Corporate Branding: How financial services can use Purpose to change the world

Coined by management consultancies as the “North Star”, Purpose is arguably the most critical governance imperative since, well, audited accounts.

The issues surrounding sustainability are complex. While governments, corporations, and activists agree on its importance, the tangible actions needed to combat growing social and environmental challenges remain unbalanced, subjective and piecemeal. Thankfully, movements championing business as a force for good are growing, influencing government policy and advancing accountability.

Supported by years of results, statistics and testimonials, having an apparent reason for being (or raison d’etre) has proven to influence perception and behaviour far more than any commercial activity itself. So with Purpose and Brand Positioning being so intertwined, what’s clear, is that Marketing should lead neither. Fact: Four of the top ten global media spenders sit comfortably among the world’s worst plastic polluters. Year on year.

So, what does this mean for financial services?

Trust, ease of access, quality services, and reduced costs are all-pervasive when choosing a bank or turning to a financial services company for investment advice. Yet, with the proliferation of technology, automation, and growing blockchain disruption, the importance of trust is increasing exponentially.

When competing in a world of standardised products, the more an organisation stands for something beyond financial gains, the more it is seen as serving broader social and ethical needs. Research reveals that when institutional principles and goals align with people’s values, preference, favorability, and longevity grow—a win-win situation.

Due to rising social consumerism, Purpose is most effective when woven into the fabric of doing business, fuelling enterprise-wide alignment and coordination to produce substantial shareholder return and measurable impact. And while Purpose is considered more sustainable than profit, when contextualised via transparent and authentic ideals, focused strategy and significant utility can provide real value. When brought to life through multi-stakeholder experiences, returns go unmatched.

Whether B2C, B2B, global or homegrown, turning stakeholders into ambassadors and profit drivers are the objectives of any sustainable business. However, to get this right, guiding principles must stay true to Purpose and not be confused for product planning, legal technicality or tactical communication. Purpose must have socio-economic substance.

Staying true to shared ideals attracts, recruits, retains and embeds leadership ideology into customers, workers and communities alike. When understood and advocated internally, a credible corporate philosophy (i.e. vision, mission, and values) can create enormous opportunities to connect, expand and diversify.

If your mission is what you do, your Purpose is why, beyond the economics, you do it. So, for financial institutions wishing to stand out from the crowd, this powerful notion implies that Purpose informs your positioning and that you must repeatedly follow through with seamless, responsive, reliable, values-based experiences.

Regardless of code, many financial organisations pit themselves using provenance, tradition, cultural understanding, and functional attributes. While credible in concept, differentiation and attempts to meaningfully connect are quickly compromised by FOMO on the latest, perceived consumer trend. Resulting is reactive, costly and fragmented attempts at a transformation—signalled by fickle slogans, taglines and contrived campaigns. This corporate struggle between short-term results and long-term performance creates nothing more than “Brand Schizophrenia”. The symptoms: misconception, confusion, and a withdrawal from people’s reality.

As human migration continues, borders merge, and blockchain integrates, the role of banks and financial service providers will evolve practically and emotionally. And while a vital component in ensuring relevance, technology alone won’t make for the necessary levels of efficacy required to avoid becoming obsolete. Tech-savviness creates opportunities for innovation, yet unless philosophy, strategy and execution become interchangeable, stakeholders, stranded in a sea of sameness, will quickly jump ship.

Brand is the sum of people’s most distinguishable truths about a business, and this makes the role of branding, business orientation. If it doesn’t, for whatever reason, people’s willingness to engage and participate drops and a company and its talent quickly become motiveless.

So, what’s the right approach?

Taking stock of the status quo through the lens of Environmental, Social, and Governance is an excellent first step towards establishing self-awareness, strategic planning and transformation.

To create holistic value, the goal of sustainable business requires an evaluation of impact across multiple dimensions. Least not, institutional impact on communities and eco-systems not directly involved with the company. Improving the adverse effects of business activity on indirect stakeholders (i.e. groups that don’t typically engage on a day-to-day basis) is how the world’s most recognised brands substantiate the societal value they create.

Five starters for ten:

Becoming a trusted and credible institution begins with the realisation that your business either creates or diminishes value in one way or another. Inspired by a world-class sustainability framework, to bridge the gap between business reality and brand perception, as you begin to uncover your Purpose and map out your impact, here are five focal areas of value to consider:

1. Your customers

Do your products and services promote public benefit? If so, are they targeted toward underserved markets? Have products and services been designed to solve a social or environmental issue, i.e. improving health, preserving the environment, creating economic opportunity for individuals or communities? What about arts and sciences or providing capital to purpose-driven businesses?

2. Your employees

How does your company treat its employees through compensation, benefits, training and other opportunities? What about the work environment, management-to-employee communication, corporate culture, job flexibility, and health and safety?

3. The community

What is your company’s relationship with suppliers? Does it encourage diversity, and is it involved in the local community? Have products and services been designed to solve social issues such as access to essential services, health, education, economic opportunity, and the arts?

4. The environment

Consider the environment in full, i.e. distribution channels, transportation and the environmental impact of the bank’s supply chain. Have products or services been designed to solve an environmental issue? How about education, measurement and consultation to solve ecological problems?

5. Finally, governance

What is your company’s mission, and does a clear Purpose substantiate it? What about ethics, accountability, and transparency? Has your company adopted a social or environmental mission? How does it engage employees, board members, and the community to achieve that mission? What about providing access to financial information and customer feedback opportunities? Finally, what about the diversity of governing bodies?

Arguably, brands are the most influential drivers of the future, informing our everyday decisions, i.e. what we eat, what we wear, what we drive, and where we invest our time and money. But Brand is commonly misunderstood as a marketing function or held hostage to corporate communications. This flawed perspective restricts a company’s ability to effectively articulate, amplify and accelerate a leadership position, sustainable growth and lasting impact.

When utilised effectively, good branding helps broaden people’s understanding of value, including corporate leadership. For Purpose-driven financial services, this translates into a better market position and bottom line and significantly improves people’s lives—creating a series of measurable moments delivered through ownable innovations, meaningfulness and lasting shared value.

Dan Dimmock, Firstwater Advisory

Dan is a senior brand architect and impact strategist with over 20 years of experience in strategy, identity, management, and communications. He is a B Corp certification consultant, works at the board level, and advises governments, NGOs, corporates and startups on brand transformation and sustainability.

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