National Westminster Bank finds Another Way to change its corporate reputation

January 10, 2008

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.


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.

Lesson from New Hampshire: Don’t blink, you might miss something important

January 9, 2008


Hillary Clinton wins in New Hampshire. The primary contest brought one surprise after another. It showed why this Presidential race will be big box office, and why the Oscars are far from settled. Lesson number one from New Hampshire: Don’t blink. You might miss something important

This presidential contest is threatening to be compelling viewing, defying predictions from moment to moment.

A few months ago

A few month ago, Hillary Clinton was consolidating a long-established lead in polls of public opinion, to win the Democratic nomination, and with every chance of becoming the first Woman, and the second Clinton to become President of the United States of America.

Conditions for change seemed right: concerns about the future, dissatisfaction with the status quo; a plausible alternative leader for the country.

A month ago

Hillary’s momentum appeared to be stalling. Her nomination had been long linked with a down-side. The Clinton legacy was not without its problems. She remained a formidable figure, but was perhaps unable to shake off criticisms which often harked back to unfavourable comparisons with Bill Clinton’s campaigning style and skills. This presented her as lacking in charisma against his gold standard in that precious commodity. And the young upstart Barack Obama was still hanging in there, with his own charismatic style increasingly coming to wider attention around the world. As yet, no convincing leader seemed to be emerging as heir to Bush from the Republicans.

A week ago

Hillary’s momentum had taken a hit with the result in the first presidential primary, in Utah. Barack Obama’s victory, and the manner of his winning revealed him attracting the indies, independent voters beyond his own party, while other candidates were struggling for their share of the committed vote.

The campaign trail moved to New Hampshire. Still no convincing leader seemed to be emerging as heir to Bush from the Republicans.

Twelve hours ago

The exit polls were just emerging. It’s going to be Obama and McCain. Coverage in the UK has been more intense that I can ever remember for an American political campaign. It was the the satellite news media, rather than the internet, that worked best for me in the last hours of the campaign. I switched compulsively (and got pretty much the same emerging story) from excellent coverages on BBC 24 hours and Sky News.

Obama’s boost continued. It was not like the recent Brown bounce here. On electon, Gordon Brown took a big leap in the polls ,after a long period as a poor second to David Cameron. Obamak lagged Clinton, but was never behind in terms of expectations. Now he was exceeding them. He was well on the way to becoming the winner in New Hampshire for the democrats.

One commentator painted a word picture of someone offering the electorate hope. He also suggested that in absence of a similar candidate, republicans may well see the merits of someone of gravitas, a stable, reassuring figure , and yet ‘not one of Bush’s ol’ boys. For him, Senator McCain might just have an edge. This happened to be easier to predict in New Hampshire where McCain had been expected to do well.

An hour ago

Convincing wins for Clinton and McCain.


Hillary bounced back.


One little story (I did not even mention it) was of her losing her composure in a show of emotion in the final days of this campaign. The weepy moment is now being seized upon as a possible turning point. The iron control of Hillary now seen as concealing the emotions of a vulnerable and human person. Maybe. It happens. But it doesn’t explain the incredible last-minute-dotty surprise in the outcome to an outsider like me. And no one saw it in those terms when it happened (or it would have filtered through into the predictions of commentators).

According to the BBC:

Mrs Clinton having closed that gap may, says the BBC’s Kevin Connolly in New Hampshire, be down to an extraordinary moment during her campaigning on Monday when she appeared close to tears as she talked about how much public service meant to her. …BBC’s Justin Webb, reporting from Mrs Clinton’s celebration rally, says she not only repeated her husband’s feat but perhaps improved on it, because the opinion polls, the Obama team and the media had suggested strongly that victory was his. In conceding victory Senator Obama said: “I want to congratulate Senator Clinton on a hard fought victory here in New Hampshire. She did an outstanding job, give her a big round of applause.”

Then there’s the comeback straight-talker

One commentator painted a word picture of Obama as someone offering fresh hope to the electorate. He suggested that in absence of a charismatic young candidate, Republicans may well see the merits of supporting someone of gravitas, a stable, reassuring figure , and yet ‘not one of Bush’s ol’ boys. For him, Senator McCain might just have an edge over other front-running candidates. This happened to be easier to predict in New Hampshire, where McCain had been expected to do well.

