There is something positively delicious about Richard Branson and his band of irreverent
up-enders about to turn North Rock — which was the fifth largest mortgage lender in the U.K.
before it journeyed from its eponymous solidity to a hard place — into Virgin Money.
There was a time when financial services marketing was as grim as an undertaker’s visage,
when austerity equaled credibility, and humor (and god forfend, irreverence) were as unwelcome in the travertine palaces of these august institutiions as a Black or a Jew in the boardroom.
I had Citicorp (as it was then known, before it made the trek to Citigroup and now the noisome, faux-friendly, Citi) and Chase and Nation’s Bank as clients, and though they were different cultures they were equally adamant about the need to project gravitas.
Of course, we’ve learned something different. While financial institutions can project anything they want on the outside, the sub-prime crisis has revealed what they are on the inside: Sleight-of-hand tricksters, playing a game of three-card monte, moving bad credit around so fast that in the blur, no one can tell what’s what.
Now we knw better. Seriousness and honesty are not even distantly related. So our perspective on solidity and trust has shifted to the point where the Virgin brand, and its iconoclastic, industry-destabilizing approach — fueled by cheeky humor and joyful, provocative challenge — can actually be welcomed as a white knight, riding in to bail out the stiff, pompous and now desperate “bankers.”
On the global market dollars convert to pounds and rupees and and even Iranian rials, but gravitas and self-importance can no longer be converted into confidence.
Anyone who has flown Virgin and American Airlines will not need to be convinced that Branson can deliver. (Even though, as the Guardian points out, his previous efforts in financial services never got off the ground.) Of course, he’s no philanthropist. At the very least, he wants to make money for himself, and us at the same time. That’s not a bad partner to have.
And what does this mean for other markets — like insurance — where the ancient marketing verities still hold? Just wait.