It’s a well-known fact that building brands around services is much more difficult than branding a product. And in that particular sector, financial services stand out as being even more challenging. Nonetheless, there are a few who get it right. But what makes branding financial services so difficult and what does it take to build a great brand that people will not frown-upon, fear or outright hate?

In search of an answer, Brandingmag sat down with Neil Parker, Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder of Co:Collective, following their recent project on redefining a well-known financial brand in the United States.

Brandingmag: How do you define brand strategy without referring to the visual identity side of it?

Neil Parker: Visual design remains an essential element of delivering a brand, but it’s become much less important. The days when Raymond Loewy could transform Lucky Strike’s fortunes with a pack redesign are over. In fact, some currently iconic brands had terrible visual identity for much of their early growth (Google and Uber come to mind). My belief is that great brands are delivered today through many means, most notably product design, digital and physical experiences, content, and societal contribution. With that in mind, a good definition of brand strategy is the considered intent for the positive role a company wants to play in the lives of the people it serves and the communities around it.

Bm: Having seen both sides of the client-agency relationship, which one do you prefer and why?

NP: I prefer the agency side. I loved my time on the client-side at IBM and had the privilege of working with the brilliantly creative people at IBM Research for much of it. But I missed the variety, the urgency, and the freedom of agency-side work. At our agency, we are brought in at moments of true strategic inflection, and I love working at those moments when big open-ended questions are being asked. You simply can’t stay in that state on the client-side for more than a year. Agency side, if you attract the right assignments, it can be a consistent state — not only one of guaranteed zero boredom but always the chance to make a big impact at a consequential moment.

Bm: As an executive in IBM’s innovation endeavors, what was your approach to developing new offerings?

NP: My role at IBM was to help create new businesses leveraging new capabilities developed in IBM Research. So it was a fascinating blend of inside-out work to sweat the applicability of the emerging technology to the real world, and outside-in work to understand the true needs of customers and people in that domain. It was like meshing future possibilities with the realities of today and finding value in the overlap. Deeply interesting.

Bm: When branding financial services and products, how do you move away from the popular understanding of simply borrowing money with interest?

NP: Since we live in a capitalist society, money is of pivotal practical value and also a deeply emotional terrain — it can fund dreams and delight as well as inspire dread and depression. Tapping into the deeper motivations and emotions is therefore pivotal. And there’s something more. Our research shows that almost all US adults are managing their money poorly because they don’t understand the optimal behaviors and aren’t equipped to adopt them by the financial provider. So there’s a huge, ongoing opportunity to help people. The problem is that, in many cases, this help will result in a reduction of interest and therefore income for banks. For this reason, I believe the first one that truly takes a radically customer-first stance will see tremendous success.

Bm: A recent survey in the USA has revealed that student loans are at alarming levels and produce a grave domino effect. Have you taken this into consideration when strategizing for your latest financial project, Sallie Mae?

NP: We don’t comment publicly on client projects as a matter of policy. But in this case, I will say that the situation was a primary consideration for us and the client.

Bm: How do you regain and grow a culture around trust — in and outside of a provider’s brand — when the financial sector has been so heavily influenced by puzzling clauses and fine print?

NP: It goes back to my earlier point about acting radically in the customer’s interests. And this can take many forms, from helpful product design to digital tools to truly accessible disclosure (as opposed to the grudging meeting of regulatory requirement). A great example of this is a design job we undertook for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to design a credit card form that people could actually understand and know exactly what they were signing up for. Trust comes from actions like that rather than making sure your logo is a pulse-lowering blue and your copy sounds authoritative.

Bm: Given the recent evolution of the fin-tech environment, what is your vision for the not-so-distant future of banking?

NP: If used correctly, technology can make banking far more empathetic, simple, and effective, acting on our behalf and interacting through natural interfaces like text and AI-powered voice. It’s not just the convenience of mobile utility — it’s the humanity of interactions around money that show understanding and care. It’s often frustrated me that the only people financial advisers really work with are the people who least need that advice. What if a mass retail bank acted as your personal financial adviser? The data and technology are there. The ambition and design are lagging behind.

Bm: A few years back, the late Wally Olins noticed that financial brands (banks) are openly embracing digitalization, but slowly giving away their “humanity” in the process, renouncing the few human touchpoints that provided emotional connection between them and their clients. Do you think that replacing employees with bots and apps can lead to the downfall of certain financial brands?

NP: As a proud Wolff Olins alum, I love that provocation. However, I remain an optimist about the potential of technology to deliver empathetic experiences — if done right. And I’m sure we can all recall interactions with employees in banks that are somewhere on the spectrum from mechanical to dehumanising. And in research, we have found that many members of minority groups prefer digital interaction as it eliminates some potential for bias. As I said earlier, it’s the intent that counts: How do you intend to make the lives of the people you serve better? If you get that right and commit to it, the rest is execution, and technology and people can individually or jointly play a role.

Bm: If you could change a core aspect of how banks do business, what would it be and why? Furthermore, how would you transform it into a strength and incorporate it into the brand’s identity and messaging?

NP: In terms of how banks do business, that would challenge them to think of themselves as communications businesses rather than financial or even relationships businesses. The information they possess about our individual and collective monetary lives is an invaluable resource that could power hugely useful advice and coaching in a world where most people mismanage their money to some degree. Could they text us to tell us we should transfer more funds into savings? Can they coach us on how to lower our FICO score? Can they alert us that our spending is running ahead of our income for the month? The success of coaching platforms like Credit Karma indicates the gap.

To be sure, in many cases, some of the coaching above is available from banks if you dig deep into the website, or if you contact the branch. But it’s not made available proactively and in step with how people naturally receive information today, which is mobile and text-first. Which brings us back to the “communications company” model: Effective communications are not just about the message, but also the medium, and in the case of banks, more creativity and empathy about how and where they communicate support to us is a critical development avenue. It also opens up a brand identity opportunity: To rehumanize around supportive coaching and service, to be a brand of helpful dialog that is radically built around its customer’s best interests, and that communicates openly in service of it. In that way, the bank can feel deeply human, because it’s motivated by human concerns, even though the majority of the communications themselves may be driven by AI.

Bm: What are three pieces of advice that you would give to managers and marketers working to improve their brands in the financial sector?

NP: (1) Think less about positioning and more about helpfulness, (2) think about people as 360-degree human beings, surrounded by family and friends, not as perpetrators of transactions, and (3) be bold!

Image source: Jordan