘collateral debts’.
My presentation, conceived of some months earlier, took on the alternative title ‘fighting for survival’, a more direct criteria for anyone involved in maintaining their brand profile and equity in the current market. However, my original key point that branding to be effective, is all about reputation development not simply image building, was particularly apposite. What you do rather than what you say is key. Image builders are going to have to work hard to regain any reputations in the short and long term and not rely on cosmetic initiatives. If they don’t, then branding will be seen as useful as choosing new seat pattern cover designs for deck chairs on the Titanic.
Suddenly the definitions of branding as the added- value perception of a company created by its image and reputation seems particularly relevant. The overnight loss of hard won and expensively developed reputations followed by immediate collapse was a scary reminder that image without substance is worth nothing. The true brand equity of major companies has been brought into focus- their brand culture- their people and their customer relationships was the real value worth paying for, the label over the door consigned to the dustbin. It rightly puts the traditional emphasis of branding as simply a visual media exercise into question.
Those convinced about the value of naming as a key brand component must be reconsidering their position. The cosy homey images of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have been exposed as faceless dubious government sponsored entities. In contrast, a rather difficult acronym HSBC has been successful in living up to its message as the world’s local bank and appears to be one of the current winners as a strongly capitalised successful global operation. Clearly the magical power of a name is about what you truly represent and the subsequent perception trigger it creates for the relevant audience. I noted bank brand values have now moved from marketed predictable promises of trust, innovation, openness and service to hubris, ignorance, greed and incompetence. ‘Known for’ attributes will never be the same. The first step will be ‘stability’ – ‘trust’ is going to take a long time before claims of ‘credibility’ and ‘authority’ can be brought back into circulation. Suddenly those new contemporary fashionable images could look rather lightweight and ephemeral in contrast to the replaced more conservative, solid identities of the past. It creates interesting challenges for brand consultants and marketers in how to express values that audiences can relate to. The last page in my presentation showed a scribbled half sun on the horizon. The point was obvious – you could see either a sunset representing a passing of the good times or a sunrise – a new start, a new era, with new values and a new, if uncertain, future.
I really hope this hard dose of reality will have some positive effects for all those involved in creating successful brands. An acknowledgement on getting the fundamentals right and synchronising promises and realities can only be good news ultimately. Seeing branding as just a company ‘packaging’ exercise must surely stop. While spin and hype will always be around, at least we will have all grown up and be harder to convince. With the benefit of hindsight, a ‘look behind the label’ initiative applied to financial institutions would maybe have avoided the nightmares of repackaged toxic assets. Certainly we will be scrutinising more carefully anyone in the future asking us to trust them.
Welcome to a new dawn!