Striking the right tone: How financial brands can find their authentic personality

Alex Sword


The Financial Services Forum

Stimulated by new fintech upstarts and a growing recognition of the importance of brand, financial services has sought to shake off its dusty image in recent years.

Brands such as Monzo have consciously adopted a more friendly, human voice in customer communications. Social media has also played a role in forcing adaptation, with even the B2B-focused LinkedIn seeing a marked recent growth in people sharing more personal opinions and stories.

“The main problem financial brands face is brushing off their traditional status as cold and intimidating,” Jessica Myers, Brand and Marketing Director at Metro Bank, tells the Financial Services Forum. “But by showing customers the human side of the brand, you can forge connections based on trust instead of fear.”

She adds that newer players such as Metro Bank, which launched in 2010, have played a key role in shaking up the industry.

“It’s really a case of new dog, new tricks. Communication in the finance industry has stayed the same for years, so fintech start-ups have had an open goal opportunity to turn the tide – just like we did when we opened our doors in 2010. We knew that to challenge the status quo and tackle the real problems people face when banking, we had to communicate in a different way.”

Kevin Chesters, Partner at Harbour Collective, says that brands have traditionally mistakenly felt they have to be serious and “rational” when talking about money, due to its status as a taboo topic in British society.

He counters that “there are no rational topics with humans. We respond to emotion.”

Philip Davies, EMEA President at Siegel+Gale, says that an irreverent positioning can be a differentiator and help to create a “healthy lack of respect” for financial services’ “starchy” reputation.


Humanising the smart way

While the industry is moving in the right direction, the humanising of financial services is still a work in progress. Some companies are talking the talk without reflecting the change across their organisations.

This could mean taking a humorous tone on social media or the company website while pushing out the same bland, “blue” advertisement in all the usual places. Marketing messages might enthuse about a brand’s approachability while offering the same old tedious customer service experience.

Philip of Siegel+Gale says irreverent positioning “isn’t for tourists.”

“It must be lived and breathed as a true part of positioning over a long period of time,” he says. “Otherwise it risks being nothing more than a hollow gesture.”

For one thing, if this tone is only applied to one area of communication, it will seem inauthentic and bolted on.

Shelby Haslam, Director of Strategy at agency Mobas, says that while tones and styles can vary across different channels, it is essential to have a core “personality” underpinning everything.

“What we sometimes find, particularly when brands are trying to communicate through some of the social media channels, is that, yes, their tone needs to be right for the channel but they’re just becoming schizophrenic. How they look and sound on Twitter is completely different to how their website might look and sound. That’s where the consumer confidence in a brand breaks down.”

Just like an individual has a personality underpinning all of their social interactions, so must a brand, Shelby argues. Without a core personality, brands can sound aimless, and the tone might reflect the tone of voice of the individual running an account rather than that of the company.

Part of the issue is in the use of metrics. Measuring success through clicks or likes, Shelby notes, can simply incentivise popular posts such as kitten memes or videos.

“How many of those people who click then actually convert? What kind of traffic are we attracting? Are they actually taking the right messages away from us?

“I’d much rather have half the engagement and twice the level of interest from the right people than just lots and lots of social media metrics in terms of volumes.”

Metro’s Jess Myers also emphasises the importance of living the brand across all customer interactions.

“At Metro Bank, we [embody our brand] by nurturing and following our core brand values: building a strong community spirit, supporting our customers and putting real people back into banking.

“However our customers interact with us, whether it’s in store, over the phone or online, they’ll always know we’re here to help them – consistency is key to cutting through the noise.”

“It’s vital to make your words authentic, while staying acutely aware of your communication touchpoints and the individual circumstances you’re dealing with.”

Targeting irreverence, conversational language or humour as ends in themselves are unlikely to have the right results. These things need to flow from an authentic brand position.

“It’s much more important for a brand to portray itself authentically, than for a brand to try too hard to be different,” explains Emily Rule, Head of Planning at Wunderman Thompson.

“Irreverence is only one aspect of a potentially brilliant brand,” says Philip of Siegel+Gale. “To have truly earned that accolade a brand must also be made of truth and simplicity. And as the inveterate fibber understands, truth is simplicity.”

Jessica Myers suggests “finding the right biting point.”

“When it comes to banking, trying to be funny in the wrong moment or about the wrong topic can alienate your customers.

“In a nutshell, it’s paramount not to shoehorn humour into your communications, but stick to a relatable brand voice where the funny comes naturally – just like it does in conversation with friends.”


Finding a personality

So how can brands find this core personality and voice? A brand personality might sound like something ethereal and emotional, but to embed it across an organisation of tens or hundreds of individuals requires a systematic plan and framework.

Agency Mobas tries to systematise this process as much as possible, conducting extensive interviews both with people in the business and with customers and other stakeholders.

“The brand definition has got to be right for everybody from the marketing team to the guys in ops, to sales, to customer complaints,” says Shelby. “They’ve got to understand and help shape that brand persona and definition.

“Critically, it needs to be also aligned to what the customers think are important. Sometimes [the customer view] a thing that a business takes for granted, which is actually why they’re winning business.”

Metro Bank also takes a systematic approach to defining personality.

“To strike the perfect balance we have three voice principles in place, which have been defined by our brand personality: meaningful, maverick, and magnetic. Depending on who we’re speaking to and why, we dial the volume up and down on these pillars to hit the right note and give the very best service.”

“Think about why the brand exists in the first place,” says Emily of Wunderman Thompson. “What role does it play in people’s lives? Its personality must marry up with its role. And help people relate to the brand on an emotional level.”

Ian Bates, Founder and Creative Partner at Firehaus sums it up: “Seek your truth. Be authentic. Be consistent – not just in messaging but in behaviour too.”

He adds: “Focus on Brand Behaviour and get a diverse and inclusive cross-section of your employees engaged in a co-creation process. You’ll need independent outside support to achieve this (you simply have to be challenged otherwise it will be pointless) but develop a brand behaviour that’s consistent with your positioning, brand idea and values.”

This work around defining the personality helps avoid issues further down the line, Shelby of Mobas says. If employees truly understand the business and what it stands for, they will be confident and proud to evangelise this.

Beyond defining this personality, it must be embedded in the organisation.

“Revamping your brand voice will only be successful if you get buy-in from everyone across the business – because they can’t sound like you if they don’t believe in you,” says Jessica.

“At Metro Bank, we’ve embedded our brand voice into our day-to-day culture, long-term brand strategy, and the very foundations of our business by making sure it clearly reflects what we stand for. We run workshops, create engaging and shareable content and make sure every colleague acts as a brand voice ambassador to maintain momentum across the business as a whole.”

“You are who you are, right?” says Kevin of Harbour Collective. “The biggest thing you need to do is you bring people with you. If these things are seen as just adverts, then that’s very difficult.”

Image: alvarez

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