All about the brand

RBS Outside In

Rita Clifton is Chairman of BrandCap – a specialist consultancy which helps organisations shape and build their brand. She’s passionate about the importance of brand, having witnessed it first-hand on the numerous boards she has sat on and advised. Here, Rita shares her thoughts on why brand should be the first and last thing any company considers

Brand is the most important and sustainable asset any organisation has. From retail to corporate to industrial, from consumer to business-to-business and even charities, from start-ups to major global enterprises, and yes – very much in financial services.

The brand is the thing that lives on after the founder or early leaders have left (or died). After buildings may have fallen down, after the original products and services have become obsolete – brand will continue to generate loyalty and value for its stakeholders.

Don’t just take my word for it. When Warren Buffet (one of the world’s most successful investors) was speaking to his peers at a conference in Frankfurt, he was asked for his thoughts on the most important criteria used to judge the future success of a business. In third place he said a strong balance sheet, in second he said a strong management team, and in first place – yes – he said brand.

If you’ve got a strong brand you’ve got a loyal customer. That means more security of income, more security of earnings and so more security of employment for everyone. Warren Buffet doesn’t like to take risks. He recognises that strong brands give you greater return for less risk.

Missing the point

Funnily enough, I was speaking at a financial services conference in Frankfurt just a few months before Warren Buffet. Ahead of me on the schedule was a panel talking about the short term prospects for markets. The room was packed and people were standing in the aisles.

The conference chairman announced that the next speaker – me – would be talking about the value of branding in financial services. Before I was able to even stand up, let alone open my mouth, about a third of the room got up and walked out. They thought branding was about logos and ad campaigns – the domain of marketing departments and nothing to do with them. To say this misses the point is an understatement. And a dangerous assumption at any time – let alone in a hypercompetitive and digital world where everything and everybody’s actions count.

Brand strategy is the alter ego of business strategy. To work properly, brand has to be about everything you do, inside and outside, that can make a distinctive difference. From the way you answer the phone, to the way you recruit, train and incentivise people to live up to your brand promise to the customer. In this world, it’s no use a company pretending they’re a smiley customer service organisation on the outside if they have a very different culture on the inside. And anyone in an organisation can either destroy value or act as an advocate for what the brand stands for.

Clarity, consistency and leadership

This means that any business needs to show clarity, consistency and leadership in its brand. Clarity of what you stand for and how that differs from the competition, consistency of how that shows up through everything you do, inside and out, and leadership – both in terms of leaders symbolising the best values and the company showing restlessness and innovation to stay ahead.

Think Apple for the best example – clarity about humanising technology, consistency about how this shows up through its delicious products, in-store service and people development, not to mention its visionary leadership.

A strong brand can help a company come back from the dead. Think Toyota and how it was associated with deadly accelerator problems – something that contrasted with its previous brand reputation for quality and reliability. Interestingly, it was through their people and their re-commitment to quality standards that they were able to rebuild their brand reputation to almost pre-crisis levels. Let’s see if Tesco can do the same with good brand thinking.

And for RBS? Well, there’s everything to play for in the financial services category. What’s for sure is that it’ll be down to everyone helping to make it work.

“If you’ve got a strong brand you've got a loyal customer. That means more security of income, more security of earnings and so more security of employment for everyone”