CMO David Wheldon Puts RBS In A Reboot Mode

Rebooting has become a common concept for ailing film and TV franchises, but it’s a term less often applied to brands. This is, however, the approach David Wheldon, CMO of RBS, has taken to the bank’s brands, rebooting via the new brand idea “We are what we do.”

“During the crash nine years ago, the business nearly collapsed and effectively became state-owned. The global business was unravelled, but nobody remembered to unravel the global brand, so that’s what we’ve done,” he explained.

“We’ve looked back in the history books of our strong customer-facing brands, where they came from, and why they’ve been successful, and built on that heritage to ‘reboot’ our primary brands, most notably our biggest brand by value: NatWest.”

That process has been the first step to realising the group’s ambition to be the U.K.’s number-one bank for customer trust, advocacy, and service by 2020, a target which it is Wheldon’s job to deliver. He spoke to CMO.com recently, and started by explaining his role in more detail.

Wheldon: My role has been to help reshape marketing. When RBS was a big global bank, it had six or seven divisions, each with their own structures in place. Everybody had their own internal comms people, their own external comms people. Some people had marketing, some people didn’t, and so on. A year-and-a-half before I got there, that was all centralised and organised by function, and my appointment brought it all together into one team and we’ve now set about reshaping what we do and how we do it.

The very clear ambition of being number one for customer trust, advocacy, and service had been set before I arrived. The first thing I looked at was who’s going to be number one with whom for what. The strategic framework made it look as though RBS was going to be number one, but RBS isn’t a customer-facing brand, so I focused on sorting out the brand hierarchy and looking at our primary customer-facing brands.

We’ve focused on NatWest, which is the customer-facing brand in England and Wales (campaign image pictured above); in Scotland, it’s the Royal Bank; and in the island of Ireland, it’s Ulster. Then for the well-heeled, we’ve got Coutts in England and Wales, and in Scotland, we’ve got Adam and Co.

CMO.com: What’s the next step towards that customer service target?
Clearly, the bridge to the future that we need to build is using our customer data sensibly, and in a joined-up fashion.

At the moment, we’re not always using customers’ data to service them personally. But if you look at the research, the number-one thing customers say is: “Would you, please, recognise me and know who I am? You’ve got all my data, so presumably you should know a bit more about me than you do.” Fairly regularly, we will do things that demonstrate that we don’t recognise or understand you. So we’re making things align properly to recognise you—I’m not saying personalising yet, but getting everything joined up internally in order to simplify your life.

The second thing research told us people really like is when we anticipate their needs. For example, in a big data-driven world, if you use online banking, we could know if you were looking at car websites, so we could send a pop-up saying, “Looking to buy a car? Remember, you’ve got X amount of credit with us, and you can get a loan cheaper with us.”

Of course, what I just said requires several things to be true. You have to have given us permission to use your data to market to you, and we’ve got to train our frontline staff to explain to customers why that is a positive thing. So that’s the first thing we’ve got to re-engineer, and that’s very easy to say and much more complex to do. But, obviously, the world that awaits us is the one where we can anticipate your needs and you see value in allowing us to use your data.

The second thing we’re doing involves making sure all our technologies speak to each other and that we’re using the right configurations to make things simple for us, because that’ll make it simpler for our customers too. All of this goes on while keeping the customer at the forefront of everybody’s mind, which is not something I observe most banks have focused on.

That’s what we’re now doing—making sure that we’re a sustainable bank in the old-fashioned meaning of the word. Does our business model work, and will it work in perpetuity, so that we can keep your money safe and help you get more out of it? Then, in the more modern use of the same word, are we doing the right thing by society to make stuff work the way it should?

CMO.com: At The Marketing Society’s recent Global Conference, you spoke about the CMO’s role as the customer representative at board level. Could you explain a bit more about delivering marketing understanding to the C-suite?
This is the first time the bank has put the CMO role on the executive committee and made it a direct report to the CEO. Because banks by nature are hierarchical, it has made a significant difference to sit at the same table as the rest of the C-suite. Marketing is, therefore, more respected, and listened to in a slightly different way.

