WHAT ARE BANKS FOR?

This article was published first in the Financial Services Forum’s Argent Magazine – Autumn 2011.


What are Banks for, if not to feather their own nests?

If we truly want to address the trust issues in financial services, I believe we need to ask some deeper, more fundamental questions about the nature of trust and what we’re here to do, individually and collectively.

 

The first step, especially following the turbulence of the past few years, is to recognise how complex an entity trust is – easy to feel but difficult to understand. The brand and industry trackers show trust going up, down and sideways – there’s little consistency. In reality, while we haven’t seen people pulling their money en mass from banks or more switching from one brand to another, it feels as if the standing of financial services brands is at a low point.

 

To understand what’s going on means recognising the distinctive layers in the concept of trust:

 

Functional trust underscores how well an industry or product group works to deliver a functional benefit. Here, banking actually continues to score highly and trust levels have actually increased – even more so since the government proved it would stand behind the banks. We all trust that a bank will work to deliver core commodity functions reliably.

 

Affective trust is where financial services companies have a real problem. Very few people have affective trust in financial services brands and virtually no-one trusts the top bankers who serve as figureheads for our industry. They’re seen as defensive and self-serving. All the TV and newspaper advertising behind the message “We’re ordinary people working for you”, doesn’t move the needle, despite what a brand tracker might say. These messages are perceived to be superficial, actually creating more mistrust and frustration with our industry.

 

It’s galling for a consumer to hear these advertising messages while also hearing a CEO defend massive bonus payments or threaten to leave the country when taxes are discussed. People integrate these messages. In our hyper-connected and hyper-transparent age, consumers assess brands and business on a range of competing dimensions to get very near the truth.

 

The trust in business, and the banking industry especially, that people used to have and that gave a legitimacy to our commercial activities has been decreasing alarmingly in the West. Business leaders are now seen as “doing the right thing” by only 20% of the population.

 

And there’s now clear evidence that commanding deep trust is a hard business issue, not a soft, intangible matter to be addressed through superficial communications alone.  It’s already directly impacting balance sheets and business models – just look at the cost of compensating for this lack of trust through vastly increased capital requirements or the ring-fencing of retail operations suggested by the Vickers report. All because we as an industry are seen not to be worthy of trust.

 

Against that background, most “normal” people are asking: What are financial services and especially our banks here to do, if it’s not just to feather their own nests? This assumption of self-serving goes to the heart of our business – and we will continue to suffer as regulators become more aggressive, spurred on by an increasingly frustrated and angry public.

 

However, those brands that truly commit to both social and commercial good, that contribute to social capital through their activities and that mobilise their workforce locally and authentically to take this message out – for them, these are the most exciting of trust-building times. Authentic, real, connected trust has always been at the heart of the profitable customer-financial services relationship. That’s why it receives so much attention, and why building it continues to be the right thing to do.

 

Read more about creating a sustainably trusted and trustworthy business and brand in Why Should Anyone Buy From YOU? (FT-Prentice Hall) by Justin Basini. It’s Available on Amazon and in all good bookshops.

ROUNDING OUT THE BRAND – HOW SKY DOES IT

I was over at Sky a couple of weeks ago and picked up these internal flyers. They cover four areas:

“Do the right thing” – responsibility
“Reduce your footprint” – environment
“Get involved” – sport
“Be inspired” -arts
They are a good example of a brand rounding out its internal brand perception through a range of activities linked to its core business but not in a direct way. Most marketers think about focus, focus, focus – but this often leads to a mono-dimensional brand perception. Sky are covering a range of topics here that will connect with a much broader range of people internally and externally. The fact they are pushing these activities internally indicates that they want employees to feel proud of the brand and magnify through word of mouth.
You can learn more about these activities by visiting:

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Justin

Mail me: justin@basini.com
My website: http://www.basini.com/
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2 min Video book review: Cradle to Cradle

Last week I read a fantastic book called Cradle to Cradle about eco-effective product design. Really easy to read and really mind expanding. Definitely a read for all those involved in designing and delivering products.

Here is a link to it on Amazon (its an affiliate link so you know!) and my two minute video review.

I am thinking of doing a series of these video book reviews. Please give me feedback on whether you think they work and what I should include.

Here is also a TED talk by William Mcdonough on the key concepts.

What do you think? Leave a comment below and share these important concepts.

