National Westminster Bank finds Another Way to change its corporate reputation

January 10, 2008

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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.


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