Different marketing styles for financial services
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Different marketing styles for financial services

Following the financial crisis, brand advocacy has become increasingly important for financial services organisations. So how have traditional banks that suffered reputational damage in the financial crisis, and ‘challenger’ banks that are rising to take them on, approached this?

Consumers have long memories when things go wrong. For the financial services sector it couldn’t get much worse than the 2008 crisis, which seriously damaged the reputations of many formerly trusted organisations.

Fast forward to 2016, and with values like honesty, transparency and stability now much more of a focus for consumers, restoring trust has become a common theme across the retail banking sector. As part of this goal, building a network of brand advocates has become an increasingly critical part of communicating this more customer-focused cultural approach. Not only is this important for the traditional banks attempting to rebuild customer relationships, but also for the new wave of successful ‘challenger’ banks – such as Metro Bank, Virgin Money, Aldermore, OneSavings, Williams & Glynn and Handelsbanken – that have emerged since the crisis, offering something different to the established big high street brands.

Challenger banks

“Building brand advocacy is really important for a ‘challenger’ like Metro Bank, particularly because we deliberately don’t spend a lot on marketing,” says Metro Bank’s chief commercial officer, Paul Riseborough, “We really rely on word of mouth, therefore brand advocacy, recommendations – from friends, family, and so on – is exceptionally important. We use the expression ‘fans not customers’ – we really want our customers to be strong advocates, because that’s what drives our recommendations.”

Differentiating Metro Bank from the traditional high street banks is fundamental, says Riseborough: “The first thing we do is focus on what we call ‘surprising and delighting’ at key moments of truth, as well as on everyday experiences. They may seem like small things, but they really drive recommendations.” These include opening early and late, seven days a week; printing debit and credit cards in-store; and facilities such as coin counting and safety deposit boxes. “So there are these touchpoints that are clearly distinguished compared with normal banks. And customers notice that.”

Getting involved locally is also a focus when opening new branches, Riseborough says, and engaging in way that makes people feel that the bank is part of the community it’s serving.

Crucial, though, to employee advocacy is getting the right people in the first place. “We believe it’s ‘all about the hire’,” Riseborough says. “So we have this phrase ‘hire for attitude, train for skill’. We’re very focused on not hiring a lot of former bankers. We look to hire people from retail and other service environments, so they’re really focused on providing quality customer service. Not one person in any of our stores is incentivised to do anything other than provide great service.”

Metro Bank encourages a strong colleague training approach and culture, says Riseborough – not all of it structured, but fully embraced by employees: “A lot of people who come to Metro Bank are determined to do things differently. We set the bank up in the eye of the financial storm, and there was a real sense of mission – that we needed to create a bank that was different, that wasn’t going to do the bad old things.”

Colleagues are encouraged to share stories and advice on the company’s internal collaboration tool, which connects to its ‘voice of the customer’ program – a customer analytics and insights tool that looks at every expression of dissatisfaction and assesses feedback. “Colleagues are intimately involved in all of those processes to understand what customers are thinking and feeling, and really take ownership in making that experience a bit better.”

This, says Riseborough, isn’t something that’s ‘done’ to employees in a top-down way. “They feel quite a lot of ownership in making it different themselves. There’s a surprising level of pride in not letting our guard slip, in being determinedly different compared with the other banks. We do feel a genuine sense of responsibility not to become like one of the others.”

Social media obviously plays an increasingly important role in advocacy, and getting the consumer experience right is essential. “On social media you can be pretty straight-up. It’s about being honest. Being open, being helpful, because social media is one of those channels that really hunts down hypocrisy, hunts down people who are being dishonest and trying to spin things. We’ve tried to be honest on service issues, be helpful, be straightforward, and hopefully give some insight into our values.”

Traditional banks

For traditional UK banks, building brand advocacy is critical, too. To encourage internal advocacy throughout the organisation, three years ago Barclays established a ‘Brand Agents’ programme – a community of around 500 people working in many different roles across the UK organisation. Mark Brayton, content marketing director at Barclays, leads the programme. He describes them as “A team of highly-engaged individuals that have a ‘day job’, but on top of that really help us to bring our brand to life within the communities they work in day-in, day-out.”

