When it comes to their brands, banks are not having it easy. Between the low levels of trust in banks and the pandemic that flipped on its head almost everything financially related, the guarding marketers of banking brands have a tough job on their hands. Financial services can be dull and are certainly not the most exciting thing to build advocacy around…but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Banks are starting to actually meet consumers’ needs in both a rational and emotional way, changing their perception from “money-lenders” to “financial advisors” and building some well-needed trust along the way. This might just be the first step in many to come for banking brands having true purpose at their core.

To find out more about the challenges that purpose and trust arise for banking brands, Brandingmag reached out to John Woods, the newly appointed CMO of Zenus Bank. John has previously held senior roles at Barclays and, most recently, lead Samsung’s European digital operations. Here’s what he has to say:

Brandingmag: What are the unique challenges of creating a brand strategy for a bank?

John Woods: For me, the actual process of creating a brand strategy is the same, no matter the industry. It’s the steps of market orientation, research, segmentation, targeting, and positioning. That said, there are factors that can make developing a financial service brand more challenging.

Products can be seen as complex and dull, making customer engagement harder to gain and while throwing up a “huge” 0% headline rate will drive sales, it won’t necessarily drive advocacy. A strong brand needs to deliver to both emotional and rational customer needs. With an FMCG brand, it’s relatively easy to show products and create desire – it’s far more challenging for a bank to create the same levels of desire but different emotional responses can be achieved.

Bm: Are there any differences between physical and digital brands in the banking sector?

JW: I’m not sure a real divide can be made on a physical vs. digital basis as almost all banks with a physical presence also have a digital one. The differentiation really comes in the prominence digital banking plays in the proposition – and most banks have viewed direct channels as ‘their biggest branch’ for over a decade.

This said, the newer digital-only banks certainly present themselves with more gusto and confidence than the longer-standing establishments. This is, no doubt, in part due to the brands not carrying 20 years of ‘bank bashing’.

Bm: Although it’s been getting a lot of traction lately, is digital banking going to replace traditional banking anytime soon?

JW: People forget digital banking has been with us since the 1980s, and products and services have been constantly evolving. It’s certainty receiving a lot more attention now as Covid-19 has really pushed mainstream market adoption. I think once people experience online banking, they’ll be less inclined to go back to old habits for day-to-day tasks, but I don’t see face-to-face channels being totally replaced anytime soon.

Bm: From a marketer’s point of view, what’s it like to manage a digital (financial) brand? Is it more or less challenging than a traditional brand?

JW: Digital and traditional brands both have to conform with regulatory standards but from there have differing challenges. With an established brand, you’re looking to play with brand assets to keep the business relevant and activities mainly focus on retention, cross, and upsells.

Bm: Do you see classic bankers adapting to the disruption of fintech? How are they trying to keep their brands relevant – and are they seeing any signs of success?

JW: There’s certainly more competition in spaces like cards and international money payments, with the likes of TransferWise and Apple Pay offering cheaper and more convenient ways to do things but while there’s lots of hype about challenger banks like Starling and Monzo, their market share is negligible. This said, the established brands can learn from new entrants, they could certainly act with more confidence in themselves, and continue to make sure they speak to customers in ways they understand.

Bm: People have always been wary of banks and a recent report by Accenture found that the levels of trust in banks remain low in 2020. Are digital banks experiencing a different sentiment from consumers?

JW: I think we have to look back further than the last decade when discussing ‘trust in banks’. People over 40 will remember when a job at a big bank was one of the most aspirational career paths and the local bank manager was a highly regarded member of the community. As the banks centralized decisions and closed branches to increase profits, they reduced their ties with communities and the financial crash was really the nail in the coffin. Digital-only banks don’t carry this association, are delivering well to customer needs, and certainly do receive a more positive sentiment.

Bm: Accenture names its report “Purpose-Driven Banking”, stating that this is the way to go for banks that want to survive. What do you think about purpose in building a financial brand? Can such a business be truly purpose-driven or is it just smoke and mirrors?

JW: The report certainly highlights some interesting opportunities for banks to be better at proactively identifying and responding to help customers better manage their money. This is something many are already taking on as artificial intelligence and machine learning make delivering these services at scale far easier. From a brand standpoint, this approach certainly helps develop a stronger customer bond which, in turn, can be developed into economic gain.

Bm: What are your thoughts on how banks have responded to the acute needs of their customers, given the financial difficulties induced by the pandemic?

JW: In the main, UK banks have done pretty well in dealing with the effects of Covid-19. They’ve had to scale and adapt direct channels to deal with vastly increased consumer enquires as well as having to develop new ways to deliver government initiatives and handle applicants. They’ve not had it easy themselves with interest rates remaining low, increased bad debt expectations, and dividends being suspended.

We’ll really only know how they’ve come through this in the months to come as government aid is retracted and loan collections start.

Bm: What is your golden advice for marketers managing financial brands?


  1. Know your products inside out and understand how they meet customer needs in both a rational and emotional way.
  2. Watch how brands with more freedom in other markets succeed with new trends or channels and adopt the best into your plans.
  3. Don’t be seen as the coloring-in department – own the numbers. The only way you can engage leadership across the business is to tie activity back to the numerical impact in the business.

Cover image source: Thought Catalog