Why HSBC's marketing chief is taking the banking brand back to the future

Fresh from reassigning HSBC's global media account, group head of marketing Leanne Cutts is exploring the bank's roots to make its strategy fit for the digital world.

Why HSBC's marketing chief is taking the banking brand back to the future

The escalator chugs upwards, dragging hundreds of besuited office workers closer to their respective destinations. Most stare downwards, entranced by the images emanating from their smartphones. A few, however, peer upwards, their interest piqued by a giant poster offering a view of Hong Kong over a century ago alongside today’s glistening skyscrapers.  

The location is London’s Canary Wharf, and the image is a taster of HSBC’s new approach to marketing, one which its prime architect - HSBC’s group head of marketing Leanne Cutts - says will help to modernise the 153 year-old bank and sustain its growth for another century to come. 

Cutts and her team decided to best way to proceed was to wind back to the clock to brand’s earliest roots, and simplify a marketing plan made complex by the passing of decades

At face value, Australian-born Cutts appears an unlikely fit for one of the world’s largest financial services providers. Her career to date has been dominated by roles at FMCG companies including Unilever, GSK and Mondelez International, most recently as the latter’s president for gum, candy and beverages across the Asia Pacific, Africa and Middle East regions.

In the wake of the departure of many experienced HSBC marketers, including predecessor Chris Clark, colleagues would have been forgiven for questioning the wisdom of entrusting one of the UK’s most powerful brands in the hands of a marketer more used to selling ice creams and chocolate bars. However, for Cutts it is precisely such outside thinking that is necessary for the organisation to future-proof itself.

The job, she explains, appealed on a number of levels. As well as offering the chance to lead a brand famous beyond the confines of banking, and promising a pleasingly international scope ("it’s Asia born-and-bred but with global ambition, and that kind of describes me and my career"), Cutts was drawn by the opportunity to, no less, "transform financial services marketing" as we know it.

Cutts and her team decided to best way to proceed was to wind back to the clock to brand’s earliest roots, and simplify a marketing plan made complex by the passing of decades. The result is a new visual architecture, including an updated typeface and logo, and a renewed emphasis on HSBC’s "hexagon" logo.

The logo - first introduced 35 years ago but harking back to the colonial-era "house flag" used by the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in the 19th century - has begun taking centre stage in ads, with the constituent red and white triangles replaced with other images relevant to the products and services being advertised.

"Global brands like HSBC are precious things, and deserve a lot of respect and attention. It is only right to look at the assets we have in service of growth. HSBC has always been where the growth is, so how does that brand continue to be fit for that ambition? It’s going back to what has made us great, and [understanding] how we can continue to get even better in the future," Cutts says.

"The ‘hexagon’ is an amazing device, as well known outside of financial services as within. Most of our transactions with customers are digital, so having something easily recognisable is incredibly powerful. It helps the customer to cut through the clutter. If you talk to the designers we’ve worked with on the brand, they all agree you couldn’t have designed an icon that is so fit for any screen. It’s a remarkable piece of design." 

Don’t call it a strapline

The other major change to result from last year’s period of introspection was the emergence of a new "brand promise".

After the very public decision to drop its long-running "World’s local bank" strapline, in light of cuts to services in smaller, less profitable markets, HSBC opted against introducing a replacement endline.

The decision was understandable: such was the prominence of the line, that any follow-up would likely have been subject to unfavourable comparisons. However, as a consequence, many consumers and employees alike continued to think of HSBC as the "World’s local bank".  

That gap has now finally been filled, with HSBC’s marketing to be built around the line "Together we thrive". The concept arose from discussions about the bank’s Cantonese colloquial name "Wayfoong", and its local language characters, which roughly translate as meaning an "abundance of remittances". Cutts and her team seized on the idea of shared prosperity, and began working with local marketing teams and customers to devise versions for each market.

"There was a lot of debate around whether you need a strapline, so we’ve deliberately called it a brand promise. I think the day are gone where you’d slap something across every piece you find. You want to meet the customer at their channel of choice, and to have a communications strategy that works for them. There will be places where ‘Together we thrive’ will feel relevant, but it won’t go on everything," Cutts says.

"As we started to share [‘Together We Thrive’] internally and with customers it really resonated. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you start from - you could be a retail customer or a large corporate customer - ‘thrive’ is a commitment, it is forward-looking, it has a sense of promise."

The line made its debut in HSBC’s first quarter retail banking campaign, as well as via a corporate banking sponsored content partnership with CNBC. In the UK bank’s "Global Citizen" ad, by J Walter Thompson, comedian Richard Ayoade emphasised the international aspects of everyday British life, from Colombian coffee to Swedish flat-pack furniture and Indian takeaways. The ad proved a hit with UK consumers, and has been viewed more than 35 million times online - a very respectable total for a piece of financial services marketing communications.

It saw HSBC strike out against the isolationist and protectionist rhetoric of Trump and Brexit, but Cutts argues the campaign was popular with followers of all political parties. "Our values of openness and interdependability go very deep. It showed our point of view on the world, it was distinctive, and we make no apologies for that. It felt like a mirror image of who we are as a bank. [But] it was fascinating to see that, wherever you sit on the political spectrum, people interpreted [the ad] in relation to their own world view," she says

"Part of the reason for that is that we’re known for being open and connected, and we’re known for that tone [of voice] and intelligent wit. That was very important for us. It was unmistakably HSBC."

