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Why the world needs a desirable bank

The big banking brands need to be careful they don't stagnate as competitors enter the field, writes Simon Clough, global marketing director, Clear.

Simon Clough: global marketing director, Clear

Simon Clough: global marketing director, Clear

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Banking is even older than money itself. Given such longevity, we might expect brands in the sector to be well-defined and diverse. 

But in truth the opposite is true: over time banks seem to have converged towards one established template.

In February 2012, Clear released the results of our second Brand Desire survey, which explored the brands that 22,000 people across the world most desire... and why.

The survey involved 555 brands across many different industries, including prominent brands in the financial sector, such as Amex, Citi, HSBC, ING, GE, MasterCard and Visa, as well as USAA, Allianz, StateFarm, Bank of China and Standard Chartered (to name but a few).

Unsurprisingly, few of these brands performed well in terms of their desirability in the UK, USA, Germany, China, India and Australia.

In the UK, for example, the most desirable retail bank, First Direct, ranks at 188 out of 300 brands, four places below Aldi and 73 places behind Tampax.

The data also confirms what we all intuitively know about banking brands - despite having had hundreds of years to explore ways to make their offers unique and motivating, they are virtually identical in consumers’ eyes. 

No other industry in the study - not even the oil industry - suffers from such a profound lack of diversity.

Personality profiles of leading UK FS brands (click to enlarge)


Source: Clear’s Brand Desire 2012 study with 6,000 UK consumers

How has this come about? There is no lack of effort from big banks to innovate, but they are hampered by a widespread belief in an unwritten set of rules that govern how a ‘proper’ bank should behave.

These rules have been honed over centuries and marketing departments seemingly ignore them at their peril. 

Above all else, a bank must be credible and credit-worthy. But does credibility really need to come at the cost of desirability?

For the moment, it would appear so. The banking community is firmly on the back foot. 

Now is the time to regain trust that scarcely existed even before the banking crisis, not to embark on a bold or brash strategy to create greater desire.

A truly desirable brand, it would seem, is a luxury few banks can afford.

Or is it?

Because there’s another side to this story. We’re about to see huge leaps in how we deal with money.

Within five years many of us will feel perfectly comfortable using our mobile phones to spend, share, borrow, save and manage our money.

We will begin to interact with our money in new and different ways, involving a broader set of brands than ‘traditional’ banks.

This has already started: PayPal helps us make secure payments over the Internet and mobile devices.

And the signs all point to it getting bigger: Paypal ranked in the top 25 most desirable brands in both the UK and the USA, beating L’Oréal, Nike and Louis Vuitton.

A host of new and innovative brands seem set to follow PayPal in changing the way we interact with our money - Mint, Wonga, Buxfer, Billmyparents, Smartypig and Square to name a few.

And the threat doesn’t end here. There is also a set of credible, established brands with the financial muscle and - crucially - with far more desirable brands, who are well positioned to take advantage of the changing nature of money.

We no longer find the idea of banking with retailers such as Tesco, Wal-Mart or John Lewis strange.

There’s also a very real threat from brands like Apple, Google, Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Facebook.

These brands are all very desirable. The majority are well-respected, they have the capability to make the most of technological innovation and they have the credibility to pull it off. Google Wallet is a warning shot to banks - there’s plenty more to come.

UK Brand Desire rankings: leading banks vs. potential ‘challenger’ brands

Source: Clear’s Brand Desire 2012 study with 6,000 UK consumers

Seen in this way, current banking brands begin to resemble computer brands 20 years ago, before Apple came in and revolutionised the market. 

It’s not difficult to imagine Apple making the same impact on the banking sector: imagine if iMoney was available on our phones.

It would make it easy to pay for items in person or remotely. It would link seamlessly to our bank accounts or credit cards. It may even replace these entirely over time.

It would help us to forge a more intimate, visual relationship with our money and it would do all of this to the detriment of traditional banking brands.

Most crucially, it would change our expectations of what banking should look like and feel like forever.

So is a desirable brand really a luxury that big banks can’t afford? The choice is simple: change the industry now or change with it later.

If one of the incumbent brands doesn’t make banking engaging, fun and imaginative, then the door is wide open for a brand like Apple to step in and grab everybody’s attention... and their money.

Simon Clough, global marketing director, Clear

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