Today the UK government has called time on the excesses, self interest and downright bad management of the financial services sector, by taking control of British banks.  Whether it will have the desired effect remains to be seen, but frankly, its about time.  I lost patience with the sector a while back, when a leading FS manager told me that it wasn’t in his interest to “put customers first” and now we are witnessing the product of this mind-set.

I’m not a fan of this government, but it does seem that they’ve got this right and for once I feel the Britain is looking bold and decisive.  UK Gov’s move may not produce a level playing field, but hopefully it will create a more sensible game, however the fall-out is sure to continue with customers far from relaxed about choosing financial patners. And that’s where the potential is.  Ultimately, the banks and financial institutions that are first to persuade consumers and businesses that they can be trusted will triumph.

Trust, is the very basis of any Brandship – the relationships between brands and their stakeholders – so its easy to see that, given the revelations of the last few weeks, the brand equity of banks is as low as a limbo-dancing gnome.  For now they are all tarred with the same brush.  We all know now that for years banks have been tricking us into believing that they were on our side while craftily lining their own pockets with our cash, so for any financial services business to dig themselves out of this one is a big ask.  However, that’s the challenge they all face and its clear that the same old, same old just isn’t going to cut it.  This time they have to be transparent and build brands with real integrity.  Attempting this feat with their existing management in place would be like a paedophile applying for a job as a kids’ swimming instructor, and that’s why the government stepping into the management shoes will, at least, give a few of them a chance.  Now its a case of a massive change management process and that can only be good for business.  Who’ll be first to the tape.

While the banks are working on this one, the rest of the commercial world are considering how they can survive the after shock.  There’s no doubt about it, a lot of businesses are going to tumble in the next few months, but amid the rubble there’s a real opportunity for the bold.

As we’ve seen with banks in the US and UK, there are always bigger vultures to pick over the bones of the those that fail and in this vein a good many short-term wins will be had by organisations with strong and inviting brand communities that can offer shelter to the customers of their deceased competitors.  This will come about in two ways – pro-active, acquisition by competitors and investors of organisations and brands on the verge of a crash and reactive, mopping up by strong brands of the displaced customers of their weaker competitors.

But moreso than in the normal process of acquisition the challenge doesn’t end acquisition.  Its one thing to provide a consumer with temporary shelter, but although the cost of acquisition could be modest compared to the recent past, the real test will be whether these brands can persuade their new customers to make a home with them.  This is where I see the real potential.  I foresee a period of floating customers, like deserted wives, reluctant to commit to long-term relationships and suitor brands falling over themselves to reel them in and turn them into life-partners.  And I predict, honesty will prevail.  If nothing else worthwhile comes of this situation I be live it will convince a few more brands to stop making empty-promises and a shift to genuineness, transparency and a genuine commitment to customer satisfaction.  Another reason why the recession will be good for business.

Because brand communities are a product of their members – significantly their customers – any acquisitive organisations will also have to be wary of the risk of alienating their existing customers as the dynamic of their brand is changed by a large influx of new members, but, if they are sufficiently sorted to have created a strong enough brand community to pull off the acquisition trick in the first place the chances are they’ll have this under control too.

Its common practice in recessionary times for organisations to tighten their belts and sit it out, but the record clearly shows that this is not the path to success and it definitely isn’t the way to go now.  If you want to to make the most of the opportunities that the recession is providing you need to be pro-active, take a close look at your brand and your organisation.  Are you in shape to meet the challenge?  If not get to work.  At the end of this recession the organisations that deserve success will have it and there’ll be some gaps in the line up too.  But then again, I’ve always felt that Darwin nailed it with the process of natural selection.   I think we’ll all be better off for the clear out.

Michael Weaver
October 13, 2008

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