However, while the ad struck a chord in the UK, Cutts adds that campaigns in other markets will be tailored to suit local tastes: "We are committed to the UK, we’ve been here a long time, [so] it felt true to HSBC in the UK. [But] if you see some of the work we may do in, say, Mexico or Hong Kong, it won’t look like that. We want brand architecture that is loose in the right place and tight in the right places.

"There will be things that are consistent around the world, but it doesn’t mean you have to say it in exactly the same way everywhere. That time [has gone], I don’t think it’s helpful anymore."

Little by little

Rather than "flicking a switch", the new branding will be introduced in a "phased approach", with an intention to learn from the experience of each market roll-out and to engage in "iterative co-creation" with customers.

For Cutts, this represents a more appropriate strategy in the era of digital marketing and data-led communications. "The media landscape has changed so dramatically, it’s not just a case of ‘job done’, it’s more about doing this iteratively. We can get further along that journey to what is personal and relevant messages and communications to customers," she says.

With consumers moving continuously between online and offline environments, service brands like HSBC are under pressure to ensure they are reaching consumers at their channel of choice - be that in branch, on the telephone, using internet banking or engaging with a chatbot on a messaging app.

HSBC judges the need for investment in digital channels based on three criteria: does it make life "simpler" for customers, offer "better access" and a "faster turnaround"? From becoming the first company to internationally roll out Face ID on its corporate banking mobile app, to allowing Mexican customers to activate bank cards in-branch, Cutts claims that data has been "at the heart" of its innovation programme.

Capitalising on new Open Banking regulations decreeing that banks must share data from consenting customers with third parties, HSBC last month launched a new app, Connected Money, which allows users to view all bank accounts on a single screen, no matter the provider.

It is an example of the brand’s increasingly active relationship with the fintech start-up community, Cutts says, which she argues has injected a "dose of energy" into the business. Both parties share the "common goal" of creating more personally-relevant and tailored services, and "helping" consumers to manage their finances in a more intuitive way, she insists.

"Data has moved from being a blunt instrument to being far more targeted. I would much rather than somebody to nudge me on the things I want to do, for example to save for a holiday, than to get spammed about things that have no relevance to my life. [We need to] have a partnership with customers. It has to be personal, credible and relevant. Trust is then an outcome of that."

The desire to personalise messaging perhaps hints at the motivation behind HSBC’s decision to hand its estimated $400m (£298m) global media planning and buying business to Omnicom’s PHD Media, ending a 13-year partnership with WPP’s Mindshare - and prompting a slew of international media headlines linking the decision to Sir Martin Sorrell’s departure from the group.

Speaking to Campaign before the announced switch in agencies, Cutts reveals that suppliers have been instructed to bring a positive attitude to the table. "When we first briefed agencies, one of the things I talked about was the importance for us of being motivated by hope and not fear. It is very easy to fall into that trap of being worried. The invitation we laid out for agency partners is to be [guided by] hope," she says.

"We have an agency ecosystem than morphs and changes all the time depending on what we need, and I really like that. It is an open architecture approach to agencies. I am looking for agency partners that understand the importance of flexibility. That doesn’t mean you don’t have good planning, rigour and all those things, but you want to be agile enough to be able to respond to what that changing landscape is going to look like in five years’ time.

"I’m looking for partners that will help us to navigate that, and support us through that, and not one that has one particular way of looking at the world and that’s it. I see that from the agencies. I’ve been really encouraged by the work that we’ve done since we arrived, whether that is from creative partners, media partners, technology partners or something in between, because they are going through their own transformation," Cutts adds.

The importance of being bored

This positive mental approach reflects a marketer who clearly thinks carefully about her interactions with colleagues, customers and the world around her. With Cutts’ family still based in Japan while her daughter completes her education, and regular long-haul flights to all corners of the globe to check on the progress of local teams an inevitable part of the job ("I live on a plane!" she jokes), she is an evangelist for the importance of managing mind and body.

"We’re at our best when we manage our energy. It’s how you show up in those hours that makes the difference. One of the opportunities on long-haul flights is to stare out of the window and to let your brain do the work it should be doing. Distraction is one of the challenges of our age," she says.

"Note to Self", a podcast hosted by Manoush Zomorodi focusing on the impact of technology on everyday life, is a favourite, along with the Star Wars movie franchise. And her ideal getaway from the stresses and strains of running a global banking brand? "Waking up in a new city and going exploring and eating, and finding a really good flat white. It’s Australia’s greatest gift to the world, right?!"

For the moment, however, that flat white will be on order to help fuel Cutts’ desire to usher in an era of "conversational banking" at HSBC, and to ensure the brand "thrives" under her leadership.

"We have more opportunity now than ever before to have the right kind of information about our customers, to allow us to design our products and services, and to get feedback on those. We have lots more to come. It is going to be really exciting over the next few years as we put those things together," she says.

"This is just the start."