Opinion

Do ‘reputation campaigns’ actually improve reputation?

Can changing public perception of your brand be as simple as refreshing your slogan? Crisis comms specialist Tony Jaques looks at recent financial scandals to assess how well Australian banks are handling reputation management.

No-one loves the banks. And their generally poor reputation is pretty much universal. But is the glossy reputation campaign just launched by the Bankers Association the right answer? And is the slogan ‘We’re making banking better for Australia’ believable?Tony Jaques

Many people think that banks fully deserve their dubious image. In fact ASIC Commissioner, John Price, recently cited a UK report which found 10 of the world’s leading banks racked up fines and misconduct costs of nearly £150 billion over a period of just five years. Which is impressive, even by banking standards.

The past few months have certainly seen banks in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. NAB and CBA caught out colluding on foreign currency trading.  Westpac entities accused of failing their consumers’ “best interests duty.”

ANZ and Macquarie Bank admitting cartel conduct on foreign exchange. NAB returning almost $35 million for financial advice it never delivered.

Bankwest refunding $5 million in overcharged mortgage interest. Morgan Stanley repaying $13 million after overcharging clients. CBA saying it has paid $23 million to customers for bad financial planning advice. And that’s just a very recent sample.

In addition, a new report from Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Kate Carnell, says big bank lending practices can cause “significant harm” to some small businesses.

Late last year, ANZ boss, Shayne Elliot, surprised a Parliamentary inquiry by admitting that the banks had lost touch with their customers.

“We had become too internally focused and forgotten our role in society and in the community at large,” he said. “That’s taken us down a path that’s cman with empty pockets brokereated … bad behaviours and poor culture, and really not treated customers with the respect that they deserve.”

True, Mr Elliott, and a good start. But maybe what’s needed is improved performance and a genuine halt to bad behaviour, rather than a generic banking confidence campaign. After all, brand is what you say about yourself, while reputation is what other people say about you.

Moreover, most customers want to see better performance by their own bank, not hopeful messages from an industry organisation they’ve likely never heard of.

As respected business journalist, Adele Ferguson, says: “If change is to occur, it will require more than a few mea culpas, Senate inquiries and a series of reviews conducted by bank-funded independent experts.”

The latest Australian Bankers Association initiative is undoubtedly well designed and well executed, with great visuals and embedded videos. And it’s certainly more professional than their previous disastrous strategy to secretly pay radio broadcasters to stop saying nasty things about them.

That effort led to the notorious “cash for comment” scandal of 1999.

But will this new bank campaign achieve its purpose? Indeed, what is the real purpose? It’s possible that the actual target is not the public at all. It may in fact be aimed primarily at politicians and regulators to try and fend off increasing calls for a wide-ranging inquiry into the finance industry.

Either way they should never forget the old maxim – Most corporate advertising is like wetting yourself in a dark suit. It briefly gives you a nice warm feeling . . .  but no-one notices.

Tony Jaques is the director at crisis communications company, Issues Outcomes

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