Thanks

Justin

Mail me: justin@basini.com
My website: http://www.basini.com/
Read my blog: http://www.blog.basini.com/
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Brands: if you want trust give trust


Brands and businesses always want to be trusted. But rarely do they trust their customers to understand how business works. This is why most organisations mission or values statements don’t include simple direct statements of what businesses are there, in part, to do which is make money. Businesses and corporations assume that we distrust them and therefore act defensively. In some cases, often the high profile ones, covered by the media, this default position of distrust is right but the vast majority of businesses, those that many of us work for, and employ our friends and family members, are full of good people trying to deliver well for their customers and make a fair profit in return, and money for themselves.

But most businesses, especially the big ones, are pathologically scared of saying anything that isn’t on message. And those messages are devoid of reality because they just don’t trust normal people to understand that running businesses is not easy, a balancing act and they have to make a return on their efforts. The cancer in these organisations are the public relations and corporate affairs departments that are obsessed with controlling the message, saying as little as possible, and where success is staying hidden.

In my experience most people are fair and reasonable. We understand that businesses need to make money, but we want them to give us good services and not exploit us for super-profitability. But most corporations treat us like we are cynical, conspiracy theorists or anti-business. And this has created a culture, especially in Britain, France and Germany, where making a profit is seen as inherently exploitative and almost immoral.

Witness John Petter from BT this morning (12th Feb 2010) on BBC Breakfast. Since BBC doesn’t replay Breakfast (can someone upload the interview to YouTube? YES ITS HERE) I’ll give a sense of the Tweets that were going round that summarise his performance:

jhemusinsignia: BT spokesman on BBC Breakfast was v.poor: why are people lacking the necessary skills put forward? Train them or use someone else
charlie74: BBC Breakfast presenter grilling the BT rep on TV… loved it
Tommy_Hill: Anyone else think the BT guy was seriously floundering on BBCBreakfast? “I don’t know if we’ll make money on it”.. Bulls**t
zenemu: #BT chap who was just on the BBC was a bit of a worm. BT are changing free evening calls from 6pm to 7. Odious little man from awful company
RAIPR: Wtchng John Petter, BT directr justify 7pm off-peak move on BBC. Nervy, defensive, dncng feet, looking away from cam, stuttering #fail
imogenfarr: Anyone see the BBC Breakfast interview with the squirming BTspokesperson? Blimey, he’d never have coped if he was interrogated by Paxman.



There is no doubt that his performance this morning was very poor but I suspect rather than being a consequence of not enough media training, it was caused by too much media training. Having been through several versions of this torture myself these sessions are focused on Corporate Affairs/Public Relations/Media people drilling you. “Don’t say this, say that”, “don’t answer questions directly” and most importantly don’t tell the truth. Don’t lie, don’t tell the truth, better to not say anything at all.

This goes right to the heart of the way that businesses present themselves currently. There is no longer a recognition, a trust, that we understand how businesses work. Read the mission and values of BT (taken from their website this morning):


Our vision

Our vision is to be dedicated to helping customers thrive in a changing world. The world we live in and the way we communicate are changing, and we believe in progress, growth and possibility. We want to help all our customers make their lives and businesses better with products and services that are tailored to their needs and easy to use.
This means getting ever closer to customers, understanding their lifestyles and their businesses, and establishing long-term relationships with them.
We’re passionate about customers and are working to meet the needs they have today and innovating to meet the needs they will have tomorrow.

Our values

Our corporate identity defines the kind of company we are now and the one we need to be in the future.
Central to that identity is a commitment to create ways to help customers thrive in a changing world. To do this we must live our brand values:
  • Trustworthy – we do what we say we will
  • Helpful – we work as one team
  • Inspiring – we create new possibilities
  • Straightforward – we make things clear
  • Heart – we believe in what we do
We are committed to contributing positively to society and to a sustainable future. This is part of the heart of BT.”

I can guarantee that John Petter and his boss Gavin Patterson spend most of their time obsessing about how they can organise their business to make money, grow and be cost efficient, whilst giving a good service. That’s what they get rewarded for. And yet making a fair return, making money for themselves and their employees, is no where to be seen in the mission and values of BT. These vision, mission and values statements have become divorced from reality, and its not just BT that suffer this problem.

Every business person that goes through a media training torture session comes out scared to death of saying anything, and is certainly left with the impression that having an open conversation about working hard to deliver value whilst making money is completely “off message”.

