There’s something fresh brewing in the South African financial services sector, and it’s not stronger coffee to deal with the recession. Dynamic, flexible and responsive, it’s a new breed of financial services brands that is prioritising customers over flashy marketing, and putting its money where its mouth is.
Here’s the thing, South Africa has a robust financial services sector that has stood the test of time through several global meltdowns. There are many brands that have been part of this heritage and have done well to weather these storms. While financial services brands are not the most agile kids on the block, they know they must remain relevant, and have regularly rebranded themselves to maintain pace with the rapid-fire evolution of the world around us.
However, rebranding is not about window dressing. It’s an inside job – a shift that happens within an organisation among its staff to produce real results. This is called internal branding, and it’s as significant as external branding. Because having fancy TV commercials and catchy slogans that promise the world mean nothing if staff can’t deliver on that promise.
My ultimate definition of a brand is, ‘a promise made is a promise kept’. Brands that make promises with no tangible follow-through are just indulging in marketing spin. Brands that deliver? That’s customer service. And that’s exactly what these next-generation financial brands are focusing on. They’re building their businesses from the bottom up, putting the customer first, cultivating a strong customer-centric internal culture around that that strips away superfluous red tape and processes, and then finally creating branding, a logo and a slogan to pull it all together.
This approach is essential to the financial services sector right now because financial products (largely) look similar, have similar functions and offer similar outcomes. Where is the differentiation? What makes a customer put their money with one financial services brand and not another? The deciding factor is customer service, and meeting customer expectations head-on. In the financial services industry, this translates into competitive advantage – an indispensable brand attribute in this economic climate.
Understandably, pursuing a truly service-centric approach for legacy brands that already have well-entrenched existing systems and cultures in place, can seem daunting. However, as the old adage dictates, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the next best time is today. Brands can undertake internal branding exercises at any time to nurture this customer-oriented, service-rich culture.
In fact, this will become an imperative for financial services organisations in the future if they are to compete with these feisty new-generation brands that seek to truly delight their customers. For these start-ups, service excellence comes standard.
Internal branding is based on three pillars: putting the customer at the heart of the brand, building organisational capability, and developing infrastructural support.
Putting the customer at the centre of a business doesn’t only sound obvious, it sounds like a cliché. However, it’s incredible to see how many organisations – when they re-evaluate their business strategies – have inadvertently moved away from primarily servicing their customers. This first pillar isn’t about conceptualising a marketing campaign that talks about putting customers first, and it’s not lip service either. It’s a solid commitment to base every decision around the customer.
Building organisational capability points to the importance of authentic leadership commitment. Again, this is not some poetic statement by the board on customer-centricity that then gets relegated to the marketing department for use in the latest ad campaign that nobody remembers in six months’ time.
CEOs must be invested in the process. Entire senior management teams must be invested in the process. Significant resources must be invested in the process. This is not a project to be simply initiated or guided by a company’s leadership, it needs to be owned by it. Internal branding should be the CEO’s most important commitment.
Global brands like Virgin, Google, Starbucks and so on, have entwined customer-centricity with the DNA of their businesses. The charismatic founders of these organisations recognised the power of positive customer experiences, and have woven these qualities into the very fabric of their organisational DNA.
Finally, organisations must implement systems to facilitate these experiences and service delivery. Cultivating powerful customer-centric cultures without the necessary infrastructure to support them is a fruitless exercise.
In the absence of these three factors, internal branding exercises deteriorate into marketing veneer. Updating a brand’s look, crafting a catchy new slogan, and rolling out cool marketing stuff while everything else remains the same is tantamount to putting lipstick on a pig.
Internal branding is not a branding exercise. It’s a continuous commitment to the longevity of the brand and its ongoing competitiveness. It’s a catalyst to building high-performance organisations, and is the glue that holds these organisations together.
Employees find their common ground in a company’s culture, because it connects them to the organisation’s purpose. In multicultural, multidisciplinary institutions like those in South Africa, internal branding is the magic dust at the centre of the organisation that binds us all together, unified in our goals. When it comes to branding, what could be more powerful than that?