To be fair to the RBS I arrived in, it’s probably the only company I’ve ever worked in where the marketing budget isn’t immediately slashed if there’s a cost challenge. It’s respected and left alone.

What I hope I’ve brought is a rigour in marketing that may not have been present in the past. I was doing the geeky stuff, and going: “Let me show you the brand attribution metrics, because this tells us we have a problem.” The average brand attribution for a NatWest ad when I arrived was 44%. That means we were wasting 56% of our money. So I was able to go: “This is why we need to reboot the brands. They’re not cutting through, people don’t recognise the expenditure.”

So benchmark number one is brand attribution. Benchmark number two is brand consideration. In all the data that most banks have, you can see the straight-line relationship between share-of-voice and share-of-spend, which, presuming you get decent brand attribution, changes into consideration, which means you get a disproportionate share of new-to-bank.

So you’re actually using customer and business data to talk to the C-suite, but, at the same time, showing them there’s also a language that goes with marketing that isn’t gobbledygook. It’s just as clever and scientific as banking itself.

The difficult bit, then, is saying to people that it’s not all science, a bit of it is art. How do you do it so it’s compelling and you bring it to life based on a human truth? Branding has often featured too much twaddle, we’ve got to return to the truth of what we do.

And what we do day in, day out, is try and keep your money safe, and try and make sure you’ve got all the products that you need to live a seamless life. Our brand idea is about being proud of what we do, and saying: “You can judge us by that.” It has built into it a nod to the past and a “Sorry” for the things that went wrong, which I hadn’t seen a bank do before. It has a “Don’t worry, we’ve learnt those lessons” promise, and says: “Judge us by what we do, not what we say.”

To get my C-suite colleagues comfortable with that was quite something, but, obviously, the great thing about marketing is when your execution of what you’re talking about is outstanding, everybody feels proud, and then off you go.

CMO.com: How do you communicate all that to non-marketers?
You’ve got to speak to finance people in ways they will understand. You’ve got to talk to HR about how we’re working together to build the brand inside-out, because this is all about service. How do we engage our people so they really love what they do and they do it better? Because if they do it better, they’ll get better traction with customers. And how do you do all of that so it turns into sales?

It’s understanding each of the people sitting around the table, and their language, and what they’re doing, and then having the humility to make sure they understand what marketing is up to, and that marketing is there to service the business.

CMO.com: As brands become more customer-centric, does it push marketing into different relationships with the rest of the business?
One of my buzz phrases is: “Marketing is a ‘we’ thing, not a ‘me’ thing.” For example, it’s fashionable to talk about the chief information officer, and chief data officer, and chief marketing officer all getting together, but the relationship I have with HR has been a pivotal one. What you think of us as a customer depends on your experience day-in and day-out. You’re more likely to use our mobile app than you are to go into a branch, but we need the same excellence and ease in the service for both.

If you go two or three levels into our online banking, you’ll still find “Helpful banking” written on stuff, but “Helpful banking,” as an end-line, was dropped four years ago. If you go into a branch and it’s all scruffy, in the back of your mind the thought will probably be: “If they look after their branches this badly, I wonder how badly they’re looking after my money.” In the end, that’s what obsession about branding is. If you show people that you love what you’re doing, you love your brand, and all the details are right, they’re highly likely to think that you must be as professional, and slick, and organised about everything else.

It’s important to say to people within the organisation: “Look at this, this isn’t right,” and then invite them to help. Then you get internal energy as well. There’s a scale thing that’s interesting because, in the end, we are a people business—increasingly delivering through technology—but still with lots of people. We’ve got to get to fewer people, but in the right way, and at no point must you, as a customer, feel that your service is being impacted. You must always feel the experience is getting better and better.

This is the challenge of this era, but it’s a great one. It means all those soft skills used to be seen as daft matter massively. You’ve got to be able to collaborate, you’ve got to be able to challenge and lead people at the same time as understanding their needs, and you’ve got to do it with humility.

We spend a lot of time making sure we’re hiring the right kind of people. Not everybody can do what I’m talking about, even some fantastic marketers. Increasingly, the burden is on the right kind of people to make this work. Most people will say: “Oh, it’s all about digital transformation.” I go:

 “I know, but now the right kind of relationships matter more than ever.”

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