Brayton stresses the critical role employee brand advocacy plays in the bank’s customer-focused strategy. “It’s hugely important that our colleagues are given the space and opportunity to understand our brand and engage with it as best is possible,” he says. “That’s vital for us. And understanding how that advocacy can have really positive outcomes and impacts on our customers and clients is fundamental to our strategy.”

As well as having a role in disseminating information on new marketing and engagement campaigns and translating this into the local level, the Brand Agents programme is also a channel for communicating back from employees –“Getting them to help us think about what we can do more of to drive engagement and advocacy in our brand going forward – both locally and nationally,” says Brayton. “So they really help us by being our internal brand advocates, our custodians of our brand across our colleague group.”

The programme brings in employees from all sections of the organisation that have a “really positive and active interest” in the brand, says Brayton, creating a group with a “higher than average level of enthusiasm and motivation around the brand role they can play.”

The Brand Agents teams have frequent group meetings – whether virtual or physical – to get the latest updates on communication and marketing campaign, receiving content they can cascade to their teams locally. A two-way dialogue is also encouraged, feeding back from their teams. In return for being custodians of the message, brand agents get access to unique development and skills opportunities. They are also encouraged to come up with ideas, and co-create and develop messages.

As well as its Brand Agents programme, Barclays has also established a team of 50 ‘advocacy coordinators’ to help enhance the customer experience, and runs a series of initiatives – such as its Digital Eagles internet and digital technology education and support programme – to engage with the wider community. Carole Layzell, Proactive Performance Director at Barclays says: “We need to rebuild trust from our customers and non-customers in all areas of financial services, by putting the customer first, and making them realise that we are there to help and that we want to help them.”

Layzell has led the development of the advocacy coordinators team, which were established to support the frontline staff’s handling of customer complaints. A key part of the approach was focusing on the customer experience, and taking action – through increasing knowledge, skills and coaching – to deal with customers more effectively on the front line, thereby reducing the number of customers passed on to the back office. The team also uses feedback and analysis to respond more effectively to changing customer needs at both a national and local level.

Rather than focusing on dealing with customer complaints, says Layzell, it’s now more focused on “what does the customer experience look like – and how we can predict and prevent issues arising before the customer decides to complain?” Recent examples of proactive initiatives include text alerts for customers if they have insufficient funds when direct debits are due, or when ‘free trial periods’ for subscription services end and continuous authority payments are due to begin. These are services that customers genuinely value, Layzell says, as it can save them money and hassle – while reducing the bank’s complaints and boosting brand engagement. 

Layzell believes that employee advocacy is hugely important: “If you get it right with your colleagues – whether in the front or the back office – they become absolute advocates of Barclays and its products and services, and naturally that comes through when you’re dealing with customers. The engagement we have with our colleagues is absolutely critical, and we spend a lot of time making sure we’ve got it right.”

The experience of the financial crisis and its impact have changed the way traditional financial organisations have approached brand advocacy, says Brayton. “What we all found through those challenging times is the real importance and power of us engaging with our colleagues, customers and our clients with the brand’s purpose and values – but also with what that means for the brand locally, in the environments in which they operate.”

The emergence of digital channels and social media has also had intensified the focus on improving the customer experience. But, ultimately, internal brand advocacy has to be authentic, says Brayton: “You can’t force advocacy onto groups or cohorts out from the centre. What’s very important is that you find and source naturally occurring advocates within your various cohorts, and work with them so that they can help you spread the word and the engagement around our brand.

“Trust and authenticity are key elements, and part of that comes with sharing not only the successes, but also some of the things with which we’ve experience challenges and difficulties too.” Brayton concludes: “The more that we can allow a really honest and authentic natural advocacy-based conversation to flow out, the more effective those conversations will be and, therefore, the more effective things like referral consideration and advocacy will be among that group.”

Phil Lattimore Freelance Journalist CPL
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