This is the second in a series of three articles looking at the issue of trust in financial services. The basis of the article comes from a report into FS brand body language by Brand Edge, published in March 2014 in association with Whitecap Consulting.

Financial services (FS) brands exist to be commercially successful. As the first blog in this series discussed, the key enabler to acquiring customers is winning their trust. This article explores the language and ‘feel’ that brands in the sector attempt to convey to appeal to their target audience’s ‘trust instinct’ and start the conversation.

True value for FS brands comes through long-term relationships. In the past where customers might have been limited to choice by their geographic location or the inconvenience of switching provider, brands could be forgiven for a touch of complacency. Among other things, the internet has given the customer greater choice and simplicity for switching provider more frequently.

A Human Connection

One way brands have attempted to win trust is to elevate the basic product above the level of the commodity to communicate empathy and closeness. They want their customer to feel as if the brand is ‘on their level’.

They’ve made an effort to convey warmth and friendliness (to break the old codes of big authority and big business) and bring the brand closer to people.

Using verbal language, here are some recent examples that make the brand collegiate:

                  ‘You and Your money’

                  ‘Here for You’ (RBS)

                  ‘On Your Side’ (Nationwide)

                  ‘What matters to you, matters to us’ (Lloyds)

The ‘staff as star’ technique (made iconic by Halifax and used by Nat West) means brands can visually communicate to customers using the qualities of their staff, which are essentially ordinary traits. This creates a personalisation and humanisation of the face to face element of the brand.

The physical environment of the branch, in particular the ‘coffee shop’ style architecture with clusters of seating, employed by brands like Virgin, is designed to foster intimacy, connection and conversation. The customer feels comfortable in the environment.

Look and feel extends to creating a shared empathy as it works (at a product and service level) to solve everyday money needs. Everyday banking has been streamlined and real money crises are avoided through technological innovation, like Nat West’s ‘emergency cash’ solution for lost cards which uses a lone woman out at night as a ‘real’ life scenario.

A brand that is connected to its communities is a brand that cares and is not out to feather its own nest – a direct confrontation to the preconception that FS brands exist for this very purpose, although it is fair to say the public remain sceptical about corporate social responsibility if they remain diametrically opposed to other high profile activities associated negatively with the brand.

Community presence is a value at the heart of the Co-op’s positioning (putting their recent trading issues aside), so it feels more authentic and is communicated with greater conviction as a result – this conviction then spreads into all that the Co-op creates and says.

Of course, when customers feel the trust has been broken in what is essentially an environment built to create trust, it makes the rebuilding process significantly harder. Where does a brand go to recreate something as important as trust?

Back to Simplicity

FS brands have now committed to rediscovering old values. Nat West are talking ‘high street’ and ‘branch’ again to root the brand in a sense of place, where globalization might have moved it away in the conscience of the customer.

Brands are now jargon-free zones. This makes it easier to choose the product that is ‘right for me.’

Financial planning has moved from mastery and control towards something accessible and common sense. NatWest use a language of ‘chat’ and ‘talking’, while Barclays are about ‘small steps’.

By association, the brand that truly ‘knows’ is the brand that can distill the complex into the simple

Verbally brands use a lexicon that includes ‘straightforward,’ ‘easy steps’.

Tools that enable consumers to do the maths, compare the sums and figure out what will work for them is empowering and transparent. It is also convenient and says ‘this brand respects my intelligence’.

Visually, the use of black and white are used to signify a product that is unambiguous. Humour and music are used to lighten the load, and signify ease and effortlessness.  The use of cartoon illustration also works to code the brand into a parental role (so it is inherently safer/more trustworthy), although this must be managed carefully as it can sometimes infantilise the consumer.

Blue is the dominant colour of the financial services category and is not differentiating. It is a constant colour in our lives, the colour of sea and sky and works to signify TRUST via symbolic associations with dependability, rationality, commitment, dependability.

Blue also communicates intelligence and rationality and is often highlighted with red (an advancing colour that signifies energy, vibrancy, passion) because it injects energy into blue which can feel benign or cold.

Emerging Themes and Codes Around Trust

1…                  Warts and all

Consumers don’t expect brands to be flawless.  Consumers embrace and trust brands that are still brilliant despite having flaws; even being flawed (and being open about it) can be a positive.

Brands that show some empathy, generosity, humility, flexibility, maturity, humour, and humanity are trusted.

This code responds to the fact that consumers are benefiting from almost total and utter transparency (and finding out about flaws anyway), as a result of the torrent of readily available reviews, leaks and ratings.

First Direct Live was the tool that came closest to a true commitment, it collated and published all the feedback about the brand from a number of different digital sources (positive and negative) – a brand that has a good track record in customer service shows that it is confident and that it is responsive

2…                  Origins and history

The old version of this code was about big authority, the idea that you can TRUST a brand that has been around for a long time, it is steadfast, it has know-how and expertise.

The new manifestation of this code positions heritage as earning the right (and the trust) to be innovative and brave. The heritage brand becomes the challenger brand, it can be trusted to change the status quo for the better because it has been around a long time.

Virgin Money leveraged the ‘old challenger’ idea well with the ‘40 years of better’ theme.

3…                  Well(thy)

Sociologists have called the times we are living in (post economic crisis) ‘The Great Transition,’ and argue that wealth is being re-defined around the guiding principle of a more human definition of what’s important – people want to have nice stuff and do nice stuff (they need money), but they also want to feel like they are living a meaningful, connected life.   

In his influential work, The Economics of Happiness, Mark Anielski defines 2 new important categories of wealth:

* PERSONAL CAPITAL: The capabilities of mind, body, spirit

* SOCIAL CAPITAL: The quality and strength of interpersonal, social and community relations

There is evidence of financial services brands speaking to PERSONAL CAPITAL and SOCIAL CAPITAL as a means to enable consumers to  trust in the brand that can make them (WELL) THY

HSBC (personal finance) speaks to wealth as an enabler of meaningful lifestyle choices.

4…                  Right for me

This code is an evolution of “REAL EVERYDAY PEOPLE and the RELATIONSHIP” away from care and empathy (which are now a given) to brands really proving that they ‘get me’ by targeting products and solutions that feel tailored and intuitively right.

Santander’s proposition, ‘value from ideas’is the idea of offering consumers better products because they are integrated (a result of the brand merger) innovative and fresh.

In Poland financial services brands actually involve customers in the creation of products. One of the country’s main banks, BZ WBK, hosts the Bank Pomyslow (‘Bank of Ideas’) where customers can publicly suggest how the bank could improve its service or introduce new facilities. Ideas can be voted up or down by other customers, and the bank has implemented over 300 suggestions.

5…                  Beyond Blue

A new colour palette of TRUST is beginning to emerge, one that that breaks category generic visual codes or the dominance of blue and red.

First Direct has always used a black and white colour scheme.  It is modern and classic, and when black and white are used together (each opposite gives the other meaning) it communicates moral clarity that you can unambiguously TRUST.

Virgin Money has evolved the virgin red colour palette, to create a brand colour spectrum that is injected with purple. Purple symbolises good judgment, spiritual and moral leadership, transformation and enlightenment.  Virgin Money is shifting the powerfully positive associations with red (excitement, energy, passion) into a spectrum with more financially and category specific associations.

Smart brands realise there are opportunities to create trust differentiation through colour symbolism.

In the third part of our series, we’ll be looking at how FS Brands can successfully engender trust using emerging trends from other industries.


Brand Edge’s report, published in March 2014 in association with Whitecap Consulting, is based on a semiotic study of brand communication / body language within the FS industry. Read the other articles in the series here.

To discuss the full report further please contact us.