Be True to Yourself … and Your Customers

Posted on in BrandBlab

A Russian version of this article was published in the December 2012 issue of PLUS Magazine.

As brand consultants we are brought into a company to create change, whether to refine, refocus or enhance a current or new positioning and offer. We review with our clients the reasons for change and agree the scope and actions required. Inevitably, the process involves exploring the potential for change. Most clients naturally seek to learn from relevant sector benchmarks and analyse best practice. The potential danger is in concentrating too much on looking outwards, rather than inwards. This can lead to wanting to copy, rather than confronting the reality of who they truly are and fully understanding what their customers really want.

Unfortunately, wanting to simply emulate, inevitably leads to generic visions that are common aspirations in their market sector. These ideals are then mixed with standard attributes that you should expect in any contemporary competitive organisation – integrity, innovation, trust, transparency, openness, etc., etc.

The ideal values and behaviour expected by target audiences are pretty predictable, a mix of rational and emotional attributes for a given service or product proposition. We want our banks and retailers to be trustworthy and convenient. Everyone wants real value, whatever the cost/quality mix. Assuming the basic operational factors are adequately met, the key differentiating factor then relies more on building up the emotional perception and connection that will make the brand a first choice. For some brands, this is about creating exceptional choice, product, excitement, creativity or experiential environment. For utilitarian, functional offers this can be more difficult. Some would argue that banks are a necessary, but distress, purchase, i.e. like doctors and lawyers – you only use them when you have to. For service brands like banks, the human interface becomes a key touch point which defines and develops the organisation’s image and reputation. And that’s where the issues of credibility and matching promises with reality come into play. Signing up to unrealistic aspirations and high-sounded visions and values is tempting, but can be totally counterproductive, especially given the immediacy and unforgiving exposure of today’s social media.

Some consultants like to take you on a supposedly creative hypothetical exercise – what if your bank were like Apple, McDonalds, Versace or Boots, how would you be?  Perhaps this is useful in examining the virtues of hi tech, fast food, high fashion or health and beauty pharmacies. Alternatively, you might be taken on the classic clichéd methodology, ‘if you were a car, drink or fashion brand, which would you be?’ Frankly, this can ultimately be a rather patronising and pointless exercise. OK, perhaps it helps some people to think about the esoteric aspects of brand profiling, but I would argue that it can very easily avoid the tough issue of getting to grips with the real challenges that an organisation needs to address.

So often a conservative organisation plays with the idea of being radical and different, but eventually comes back to its original comfort position and known competences. This begs the question, if you want to be credible and authentic and therefore trustworthy and reliable (surely key banking attributes), working at being truly yourself must be a better, more worthwhile strategy. Understanding your potential brand equity is all about ‘being you’. Even if this is not totally clear at the outset, it is a vital starting point for strengthening and enhancing your profile and behaviour. This avoids wasted excursions into unrealistic scenarios and the danger of a skin deep cosmetic make over.

Having the strength of your convictions and refining existing experiences and processes is a classic evolutionary approach. Perhaps incremental improvement may not appear a sexy, dynamic vision or meet that dreaded brief criteria of creating a ‘wow’ factor. It certainly avoids the danger of embarking on unrealistic and ultimately half-hearted revolutions. Being honest with yourself as an organisation could be seen as simply a risk averse strategy, but banks in particular need to be honest with their customers to help reinstate their reputation with the general public. The casino label applied to investment banks says a lot about how far perceptions of trust and stability have sunk.

There is no excuse to perpetuate outdated practices, poor environments and sub-standard service. These can be addressed by incorporating relevant latest best practice appropriate to a given business and market. The tough challenge is the human asset factor. New uniforms, roles and branches may help motivate and inspire better attitudes and actions, but engaging hearts and minds takes special effort and investment. Financial organisations particularly need to consider how they achieve an exceptional company culture. The test for banks is how they can achieve a staff centric approach. They need to match the same care and investment in employees as they do in attracting and retaining customers.

This requires marketing, communications, IT and real estate departments to work together with HR. The aim is to ensure that the best communication, working environments, employment conditions and practices are achieved. Being true to yourself is about how you really are to your inner family and contacts, as well to as the world outside. The first priority audience and user of any new brand initiative should be the people involved who will make it happen – the staff and stakeholders. That is the first true test of ‘being yourself’.

A motivated, engaged staff culture is a decisive factor in achieving a differentiated image and reputation in a competitive marketplace. Small wonder that some banks increasingly use their own staff in advertising rather than ‘too good to be true’ character scenarios. Treating their customers as equals and, at the same time, making simple promises to listen, learn and be ‘helpful’ reflects the need to be more modest. This approach recognises that staff and management are human and not perfect. It potentially helps to create a more honest, approachable and straightforward profile. Pretending that you are soft and cuddly is not, I would suggest, a useful bank image, despite the still common use of patronising messages and cute, furry animals. Maybe I don’t get it, but I just want my bank to do what it says efficiently and effectively when it comes to their core business of looking after my money.

Banks today have a long way to go to restore public trust. A dose of humanity, accepting they are human, but acknowledging that they need to constantly improve, is a start. The famous old Avis car rental message, “We try harder” should perhaps be the core defining characteristic to aspire to. Maybe, then, “being true to yourself and your customers” could be the key to achieving a first choice service brand.