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The tricky art of corporate makeover: Abbey gives rebranding another try

By Ian Fraser

Sunday Herald

March 6th, 2005

Abbey CEO Luqman Arnold and customer director Angus Porter unveil the new look. Picture courtesy of BBC

The building society turned bank is to shed its ‘dress shop’ image in a bid to win back customers. Ian Fraser questions the logic

IT may go down as one of the biggest rebranding disasters in corporate history.

When, in September 2003, Luqman Arnold, then chief executive of Abbey National, declared the institution was “turning banking on its head” by shortening its name to Abbey and slapping a lower-case logo in pastel shades on its branches and product literature, there were a few raised eyebrows. In Scotland there was much gnashing of teeth as it emerged insurance brands Scottish Provident and Scottish Mutual were for the chop.

The exercise – which brought an end to Abbey’s famous “couple under an umbrella” logo – was overseen by brand agency Wolf Ollins at a cost of some £11 million. It was led by former Abbey director Angus Porter, who when at Mars rebranded Opal Fruits as Starbursts, and recently left the bank with a near £1m pay-off.

In marketing terms, however, the rebrand was a clear disaster. Last year, pre-tax profits in Abbey’s core retail business shrank by 20% to £814m compared with 2003 and there was another big slump in market share. New mortgage lending is also down year on year from 9.9% to 3.1%, reducing its overall mortgage share from 10.7% to 8.6%.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that, a mere 17 months after the last rebrand, Abbey’s new owner, Banco Santander Central Hispano, is changing the look yet again.

Out goes the former “dress shop” image and back comes upper case “A” into the Abbey name. Instead of four pastel shades, there will now be just one colour, bright red. To show that it now has the clout of a powerful global financial services group behind it, Abbey is also adopting the Spanish bank’s “flame” symbol.

An £8m branch refurbishment programme kicks off in May – before the last one is even complete. Arnold’s bid to make the branches look less intimidating failed because it was a purely cosmetic exercise. Despite the “dress shop” ambition, customers’ experience remained much the same.

“It’s as if Abbey was ashamed of being a financial services company and wanted to be something else,” said one Scottish marketing expert. “Often management teams rush out and change the logo when this is, in fact, the last place they should look. You have to change the core values before anything else.”

Derek Mabbott, senior manager at London-based branding specialist Prophet agrees: “The last rebrand of Abbey has become a classic example of how not to do re-branding. Pastel shades and quirky ads do not sell financial services, or anything else for that matter.

“With its current rebrand, Santander is trying to draw a line under the events of the last few years. It is seeking to give itself and Abbey customers a fresh start. The new logo is simply a sign saying ‘under new management’. What really matters is what that new management delivers for customers, not the sign over the door.”

However Derek Reid, managing director of Scottish advertising agency 1576 believes Abbey’s latest rebrand is “a classic case of a new owner weighing in with clumsy boots. It’s a regressive step that is fairly dull and corporate.” He says he prefers the “subtlety” of Arnold’s “bold move”.

One error made by Abbey’s former owners was to unveil their new look ahead of any staff re-education programme. Marketing experts say this contrasts with the approach adopted by Glasgow-based Clydesdale Bank, part of National Australia Bank (NAB).

Martin Holmes, head of brand development at NAB Europe, says Clydesdale’s recent burst of marketing activity followed a nine-month intensive survey of how staff and customers perceive the brand. Four key “brand values” emerged from the research: trust, empowerment, approachability and expertise.

Before embarking on any advertising or marketing, Clydesdale ensured staff went through what it termed “brand training” – after which more than 70% were able to cite the bank’s brand values, with 75% claiming the process meant they could do their job better. Only then did Clydesdale launch its slew of marketing initiatives. These included its first TV campaign in six years, created by Edinburgh-based agency Story.

Dave Mullen, creative director at Story, says: “Each of the ads was designed to communicate one of the four values … But the theme was that people only want a relationship with their bank when they need it most; they no longer want a friend for life. The campaign is unexaggerated, low-key and genuine.”

He says this differs greatly from the approach favoured by HBOS, whose ads for Halifax and Bank of Scotland tend to be full of showmanship and bombast. Mullen said: “To construct an epic using their own staff is not particularly truthful or honest. The one with the swan was ludicrous.”

Sue Mullen, Story’s managing director, says HBOS’s ads focus too much on interest rates which “is not a long-term strategy”.

But Mabbott stands up for HBOS, which last week unveiled a 22% rise in profits to £4.59 billion saying the bank does indeed offer something worth making a song and dance about. He too believes products and services must come before the “gloss” of new logos and ads.

Mabbott says: “Halifax’s success has been built upon a series of compelling product offerings, delivered well. The campaign has been a bonus, not the driver of that success.”

“I cannot see the latest rebrand being a problem for Abbey. It matters far less what the colour of the logo is, and more what products it offers.”

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2 Comments for “The tricky art of corporate makeover: Abbey gives rebranding another try”

  1. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising. If you start to muck about with a company’s brand, from values to position to logo, you’re in for a rough ride because suddenly you’ve made the familiar unfamiliar. Corporate history is littered with the aftermath of companies that tried to fix what wasn’t broken, from New Coke to Abbey.

  2. Lovely work – come and take a look at my site sometime soon

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