Same, same, but different? Common brand challenges in financial services

The work we do at mark-making* is ultimately about problem solving. We may be a strategic and creative agency with expertise in financial services, but strip it down and the bottom line is we help our clients overcome challenges and realise their potential.

What we have learned by virtue of our sector agnostic positioning, is that those challenges actually differ very little from one industry to the next, and there is undoubtedly common ground.

That said, we have come to recognise certain challenges as being more prevalent or pronounced in particular sectors.

And when asked recently what I thought were the most common brand challenges in financial services, I took the opportunity to give the question the consideration it deserves.

What is a brand challenge?

Before we dive in, it’s worth pausing to be clear what we mean by a brand challenge – as opposed to any business challenge.

Business success boils down to problem solving. The problems are relentless, and the most successful businesses accept and embrace that fact. They also know that ‘winning’ is directly correlated to how quickly and effectively those problems are solved.

Brand challenges are a particular type of business problem. They represent the barriers to building sustainable commercial advantage, and in turn long term profit, through how your organisation is perceived, how quickly it comes to mind, and the emotional associations your customers make with it.

So, in no particular order, here they are. Based on over 25 years of helping financial services organisations of all shapes and sizes realise the potential in brand, six of the most common challenges.

1. A lack of understanding

But we’ve got a logo?’

Probably the single most common thing we hear – this or something similar – in early conversations with prospective clients. It’s the indicator that tells us this project will start with a significant amount of education.

It’s not a criticism, simply an observation.

For many, ‘brand’ still equals ‘logo’, particularly in financial services.

Generally speaking, when it comes to understanding the fundamentals of brand building – that is, the strategic creation of customer value through developing positive emotional sentiment towards an organisation – relative to other sectors, financial services is notably behind the curve.

A lack of understanding (and/or interest) may not necessarily be endemic within an organisation, but if the marketing director’s voice isn’t being heard at board level, this really is challenge number one.

Overcoming it requires presenting the business case for investment in brand and brand building. We’ve supported senior marketers in this endeavour on many occasions and the additional effort has always been worth it. Once the penny drops with the powers that be, progress is always swift, and you may find advocates in the most unexpected places.

2. Undervaluing distinctiveness

‘We’re completely different from all the other lenders out there. We have these amazing people, we’re using tech in this way, our products are super-innovate etc, etc…Oh, and by the way, I really like [insert competitor(s)] branding. Could we look a bit like them?’

If you are truly different from your competitors, why would you want to look and sound like them?

We call it ‘blanding’. Every industry has stylistic conventions. Common colour palettes, an expected approach to imagery, logos that conform to a particular look and feel.

And for a multitude of reasons (that ultimately boil down to comfort zones and an instinctual desire to belong) orgs of a feather flock together, at least when it comes to brand identity.

To avoid this, we encourage our clients to keep two things in mind, the twin objectives of brand identity – be meaningful, be distinctive.

How your organisation looks, feels and sounds should be a reflection of who you are and what you stand for. Starling Bank should look and feel like Starling Bank. You should look and feel like you – an engaging expression of your brand, and no one else’s. A good job of expressing who you are may alone be enough to make your brand identity distinctive, but if not, consider what else you can do to ensure it is.

It’s worth the effort because being ‘perceived’ as different has been shown to be just as effective in terms of creating higher brand value and being able to command a premium on products and services as actually being different.

So, in a sector like financial services, where product difference is often marginal at best and virtually impossible to defend, distinctiveness is a strategic opportunity to be embraced.

3. Not living the brand

‘Rebrand complete? Check. Next?’

One way to think about branding is like a promise not to be broken. Brand positioning, brand strategy, brand story, however you choose to badge it, there’s a promise to your customer in there (NB. if there isn’t, you need to revisit).

The challenge of brand building starts in earnest only once that promise has been identified. Your brand identity expresses the promise. Now, brace yourself – you need to live up to it.