That’s what you could hear this morning from Mr Petter. His message was “buy unlimited packages” and he automaton-like repeated this time and time again. Charlie Stayt asked for a commitment from him that the prices would always be better value now and in the future, something which was impossible to answer on the couch in a studio. But instead of calmly responding, as Mr Petter might in a normal conversation with you or me, that BT always wanted to be good value, but that these decisions needed to be properly planned his only reply was “buy unlimited packages”. He thereby demonstrated that he didn’t trust those listening to his interview to conclude that he was a reasonable man with a reasonable approach and, yep, these things generally needed to be thought about.

Even when Susannah Reid asked him directly why he didn’t just explain that giving customers free calls meant that they didn’t make enough money, he wasn’t brave or trusting enough, to agree and admit that giving a good service and making a fair profit was what they were trying to do. All he could say was “buy unlimited packages”.

I felt sorry for John Petter this morning, a classic victim of media training where the goal is to say nothing, and a corporate and cultural context where trusting people to understand that businesses are there to try and give good services that we all need, and make a fair profit in return, is unacceptable.

Unfortunately until brands and businesses start to wake up to the fact that trust is a two way relationship, they will never win our trust.

Did you see the interview this morning. What do you think?
Do you work for BT? How did you feel?
Have you been media trained? What is your experience?

Please comment below and share with others using the social media icons.

Thanks – have a lovely, non-business, non-brand, non-marketing weekend and Valentine’s day.

Justin

Mail me: justin@basini.com
My website: http://www.basini.com/
Read my blog: http://www.blog.basini.com/
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MORALITY & BANKING

Yesterday I attended a talk at the RSA by John Lanchester who has recently written a book called Whoops! about the credit crunch.
The talk and subsequent questioning was mostly about the role of culture and regulation in banking; with the audience and speaker exploring how to develop a system that might be more sustainable.
I wrote a blog called Banking and the Common Good a while back which explored how the concept of common good could be placed as a central focus of a financial institution. Today’s blog picks up on some of these concepts.
The question is how we create a banking system that actually balances commercial objectives with social objectives that deliver benefit to the common good. I believe that a new language of responsibility needs to be imposed on the banks. Nearly all banks will tutor their leaders in Business Ethics; all banks have values statements that will include some version of “doing the right thing”.
But despite these words and intentions we still have a system that doesn’t in aggregate and from a macro-economic perspective deliver “the right thing” and act ethically in its impact. The frustration is that there are very few financial institutions that deliberately act in a clearly unethical way decision by decision, action by action, but in aggregate the effect is destructive.
The heart of the issue for me is one of what banks, especially investment banks, markets focused institutions and bank leadership more generally, value. And that is money, to this everything else is subservient. This is why banks are so successful, they have created extremely efficient systems for maximising profit to the exclusion of virtually all else. This creates inattentional blindness, which is the psychological phenomenon of being “blind” to anything apart from that which you are concentrating on, add hubris and you have a system that builds risk and is narrowly focused on one immediate outcome.
This valuing of one outcome only, with little assessment of second and third order effects and impacts, allows for a culture to become devoid of morals. And that moral bankruptcy turned into financial bankruptcy.
So what to do? Remembering that business ethics and values were taught and “on the wall” at our big financial institutions and offered no protection.
I would advocate a complete reversal of the incentive systems at our banks. We need an incentive system that puts most emphasis on demonstrating moral action and joined up thinking rather than seeking risk for greater return. This should be in an overtly, openly discussed moral framework. Leaders in these organisations need to become expert not just in maths and playing the markets, but seeing the impact of their business on different stakeholders and balancing this for commercial and social return.
Morality is at the very heart of our economic system. Adam Smith’s conception of markets was built on predictable outcomes between buyer and seller. The foundations of these predictable outcomes, in a time when regulation and rules of commerce were much less regimented and established than they are now, were moral action from individuals. I don’t think it is surprising that The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that Smith wrote 15 years prior to The Wealth of Nations and the majority of the books in The Wealth deal with how individuals living in society should conduct themselves. In order for the invisible hand, specialisation and the market dynamic to work as a value exchange there needs to be trust and in Smith’s conception this comes from morality.
This morality will need to be imposed. Major financial institutions have regressed back to the status quo, as John Lanchester said yesterday “the system is as risky as ever”. They will never voluntarily accept any balances to their earning power. So this will need to come from changed systems of regulation.
But this creates a paradox in that regulation, with its rule based approach, enables a moral vacuum by replacing human judgement with an attitude of “if we stay within the rules we are acting responsibly”. Ironically the FSA (the UK bank regulator) knew this. Over the past few years anyone working in a UK bank will be familiar with the pre-crash mantra of “principle based regulation”. No longer were we to work just within the “rules” but to their spirit. It didn’t work because it stayed at the surface, and people’s behaviour doesn’t change, in many cases the people need to change.
By changing what is valued in banks this will change who progresses within the organisations. This will be a key to unlock a new system. Let’s open up board positions on banks to a wider audience. What’s clear from the past two years is that having a career in banking behind you doesn’t give you any special insight or understanding so let’s have a more diverse group from environmentalists, to community leaders, to customers, having a real voice in the running of financial institutions.
It has been said that markets are amoral. That maybe true but they don’t work unless their participants act morally. Creating moral financial institutions working for commercial gain and the social common good is the challenge.

