Published: 17 February 2010

Banking on branding: what charities can learn from corporate marketing

Dan Dufour summarises lessons we can learn from HSBC's marketing

HSBC is the largest European bank in the world. Its international network comprises around 8,500 offices, based in 86 countries in Europe, the Asia-Pacific, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa. So how do its marketing teams manage a strong and consistent global brand identity?

Rupert Bendall, global business marketing director at HSBC, and Barclays before that, outlined his approach to corporate brand management at the second Charity Brand Breakfast – and there is plenty the voluntary sector can learn.

  • Keep it consistent

Consistency is essential in building your market share, said Bendall. All brands, from banks to charities, should therefore resist the temptation to tinker with their brand identities too often. Whilst you can refresh a brand to keep it up to date, it shouldn’t change fundamentally for at least 10 years.

“Barclays changed or tinkered with its brand identity three or four times in the space of 10 years,” said Bendall. “It was not a good strategy – the result was that the brand equity eroded away and lost traction.”

  • Keep it simple

In a bid to strengthen its brand, Barclays identified the cyan colour and the eagle as the two parts of its identity that people most readily associated with them, and embraced them wholeheartedly. At the same time, it stripped away the parts that did not resonate with its audience.

Charity brand identities are often dominated by many different elements, and yet those with the most impact tend to keep it simple. Just look at Macmillan: using one colour, one unique typeface and one graphic style of silhouette has helped them to build awareness and market share. When it comes to building brand recognition, less is more.

  • Don’t be afraid to change

Back in the banking world, Barclays was sensitive to the danger of rebranding overnight. The bank thought its customers would become disillusioned, due to the sudden departure from familiar branding. However, this sensitivity was overplayed, as Abbey National’s swift rebranding as Santander has illustrated (although, it has had its costs: they’ve invested millions to change-over).

A swift rebrand is no bad tactic for voluntary sector organisations if brand awareness is low, as long as you let your supporters know what and why it is happening. But charities must ensure they follow it up with the same positive experience their supporters are used to. If you follow a rebrand up with poor customer experiences, warned Bendall, a red light will start flashing in the back of your customers’ minds.

  • Retain control

HSBC has a presence across the world in several different markets, said Bendall. Its brand has to work at different levels – from a global and local perspective – to remain credible; it is "The world’s local bank" after all. Despite being a big corporate brand, communications at a local level were fragmented; this is a common problem across the charity sector.

HSBC’s brand was being undermined by local individuality: different parts of the organisation had free reign on grabbing a piece of the brand equity, and were creating their own taglines on marketing materials. HSBC had to do something to keep the brand equity intact. The HSBC hexagon, first of all, was sacrosanct. It also had to maintain the basic colour pallet – red, black and white – colours that were "core HSBC".

  • Don’t rely on a logo alone

Bendall stressed that it had been key to keep the logo the same across all HSBC communications. However, there is more to your brand than this. “If you’re relying too much on just a logo, you are not doing enough to promote your brand,” said Bendall.

Another common problem in the charity sector is the heavy reliance on logos and logos alone. There should be one or two aspects of an organisation’s identity, besides the logo, that should be hardcoded into its brand DNA – whether it’s a bank or a charity.

  • Track awareness

HSBC uses a brand awareness scale that tracks where particular countries are in terms of familiarity with the bank’s brand: no awareness of the brand is at one end of the scale, whilst loving the brand is at the other. Alongside the awareness measurement is a list of the appropriate media output for each stage of the customer journey. It is designed to help the bank use the right message, in the right media, at the right time for each specific target audience, no matter the country.

It is crucial, said Bendall, you don’t transmit a message that is too targeted before brand awareness is at a certain level. People need to understand the brand first – something that applies to the voluntary sector too.

  • Make the brand available online

To make your brand fly, Bendall recommended setting up an externally-hosted marketing website. Agencies can use it as well as regional offices – that’s why it’s external. HSBC has one. All the images it buys and creates are on there, giving the bank more bang for its creative buck. It is far better that people are using quality artwork in their communication, and can download it in a format suitable to them. Bank or charity – a brand microsite will help keep your organisation on track.

Rupert Bendall was speaking at the second CharityComms Brand Breakfast at RNID on 26 January 2010.


Dan Dufour, brand strategist, The Team

Dan is one of the sector’s leading brand strategists. He has worked on brand development across all sectors including Rightmove, London 2012 and Cancer Research UK. He's best known for his award-winning work across all corners of the charity sector, including Shelter (Design Week Award), Parkinson’s UK (Design Effectiveness Award), RSPB (Third Sector Excellence Award) and Scope. Dan established CharityComms Brand Breakfast, proudly supported by The Teamand is an author of our best practice guides to branding and integrated communications.