And didn’t he do well.

“You’re not Fit to Wear the Shirt. Take it off!”

January 5, 2008

shirtless-newcastle-fan.jpgNewcastle fans are known for taking the famous Magpies’ shirt to bed, and only removing it during the chilliest of mid-winter games. Is the terrace chant to new owner Mike Ashley an invitation for him to go topless for the toon? And what should Alan Shearer be wearing for his Match Of The Day appearances?

Mr Ashley as new owner of Newcastle United Football Club hit on a highly symbolic way of letting the fans know he was not in it just for the money.

He announced his matchday arrivals by appearing not in the directors’ box, but on the terraces. He didn’t just turn up, he arrived wearing the black and white shirt, that ultimate symbol of fandom. Then he began fraternizing on the supporters’ coaches.

But these actions were not enough to secure a leadership honeymoon for the new owner. Results continued to go south. Those ultras, fans who strip off faster than the cast of the Full Monty, could be heard crying “You’re not fit to wear the shirt”.

Were they inviting their new Chairman to follow their bare-buff example in support of the club? Somehow, I don’t think so…

Knowing me, knowing you

A new leader from outside a company or a football club has to address the matter of distinctiveness, whether arriving as an outsider or an insider. The is sometimes called the sociological dilemma of the other, a term only rarely incorporated into terrace chants.

The outsider has to work hard to avoid being dissed for not being one of us. The internally promoted leader has another kind of credibility problem through local knowledge and gossip about behaviours in earlier non-leadership roles.

In either case, actions speak louder than words. The leader has to convince by his actions, and words (speech acts) sooner rather than later.

Who is this Brian Ashley anyway?

Newcastle United has figured in several earlier posts. The culture under the long-standing chairman Freddy Shepherd was examined in an account of the possible struggles of the new coach Sam Allardyce. But any such problems for Sam were compounded when Freddy rather reluctantly handed over control to another outsider, Brian Ashley.

Mike Ashley is the entrepreneur behind Sports World, who became a paper billionaire early in 2007 with the public floatation of his business empire and renaming as Sports Direct International. Until then he had largely avoided courting publicity. This was an area in which he was to become increasingly less successful. Publicity over a costly divorce settlement became news, and then as he really hit the headlines after his successful bid for Newcastle.

Writing for the North East, local journalist Mick Lowes examined the end-of-year situation.

As [Newcastle] United enter their 116th year, the question has to be asked: has there ever been a 12 months of such radical change in the long and illustrious history of the North East institution?

Clubs under repeatedly new ownership – nothing new.

Clubs hiring and firing managers left, right and centre – old hat.

Clubs buying, and dispensing with, players at a rate of knots – as old as the hills.

A club, though, that in a few weeks finds itself with a new owner, new chairman, new manager… backroom staff and nine new PLAYERS – unheard of!!

Lowes goes on to examine events since Mr Ashley’s arrival:

[At first] Suspicion was fuelled by a lack of information, a case of simply not knowing who, or what, was Mike Ashley …[Although] Like Sir John Hall and Freddie Shepherd, Ashley is a self-made man ..[however] he might not have, as yet, the same “feel” for Tyneside but it’s clear he has the right kind of working-class grounding to appreciate what the football club means to the rank and file supporters.

The change of chairman is also indicative of the current climate in football. I’m sure, even by his own admission, that Chris Mort [The new Chairman] would consider his feelings for Newcastle United Football Club to be somewhat less impassioned than those of his predecessor. With a background in sport, he is clearly geared up to the demands of the “football business”… Whether talking to fanzine editors, or those of us in the local media, it’s also plain to see that, like his boss, he’s well and truly “bought into” Newcastle United…

Appointed by one regime, and inherited by another, the one thing you have to say is that life can’t have been easy for Sam Allardyce over the opening half of the season.

[However] Nobody has a divine right to success, but the fans in the business definitely deserve better. If not, sadly, 2008 will see more change.