Please comment below and share using the social bookmark icons. Thanks as ever for reading.

Justin

Mail me: justin@basini.com
My website: http://www.basini.com/
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ALREADY DESTROYING VALUE? THE CADBURY-KRAFT MERGER

 



This morning Cadbury, the UK multi-national confectionery manufacturer, and Kraft, the US based multi-national food conglomerate, announced they had agreed the much contested takeover bid for £11.5bn. I am a consumer and shareholder of Cadbury.

Food brands are all about trust, and chocolate even more so because it is an emotional category. Cadbury is an iconic British brand with a rich and socially aware history. In its early days Cadbury was a major employer of women and had a paternalistic attitude to its employees (in a good sense) investing in their welfare. Cadbury is one of the most trusted brands especially in the UK regularly coming in the top 10 of brand trust surveys. Even this morning on it's website the headline graphic was "values led, performance driven". 


Is Cadbury's history of commercial success in a social context important or relevant anymore? 


@urbanfly tweeted this morning "There's a romantic idea that Cadbury is a Birmingham company. They're a global corporation who buy out other companies". 


Whilst Cadbury is a global corporation I believe that history is an important part of the embedded value of any company. Brands are created by people and their actions. And the mythology of a company is important as an implicit guide for those making decisions, providing a different perspective or a pause for thought. 


Of course there is another side of Cadbury. They benefited hugely from the British Empire, but more recently have been a huge buyer of FairTrade commodities especially in West Africa.

A descendent of Cadbury's founder called the takeover "a horror story" according to the BBC. Felicity Loudon, George Cadbury's great-granddaughter said, "Every single iconic brand is going – we sell out everything." Of course this isn't important in of itself but I think it is the attitude that many will feel as we see this great British company consumed.

The takeover has been justified because the companies want to secure growth and save cost with now warm words between the parties saying how the best of Cadbury will be retained. But I doubt this will happen. I've worked on both sides of the fence being acquired and acquiring in my corporate career. Cultures rarely merge well. The company taking over inevitably dominates and imposes its values and decision making processes.

What all this means is a challenge to the very logic and price paid for the takeover by Kraft of Cadbury. Another reload of the Cadbury website this morning proclaimed "creating brands people love".

And here is the rub….of the £11.5bn paid a major part of this will be goodwill. A major part of this goodwill will be the intangible value of the Cadbury brands. From the reaction on Twitter and in the press the destruction of this goodwill has been palpable already. The provenance and corporate background of brands is increasingly important to people. In our transparent society information on the companies that make the brands "we love" is so much easier, we know their stories and a sense of where they come from. The fact that Cadbury has been promoting its use of FairTrade in advertising is all about proving they are true to being led by their values.

Given the arguments over the deal, the context of the UK economy and the shameful collapse in manufacturing in the UK's manufacturing base over the past 20 years this takeover will get a huge amount of coverage both now and in the future. The result for consumers will be the perception, even slight, that their bar of Dairy Milk is less satisfying than it was before. Even if the taste of the chocolate stays the same (a big topic on Twitter!), the "taste" of the brands will be tainted for ever.

There is no doubt that a great British company and brand died this morning.

What's your view? Do you think the takeover will destroy or create value? Comment now!

Thanks

Justin

Mail me: justin@basini.com
My website and blog: http://www.basini.com/
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Here is a  live feed of comments on the deal from Twitter: