Bank flip-flops: why the money men should keep it simple

Philip Davies, the president of branding agency Siegel + Gale, explains why banks need to keep things simple.

Barclays: changing image every few years leads to confusion
Barclays: changing image every few years leads to confusion

Having publicly ousted its chief executive, it’s interesting to see that Barclays is looking to spiff itself up in all manner of departments.

A leaked internal memo from the ‘interim’ chief executive reveals that the bank has sought to establish a new dress code. One new rule is a ban on the wearing of flip-flops to work.

You might have thought that an organisation beset by recent scandals need not be concerning itself with sandals.

And with all sorts of new entrants snapping at its heels, determining the precise nature of smart casual might not necessarily be its highest priority, but it might also reveal something about how Barclays rolls.

Other notable sartorial observations include no jeans, T-shirts or trainers. But it’s the flip-flops that have caught the eye.

Given that most banks' private and public images and identities are so frequently unrelated, it’s interesting to witness the introspection of this famous financial services powerhouse.

And given that communications from financial services organisations are all too frequently of the metaphorical kind, it’s too easy to reflect on the very nature of flip-flopping when it comes to brand.

Barclays and the majority of banks must really enjoy branding. They spend so much time working on their own and with such frequency. And there’s the problem. Changing image every few years leads to confusion in the minds of both consumers and employees.

The road from confusion to mistrust is a very short one. The minute you think you know who the bank is and what it stands for, it goes and changes to something else. Why? Is there a streak of schizophrenia in the banking world? It certainly would appear so.

Consider this. In the last 20 years Barclays has had nearly ten different brand ideas which have then each had their own taglines, image styles and campaign themes.

HSBC, on the other hand, needed only one for the same period of time and has only recently changed, mostly because the bank wanted to broaden what was perceived as primarily retail banking.

But ten brands in 20 years for Barclays? That’s an obsession with identity that would make the combined vanities of the Kardashians and Beckhams feel a bit self-obsessed.

No wonder then that it's fretting over its clobber. A glance over at a brilliant brand from another sector: Nike has only needed one brand idea "to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world" expressed with the tagline "Just do it" since 1988. Reebok has had a dozen in the same period.

Changing image so frequently brings unnecessary complexity, which is not helpful in an industry that so badly needs to be trusted and relied upon. Swapping image and style and message every few years clouds any understanding that might exist in the minds of those that need to know you.

Which tells us three things that any bank should do: Find a way to express why you do what you do. Determine what your brand stands for. Express it and help people experience it with simplicity.

Obscurification alienates. And the more you look at banks the more you feel they could do well to deploy more simplicity in everything they do.

Because fundamentally banking, particularly at the retail end of the game, is a simple business; it’s just populated by sophisticated people who choose to make it complicated.

So while Barclays is smartening itself up, it should also be reminded that simple is smart.

Philip Davies is the president of Siegel + Gale

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