That intense piece of journalism seems to me to capture one aspect of the culture surrounding the club. Initial suspicion of the new owner and chairman has been somewhat overcome as they demonstrate that their loyalty goes beyond the bottom line.

Sam on the other hand is judged by expectations of what goes on every Saturday. Poor results, rather than his ‘otherness’ , is the immediate cause of discontent among the fans.

Which brings us to Alan Shearer…

Alan Shearer: The Leader we Deserve?

Alan Shearer was being touted as the next manager, the hero-rescuer for the club, before he had retired as a player, before he had completed a coaching professional course, before Sam’s appointment.

I don’t know the degree to which this was media initiated manipulation, or whether there really was and still is a ground swell of support for the idea.

To outsiders it seems increasingly inevitable that Allardyce will have trouble surviving long enough to overcome the difficulties of an outsider at Newcastle. It is unlikely that Shearer will transform the club’s fortunes.

The problem is partly that club seems likely be reducing its options far too severely, if an insider is to be preferred over all other candidates.

THis would be a problematic approach even if the insider had an outstanding track record of success.

In times of crisis, an organization may well turn to an insider who has achieved great things elsewhere. Jurgen Klinsmann is the latest such example in his appointment to the German national team during a period of poor performances. Klinsmann had not many more direct credentials for the German top job than Shearer does for the one at Newcastle.

Rightly or wrongly, there appear to be pressure to get rid of Sam, perhaps seeing that it might increase the chances of a Shearer succession.

I have the impression that Shearer will be tempted eventually, but will be cute enough to resist what might prove to be an impossible job in the near future.

Far trickier than commentating on the problems of other managers for BBC’s Match Of The Day.

New Year’s Day at Old Trafford

January 3, 2008


The year ended on a sour note for Manchester United, who lost their last game of 2007, and their lead in the Premiership. The league champions opened their New Year campaign against struggling Birmingham. A substantial win was anticipated. But all did not go according to plan…

It had been a sad end to the year. There had been an unexpected loss to West Ham United. There had been adverse headlines also about a bawdy off-piste party organized and attended by the players. One first-team starlet was arrested and charged with rape. A furious Ferguson had imposed a ban of silence over the affair, and serious fines on all the players involved.

Commentators and fans were suggesting that Sir Alex was losing his touch as a manager, in failing to appreciate the team’s urgent need for a world-class striker. Ferguson insisted otherwise. As mostly happened over his illustrious career, he had been able to prove his critics wrong, and the team steadily climbed the table, and re-established itself as favourites to regain the title.

As the season developed, normal goal-scoring was resumed. Meanwhile, leadership problems at Chelsea and Liverpool were contributing to the declining chances of two of the four most likely winners of the league. Only Arsenal was seen as a serious threat. Arsene Wenger had assembled another team of brilliant ball-players, whose progress was only likely to be halted by the inexperience of its young stars.

So the New Year dawned

January 1st 2008. A season-ticket holder faced up to one of life’s existential dilemmas and had abandoned the path well-travelled to Old Trafford, in favour of domestic doings fixing a newly-acquired home walking distance to the ground. Through such decisions pseuds like myself gain access to the Theatre of Dreams.

The Game

The game was low key. The players were low key. The crowd was low key. The manager growled afterwards that the atmosphere was like a funeral. His mood was hardly helped by the sentence he was serving, a ban from the touchline for an outburst against some hapless official after an earlier game.

For the record, like every match in the land, this one started with a minute of remembrance of Motherwell’s Phil O’Donnell who had collapsed and died in a match the previous Saturday.

It was New Year’s Day at Old Trafford

It was New Year’s Day at Old Trafford
when Birmingham came to town.
The Onions were draped around Burghers.
And Sir Matt looked down

Down upon chestnut clad horses
drawn from a dark Chorlton shed
protected from fetlocks to dreadlocks.
And Sir Matt stared ahead

Ahead to the day’s performance
A storm in a desert cup
when the faithful outnumber the Godless.
And Sir Matt looked up

Up to the Lego land scaffold.
where privileged people had gone
to cling with Prawns to coat tails.
And Sir Matt looked on

On as the multitude gathered
And remembered a son who had died.
Then we watched as the players stumbled.
And Sir Matt cried.