Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wolf brings Swedbank brand back on track?

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending 'Stora Annonsördagen', an event organised by the Swedish Advertisers federation. CEOs of some of Swedens largest corporations were talking about the importance of strong brands, brand equity, brand values, living the brand and communicating the brand. Surely bound to be some topics that you rarely hear them mention on a day to day basis.

Swedbank logo
The recent Swedbank brand and communication story was a particularly interesting case told by Swedbank CEO Michael Wolf. For those out there who don't know Swedbank it is the largest retail bank in Sweden but it also has significant presence in the Baltics. In fact, it was the recession and especially the bad debt in the Baltics that caused particular turmoil. It was at the beginning of 2009 when Swedbank was in serious trouble and had to be saved by the loan guarantees by the Swedish state. And the crisis and all the accompanying bad press had a negative effect on the Swedbank brand trust and credibility. This is when Mr Wolf took over as the CEO.

Today the situation is quite different. Sweden is in growth again and the horrible year of 2009 is 'almost' forgotten. Swedbank has impressed markets with reported net profits of SEK 7.4 billion for 2010 increasing from a net loss of SEK 10.5 billion for 2009. This is of course good. However, the ambition of Mr Wolf was not only to impress financial markets, but also to restore consumer confidence in Swedbank as a brand and retail bank. And Mr Wolf followed a textbook recipe for how to get the Swedbank brand back on track: 

First step: To identify the essence of the brand - the brand values & the brand difference
Swedbank is the result of many mergers in the Swedish bank industry, and of making something large and significant out of smaller, regional financial institutions. These smaller banks were deeply rooted in the Swedish culture and values, but somehow those values got lost as the bank grew bigger and bigger. And they sure were not guiding the risk taking in the Baltics. But following the crisis Swedbank realised that they must restore and strengthen the values within the corporation, and 'live those values' both internally and externally. The values identified as core to Swedbank were: Simplicity, Transparency & Caring. Values that are not unique per se, but which will work as guidance as Swedbank work to identify its point of difference. Mr Wolf explained that the values will be the guiding force to find brand differentiation. The Swedbank differentiation will come, as Mr Wolf put it: -"by delivering the values through concrete services and products".

Second step:  To go back to core strength in market
The old Sparbanken oak symbol
The second and very important thing that Swedbank realised, and something that Mr Wolf did not talk about too much, but which is of significance to the brand. Is to go back to the core of what is Swedbank in the eyes of their Swedish customers and target group. This goes way back in time...  and to some very fundamental brand stories and symbols. As mentioned before Swedbank is the merged result of many small and regional 'saving banks'. One of those banks was Sparbanken, who utilised an oak as a strong symbol of the benefits of saving. And this oak is still remembered in a positive light by many older customers. When later 'Föreningssparbanken' became the international bank of Swebank the oak was still left in the logo but with little meaning for new customers. After years of excess, Swedbank is now going back to the oak, and what it stands for in terms of being careful with spending, and saving for the future.

Third step: Setting a new communicaton strategy
The third and significant step was for Swedbank to find a way to communicate that it has taken a new path, and restoring trust in the Swedbank brand. Swedbank worked with swedish agency Lowe Brindfors and UK agency Aardman to identify a new communication platform and concept called 'under the oak'. And the result was this new commercial currently running on Swedish television.

The target is for Swedish customers to get to know Swedbank again. And this ad has received a lot of positive reactions in Sweden, and it has also tested well when Swedbank has tracked reactions in the market. This new communication concept is apparently developed to have a lifespan of at least five years. And I'm already looking forward to follow the next step of the work that is being done to restore the trust in the Swedbank brand.

So all in all I was impressed by the brand and marketing work that is going on at Swedbank. And I was glad to hear that Mr Wolf talked about these issues as important for the bank going forward. I'm convinced that we will see a future where people won't be as loyal to their banks as they are today. If banks misbehave we will see people switching banks more often, and banks will have to work harder to keep relevant. The work that Swedbank is doing today is going to serve them well when this open marketspace is a reality.

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