I live in a city of big banks. With headquarters for two of the top three U.S. financial institutions a short walk from my studio, they feel a bit like old friends. But when Bank of America recently declared it would drop its $35 overdraft fee because they had decided to listen to their customers, I thought, "Really? So what were you doing before?"
For many years, the most conservative brands on the landscape were financial ones. Consumers depended on these institutions to protect them and their assets, and to provide peace of mind, similar to airline brands. The brands had to exude an aura of confidence continuously through every touch point, so we as consumers felt safe with them.
But as big banking got bigger, risk taking got riskier and the retail side got more retail-like, they lost that sense of structure. Now many of those trusted institutions have failed. In an annual survey of financial brand value as conducted by Brand Finance, 84% of the total loss in brand value is among the top 100 bank brands. The total decline in brand value of the Global Banking 500 was approximately $209 billion. Nearly 200 brands, including huge brands Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch are gone, and brands such as Citi have fallen numerous spots.
For the banks to rebuild trust, brand strategists might advise them to go back to the core of what made them trustworthy to begin with. But I'm not sure that even exists anymore.
Trust is not a brand pillar that can just be added in or taken out, and it can't be amped up by changing your message. It must be earned through action with a brand's consumers that ratify a core belief, a feeling the consumer has about the brand.
It may manifest itself in a myriad of ways. Trust can be established emotionally through experiences with a brand's ambassadors—its employees—and visually and verbally through the brand identity systems and marketing communications. Santander has just dropped some of its smaller bank brands to fully integrate them into the Santander brand. But once a brand has disappointed a consumer to the level that many financial brands have, a quick sweep under the rug and a smile does not erase what happened. Many long-time WaMu-ians are still reeling from the Chase takeover, although Chase tried to time the takeover with a social responsibility program, Chase Community Giving. Unfortunately, some charities have had problems with judging.
I'm concerned these large financial brands aren't taking their past betrayal to consumers seriously enough. They aren't doing enough right now to demonstrate the day-to-day sincerity required for us to ever trust them again. JP Morgan's CEO Jamie Dimon said in a talk at Harvard last year, "We suck less", when trying to describe their management mantra. But that does not necessarily do enough to satisfy consumers anymore. We are smarter than that and deserve more than that. In order for our economy to fully recover, some level of trust has to be re-established with consumers.
There are hundreds of smaller regional and local banks around the country that weren't poisoned with greed and toxic assets over the last decade. It may be the time for their brands to step up with a bit more confident voice and say, "We've been here the whole time. And we'll be here tomorrow. For you."
I just might trust that.
Jamey Boiter is a nationally recognized brand strategist and practitioner. As BOLTgroup's brand principal, he oversees all brand innovation and graphic design teams. He has received numerous awards, ADDYs, and citations for his work in brand development, packaging, and corporate identity, including award-winning projects for AirDye, Lowe's, IZOD, Nat Nast, G.H. Bass, Marc Ecko, and Forté Cashmere. Jamey has been involved in strategic brand development and design management programs with world-class brands such as Kobalt Tools, Ryobi, Coca-Cola, Kraft, IZOD, and Phillips-Van Heusen, and has been a featured speaker at national conferences and college campuses on the subject of brand strategy, innovation and development.