Do financial businesses need a brand purpose?

The Clearing’s MD Richard Buchanan joined Siegel + Gale’s Philip Davies and Andy Cridland from BlackRock last month, to discuss the subject of brand purpose at the Financial Services Forum.

Despite banking’s vital role in promoting a healthy economy, the speakers broadly agree that nobody seems to be nailing brand purpose in the way they would like.  In order for purpose to be impactful it must be achievable and realistic. No matter how much you may desire it, your brand cannot broker world peace, end poverty or tell us what really happens at the end of The Sopranos. Your purpose must be aspirational but not absurd. Andy Cridland offers his company, BlackRock, as an example of how to do it right.

Do banking and insurance businesses benefit from having a brand purpose?

BlackRock has a genuine and meaningful purpose: financial well-being and long-term thinking. Just as importantly, this purpose is embodied by CEO, Larry Fink. Out of the $4.3 trillion that BlackRock oversees, the outgoing and passionate Fink is the one of the business’s most powerful assets; a vital aspect of his role involves making sure everybody sees the purpose as a promise they are expected to deliver.

This chimes very closely with Richard Buchanan’s perspective on the subject: a purpose only becomes meaningful if colleagues have sufficient conviction to act upon it and use it to establish a deeper connection with their customers. To achieve this, it should balance ambition with practicality.

But purpose alone is not enough. Buchanan suggests that establishing a positive working environment is equally important to success.

We’re not talking about bean bags, ping pong tables or dress-down Fridays

Buchanan argues that the manner in which a business operates is just as important as the purpose it pursues – and this is particularly important in financial services. Wells Fargo’s stated purpose is to help its customers succeed financially, but this has been critically undermined by a succession of scandals – including secretly opening millions of unauthorised and unwanted credit card and current accounts without their customers’ knowledge. Simon Sinek popularised the idea that brands should start with ‘Why’, but Buchanan offers a sobering reminder of the perils of ignoring ‘How’.

So which FS brand gets it right?

Here’s where the panel struggles. Few financial services brands have articulated a clear promise and used this to build a better way of working. First Direct is the closest we’ve come in recent times and is rightly heralded as “the bank that changed how other banks work.” It was the bank with real people answering the phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was the bank that showed the importance of treating colleagues with the same care and attention that is usually reserved for customers. And it vividly demonstrates the old adage that people may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.

The financial services brands that will succeed are not those that construct the most grandiose purposes; it’s better to establish a tangible promise and to create a positive working environment that motivates people to deliver against that promise every single day they come to work.