After the financial meltdown from a brand perspective ~ Brand Mix

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

After the financial meltdown from a brand perspective

Photo: Union Bank of California rebuilds its headquarters after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

The incredible events of the last few weeks have, to say the least, shaken up the financial services sector. As a brand strategist, I've been watching with shock and awe as company after company has been swallowed up by this man and mortgage-made disaster--some put completely out of business, others forced into marriages with financial institutions they would never otherwise have been attracted to, arranged by the FDIC, shotgun in hand.

At the time of writing, the storm (like the bailout plan) has not yet passed but it's not too early to think about the remantling of what has been so suddenly dismantled. Looking at things from my branding perspective, some observations and some questions:

1) Rebuilding trust: Bank failures were something you read about in history books. No longer. People's confidence and trust in financial institutions has taken a hit and it's going to take time and energy to win that trust back. What's needed? A clear and transparent way to show customers that lessons have been learned and changes have been made in how investment decisions are made.

We can expect a fair degree of cynicism from consumers so recently treated to taglines like: “The strength to be there" (in a before-the-meltdown AIG spot). And we should not expect either that consumers will be easily persuaded by talk of how many billions of dollars of assets banks have. They've seen that billions were not enough to save the likes of WAMU ($310 billion in assets).

Banks that stayed clear of the mortgage business in the last couple of years and those that have had a diversified or large enough business to ride the storm will have enormous advantages going forward. But, even for them, what's called for now is a conservative, perhaps humbler, approach. Very much back to basics.

2) Integrating assets: Bank of America, Chase and Citi have huge amount of work ahead of them integrating the assets of companies that they have acquired. Even Bank of America, an expert in integration after years of acquisitions, is likely to be stretched to its limit as it tries to absorb Merrill Lynch on top of not-yet-fully-digested Countrywide and LaSalle Bancorp. One important and fragile asset is people. Companies will have to move quickly to retain talent and engage employees from acquired companies with a shared vision of the future.

3) Integrating brands: Some businesses find themselves living together in very unexpected unions. WAMU was all about not being the same as other banks. Now it's part of JPMorgan Chase. Who would have thought that Bank of America and Merrill Lynch would wind up together? These sudden mergers throw up some interesting brand architecture questions. JP Morgan Chase has already announced that all branches of its combined network will carry the Chase brand. Is that right given WAMU's so distinctively different approach? How will they pull off that transition without losing customers? What should Bank of America do with Merrill? Leave it completely alone? Add some kind of endorsement like U.S. Trust? Or consider even closer integration? Will the overall trend in financial services towards master branding slow down or reverse if companies decide they need to build risk firewalls between one part of their business to stop problems in one area affecting everything else?

4) Improving customer experience: Both Wachovia and WAMU had focused on delivering superior customer experience as a way to differentiate themselves from the bigger banks. The Forrester's Customer Experience Index suggests that they had been successful since both banks were ranked towards the top of the list. Now that they've been acquired by Citi and Chase respectively, it will be interesting to see if any of the approaches they pioneered can be successfully transferred to the bigger banks.

5) Changing attitudes about money: How far will the current financial crisis affect people's attitudes about money? Will this crisis pull people back from living way beyond their means? Some are suggesting that it's time for people to start cutting back. Is that opinion likely to catch hold and, if so, will financial service companies then be held accountable for encouraging good financial behavior and discouraging poor behavior? Bank of America has been airing TV ads that focus on saving. Is this a good start?

1) Will WaMu brand jive with JPMorgan Chase? AP
2) Banks: Making saving sexy:
3) Shiny Happy Bankers: The New York Times

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