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.


Why innovation leaders should be controlled schizophrenics

September 3, 2007

Innovation requires a special kind of leadership requiring high tolerance for ambiguities and paradox. Professor Jan Buijs of the University of Delft has examined the characteristics, describing them as requiring a behavior pattern akin to ‘controlled schizophrenia’.

Jan Buijs is not a psychiatrist. This makes his newest contribution to innovation theorizing doubly risky. He stands accused of crudely misrepresenting and perhaps belittling a serious clinical condition. He also stands accused of the kind of political incorrectness that has recently beset users of the term brainstorming as a technique for enhancing group ideation.

According to Buijs,

Innovation leaders need to show a special kind of leadership. This leadership must be balanced, people-focused and must include a high tolerance for ambiguity and paradoxes. They have to be nice and nasty at the same time


Maybe the innovation process can be split up to provide the nice fuzzy warm stuff at the front end and the tough deadline scrambling at the pointy end. That’s how some textbooks present it.

But neat and tidy stage models of innovation are only approximations of a more complex and iterative reality. Buijs argues persuasively that innovation teams are cross-functional, and that

members … are responsible for the contribution of [various departmental contexts]. They also act as a postillion d’amour’ between the innovation team and their home departments.

To illustrate the iterative nature of the process, he presents the classical creative problem-solving model not in its customary linear form, but reconstructed as an elegant network diagram attributed to Dan Cougar.

The model is particularly worth preserving, because the distinguished author is sadly no longer with us to carry on his exceptional bridging work of the mostly separated islands of Information Systems and creativity.

Professor Buij makes a metaphoric claim in suggesting innovation leaders benfit from possessing schizoid characteristics. But even the metaphor would lose its force, if it were not embedded within a model of innovation as a non-linear process. Otherwise freedom to be creative could be confined to an early part of the process of innovation, perhaps granted to those ‘special creative types’. In a linear model, the case of special leadership skills is less convincing. By re-introducing Cougar’s non-linear model, the idea acquires additional strength.

Are innovation leaders that special?

A case could be made that innovation leaders are part of a wider set of leaders whose circumstances require in them a capacity to deal effectively with two potentially differing personal impulses.

This management of ambiguity is increasingly identified in studies of effective leadership, as ambiguous situations become more and more common. It is why leadership researchers are more aware than ever of the dilemmas of leadership.

An example is from the celebrated studies of high-performance professionals by Murnighan and Conlon

We determined from the data that the string quartets we studied faced three important paradoxes: the leadership versus democracy paradox, the paradox of the second fiddle, and the conflict paradox of confrontation versus compromise

The more general point about dealing with ambiguities is a key point in the influential ideas of group dynamics by Smith & Berg.


The article is fun, bubbling over with flights of imagination expressed in metaphors, some more vivid than others. Indeed, it even has its quota of creative spelings. In other words, it is consistent with the author’s thesis of innovation as a buzzing blooming confusion of activities, mistakes, ever-changing games, and rules of the game. The concept of the innovation leader as a metaphorical and controlled schizophrenic way be of wider application than is suggested.