Branding: the reframing of greed.

Well it really has been a bad few weeks for banking and a field day for the media as they fuel Britain’s growing hate of bankers and the “disease of greed” as one put it.

In some ways this feels like a modern day French revolution, the public getting more and more disgusted by the excessive greed of bankers who seem to be all take and no give. Though the modern day guillotine is the media and Bob Diamond has had his head firmly on the block.

Thatcher’s “greed is good” slogan has now been replaced with terms in the media like “greed is good for the few but not for the many””the disease of greed” and even “greed is just greedy”. From praise to demonisation, making fat profits is just not fashionable, but worse, it’s now seen as “plain evil.”

Even though few of us go to church, many Christian (and other cultures) condemn profiting from money lending, especially to the needy. Pay Day Loan sharks beware, “it’s easier to get a camel through an eye of needle than into heaven”, so I was told by the school priest. Ironic, considering many of my classmates now work in the City.

RBS (which owns NatWest & Ulster Bank) kicked it off when they had to admit their computer systems were put in in the 70’s and what should have been a simple update caused chaos for millions of users.

As if that wasn’t enough, RBS just left Ulster Bank customers to last, resulting in some terrible stories in the press of stranded holiday makers – a father had to fly to Portugal to take money to his stranded son because RBS couldn’t solve the simple problem of getting him any cash to get home. I’d hate to be in the RBS press office, their stress levels must be off the scale. Hopefully the bank will give them all a nice bonus when things settle down.

The resultant PR has left the RBS and it’s brands very damaged. We may think bankers aren’t to be trusted with our money but we now think they can’t be trusted with technology either. As one writer commented, maybe they should be putting their profits in a better IT system rather than into their CEO and shareholder’s pockets.

Bad news for RBS customers has been good news for the Pay Day Loan companies, regarded as the lowest ethics of the finance world, which have ironically been helping desperate customer get money to pay the rent.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse Barclays hits the press for fixing interest rates (the Libor inter-bank rate scandal). Well no surprise really, none of us trust banks, so hardly news. And it seems Barclay’s jewel in the crown, Bob Diamond, who has to face a Common’s enquiry, has quit.

The good news is, rather than get a pay off he’ll have to pay Barclays back £20m, which can go towards the £35m they want to throw at the Premier League. I’m not sure that the league being sponsored by a bank the consumer now sees as corrupt is a good association. They may claim to want to “sponsor the best”, but shouldn’t the best be sponsored by the best as well?

Just to reinforce the view that bankers don’t listen to their customers, or radio interviewers, I heard during the week.

Interviewer: “What do you have to say about ethics?”

Banker: “We have a policy of employing people from all nationalities, creeds and religions and are proud of our ethnic diversity.”

Interviewer: “No, I said ethic not ethnic”

Which also proves the point some people think, that the word ethics isn’t in their dictionary.

I’ve commented in a number of articles before that when brands publicises their record profits, consumers aren’t impressed, instead they just feel exploited and shop elsewhere. No wonder Tesco’s are now having a harder time.

Big banks just don’t get the importance of branding and reputation. The old mantra, “it’s not what you say but what you do that defines your reputation” falls on stony ground. You’d think that if they are smart enough to make money they would be smart enough to realise that rather than spend £35m on football, with the goal of making consumer feel good towards your brand, they could just act properly and put that money to a social use.  All the advertising budget in the world can’t fix a badly damaged reputation. And banking is so broken as an image it will take decades to repair. Remember Enron, even now it’s a dirty word.

Having worked on a number of banks I think they just don’t employ the dynamic kinds of thinkers that they need to reframe themselves. After all, banks don’t attract adventurous people. I remember showing some creative work to a NatWest client. “Wow!” he said ” amazing work.” We all thought it was going well. “Can I see the real work now.” After we explained this was the ‘real work’ he replied, “We can’t run work like this, we’re a bank.” The risk adverse mindset is so deep, expecting any change is unrealistic.

Thankfully there are areas of the financial institutes that do have ethics and have maintained respect like Triodos, the Cooperative (who are winning new customers in this climate) and new financial concepts like Transform Capital Management. Plus the growth of community banking schemes.

TCM is an interesting concept, a people values based organisation. To quote their own material, “…at a time when people all around the world are increasingly frustrated with our big institutions we believe it’s just what the world needs! A type of investment bank that really cares.”

It’s easy to claim ethics, HSBC have been banging on about aiming to be carbon neutral, except that’s now old news. The truth is in the delivery.

The four principles (defined by the United Nations Global Compact) that defines ethics in banking are:

  • Human rights: Businesses should support and respect human rights and ensure that they’re not complicit in human rights abuses.
  • Labor standards: Businesses should uphold the right of freedom of association and collective bargaining and should eliminate all forms of forced labour, child labour and discrimination.
  • Environment: Businesses should take a precautionary approach to environmental challenges and support initiatives that encourage greater environmental responsibility and environmentally friendly technologies.
  • Corruption: Businesses should work against corruption in all forms.

So is banking a broken brand? Is greed a word that is now so demonised it has come a word of damnation?  And can banks ever regain our trust?  Discuss.

Twitter tag #greed


    Well put Chris.


    Having recently worked on a major bank, the word BACKBONE is also missing form their dictionary.

  • Max Harrington

    Sadly, because financial institutes think the only reward worth having is money, they don’t attract people who have a combination of values and courage. Companies who brag about profit put profit before people, always. When was the last time a bank bragged about something really good they’d done (that wasn’t just a CSR PR spin)?

  • Chris Arnold