National Westminster Bank finds Another Way to change its corporate reputation

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The National Westminster Bank is currently running an amusing advertising campaign. It portrays a group of banking executives as amiable buffoons. The message? We aren’t like that. We have another way. Will the campaign differentiate Nat West from its rivals? Or will it reinforce a general perception that all banks are run by amiable buffoons?

The issue is nearly as old as advertising itself. Does knocking opponents work in favour of the advertiser? Maybe the issue goes far deeper than advertising, and lies and at the heart of political campaigning, and beyond, to ancient themes of human duplicity and treachery. We should not expect a simple answer. Antecedents such as corporate reputation must be taken into consideration

Experts in marketing and corporate reputation are clear about the potential pitfalls of such a campaign.

Gary Davies is Professor of Corporate Reputation and has written widely on the subject as well as teaching on a Masters course on Communication and Corporate Reputation. Gary argues that

If the purpose of the ad is to differentiate Nat West from other banks then most certainly both the strategy and marketing literature’s emphasise the benefits of differentiation. However the reputation literature emphasises that for a service business advertising what you are not is counterproductive. So the customers and potential customers of Nat West will decide if they are, as they imply, less cynical and self centred than the (fictitious?) bank portrayed in the ads. They explicitly state that there is a different way and that is theirs. They will have problems if they are found out (as Lloyds were when they implied they would open another service point if the branch was busy and customers found that this was not always the case.) For example, they have now ruled out using overseas call centres, by deprecating banks that do.

Antecedents

In recent years, Nat West has made serious efforts to present itself as a leader in financial innovations, (having ‘another way’ of doing things). While it is dangerous to read too much into blog-based criticism, the following sample all suggest that the Bank was facing a big challenge in revising its practices and public image.

One Credit Card customer put it like this

Here’s a question for all the banks out there; do you want your customers to be happy and give you more custom, or do you want to irritate them so much they leave along with their spending habits? If you’re Natwest credit card services, I’m talking to you.

Another disenchanted customer noted

I would advise anybody wanting to start an account and especially younger people, to try another bank, any bank rather than the disgusting attitude of the National Disgrace …erm, I mean The Westminster Bank.

From The ITC we have a finding against the bank for somewhat dodgy advertising claims:

An advertisement first aired on 17 July 2000 made a number of claims about National Westminster’s service. Among these were that their programme of branch closures had been abolished and that monthly fees on arranged personal overdrafts were to be scrapped. The ITC received twelve complaints from viewers saying that branch closures were, in fact, still going ahead, and six complaints saying that overdraft fees would continue to be in operation until October or November 2000.

Finally, and quite recently we have another indication of how the Bank needed to address its customer concerns:

I’m a little cheesed off at Natwest at the moment. Their “no hassle” banking is starting to become full of hassle and it’s getting on my nerves …I popped into my high-street branch today to open up a new account (to handle rent for a new house I am living in) and, in my wisdom, thought that it wouldn’t be a problem. Walk in there, get asked a few questions and kaboom – a new account. Not only could I not open one, but I actually have to book an appointment at a time convenient to them for someone to help me fill in the forms.

We are getting there

Brutal self-criticism is rare in advertising. Unusual enough for a large corporation (Ford) to win accolades for confessing shortcomings in a campaign.

The Nat West may well be engaged in genuine efforts to give its corporate reputation a makeover. Unfortunately, the campaign message is not ‘We are getting there’, (a dangerous confession to make, from historic evidence, but ‘We are the only honest bank in the high street. Honest!’

This campaign may well win awards for its brilliant ads. But it seems unlikely to change the perceptions of consumers in the intended direction.

6 Responses to National Westminster Bank finds Another Way to change its corporate reputation

  1. Procastination King says:

    The easy way for them to regain a reputation would be to say “Remember all those fines that we charged you for being overdrawn? When we charged you £25 for going over your limit? Well, we and the other banks were acting illegally. The difference between us and other banks is that we will send you back the money with no quibbles: the others will obfuscate – and we admit we did so – but we will give you the money we ripped from you when you were the most vulnerable”

    Internal values need to be communicated to the consumer is such a way that they are believable, the best way to do this is to ‘speak the truth’ and to have genuinely attractive values throughout the organisation. This is especially important in when a quick Google search brings up many expressions of consumer opinion.

    As far as I am concerned, the behavior of staff at branch level, in the call center systems and the junk mail they send me make me view Natwest the most unpleasant organisation I have dealt with. I can’t believe that it can ever change my view, even if they do give me money back with interest and throw in an iPod nano.

    The BBC report:
    “The battle between the banks and their customers is now heading to the High Court. The Office of Fair Trading and the banks have agreed to a test case to determine the legality of bank charges. It will be heard early in 2008. The banks have been given a waiver and do not have to deal with claims until after the test case has been resolved. Currently, few courts are prepared to consider claims until after a verdict. However, customers can still register their complaint with their banks if they so wish.”
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/6170209.stm

    It will be interesting to see how the banks differentiate on themselves in light of the trial. It will also be interesting to see the consequences of them having to pay out and the waves of joy it will sent through the country obsessed with Schadenfreude if the court rules against the banks.

    I’ll close my account after the ruling: I don’t to risk the inevitable excuses and delays in paying up, if they do.

    Esteemed readers of Leaderswedeserve, what chances do you think exist of the people getting money back?

  2. Tudor says:

    I like the idea of using the post-trial behaviours as indicators of which banks act most responsibilty towards their customers. I don’t think I’ve seen any front-runner at this stage, and maybe there is some game-theory being played out here strategically by banks.

    Confessional advertising has been under-used in my view, although it didn’t seem to do Ford any harm not so long ago. It probably works best if an organizational has made a one-off error and temporary drop in standards (Perrier Water comes to mind).

    Chance of recovering money? Probably depends how much effort an individual is prepared to put into claims, if a bank continues to play hardball (one of the options for the game theorist).

  3. Procrastination King says:

    The trial starts today. It will be interesting to see how much coverage it generates and to see if there are any changes in advertsing strategy. The banks are to argue that “that their charges are a fee for a service and not a penalty charge, and also that they form a core term of their contracts with their customers.” (http://tinyurl.com/3xjoot)

    I think that the consumer will find an argument along these lines quite infuriating.

    There must be a Building Society in the market plotting to capitalise on the misfortune banks seem to be having. Could a simple advertisement appealing to ethical and social responsibility aspects of a consumer’s mind – pointing out the some differences a bank and a building society – make mutual building societies a safe and chic option?

  4. Tudor says:

    There will be reasonable coverage and a lot of folk directly involved. Radio Five 5 picked up the theme this morning. They played a wider range of the knocking type of ads from the banks aimed at their UK constituencies.

    Simplifying greatly it could be argued that we have a test case for two theoretical possibilities. One would maintain that business is determined by macro-conditions. The other holds that a great company can creatively destroy the old and replace it with the new, perhaps through creative leadership.

  5. Procrastination King says:

    A reworking of Buddly Holly’s hit “I fought the Law” , “I Fought The Lloyds” is Number 25 in the UK charts.

  6. Tudor says:

    Today’s the day to see if the old Lloyd’s hit gets a chance to fight for The Rock.

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