Again, this is not a challenge unique to financial services. Far from it. Yet, in our experience it is more pronounced. Rather than being a catalyst for great things, the handing over of a comprehensive set of brand guidelines often marks the beginning of a loss of momentum.

Worthy, inspiring, and well-intentioned commitments made in defining a brand are nothing more than words until actively substantiated. So, the challenge here is to be realistic at the outset. To be mindful of over-claiming and the potential for inauthenticity. Then, to ensure that the whole organisation understands the promise and the collective responsibility to live up to it in every way.

4. Short term, rationally-led marketing

If you’re not familiar with the work of Binet & Field, take a look. In essence, their research evidences in no uncertain terms the importance of balancing short-term tactical sales activation, with brand building, as the route to long-term growth and profit.

In financial services, and particularly in B2B, we rarely see the optimum balance achieved. The overwhelming focus is on immediate results and return, to the detriment of long term growth.

Contributing factors include:

  • a sales-focused culture,
  • the pressures of quarterly targets,
  • the harder to evidence ROI of emotively-led brand building activity, and
  • a general lack of understanding of strategic marketing at senior level.

Bucking this direction of travel is a very real challenge, but not insurmountable.

As with the first challenge in this list, the emphasis needs to be on education and presenting the evidence for building enduring emotional connections with all customers, be they brokers, borrowers or savers.

5. The absence of ‘why’

Purpose is arguably the most overused word in marketing of the last couple of years.

By definition, purpose is simply about having a reason for doing something.

Of the banks, building societies, lenders and investment companies we’ve worked with over the years, pretty much all can tell you what they do and how they do it. However, ‘why’ they do it, their raison d’etre beyond financial return, is generally a far tougher question to answer. And, those that can are at a distinct advantage.

Clarity of direction and focus is essential to building successful brands. At an individual level, it gives work meaning. A reason to keep going beyond the pay cheque, that brings people together in a way that shared goals do, galvanising teams and harnessing potential. It also provides a yardstick against which to measure progress – a powerful motivator in itself.

There is significant external value in having clarity of purpose too. Particularly in financial services where meaningful product differentiation is increasingly difficult to achieve and maintain.Your ‘why’ is what sets you apart. The best financial services companies know exactly what theirs is, evidence it thoroughly and put it centre stage in their story.

6. Product-centricity

As the customer is the start point for all marketing, I perhaps should have kicked off with this particular challenge, but it also makes for a strong finish.

A challenge common to all sectors, though in our experience often heightened in financial services, is a distinct leaning towards product-centricity.

Boy, do we have some innovative mortgages. Now, who wants one?’

Genuinely flipping this and first identifying the specific needs and wants of your target audience is Marketing 101, but rarely the reality.

Adopting and religiously adhering to a customer-centric mindset sounds obvious, but do it and you’ll immediately find yourself ahead of the game.

Enough for now?

There we have it. Some of the most common financial services branding challenges. It’s not an exhaustive list by any stretch (more in a future post perhaps), but for starters I hope this provides some welcome food for thought and actionable insight.

Ultimately these individual challenges broadly amount to one thing – understanding and embracing brand building. It’s not rocket science, but neither is it easy. It requires discipline, commitment, making choices and continued focus – which is probably why so many brands struggle to get started or quickly lose momentum and enthusiasm.

The financial services brands that possess extraordinary and enduring appeal – brand magnetism as we call it – recognise and actively address all the challenges above.

So, if not already, your challenge is to do the same.

About Alastair

Founder and Creative Director

Ali co-founded mark-making* in 1995 after graduating from Lancaster University in Marketing & Visual Arts. Ali works closely with our clients to help bring clarity to their story, and oversees the wider mm* team to ensure it’s expressed effectively, with authenticity and coherence. Ali regularly speaks on the concept of Magnetic Brands, an approach to creating and building brands that embraces the power of being more human, in pursuit of both profit and positive impact. Ali leads mark-making’s work in helping ambitious organisations of all shapes and sizes build extraordinary and enduring appeal.