By Paul Walker, Employer Branding Consultant
Many years ago, when I was a struggling young copywriter in an equally struggling but not-so-young ad agency in the unlikely setting of Eastbourne, I was walking to the station to catch a late train home when I bumped into an acquaintance who was heading in the same direction. He worked in a bank, and in those days banks weren’t exactly known for a long-hours culture.
“Hi,” I said. “Bit late for you isn’t it?”
“I’ve had the most terrible day” he replied. “Do you know, when we came to cash up, we were 27p short?”
To my undying shame, I’m afraid I laughed in his face.
And the journey home, conducted in embarrassed silence on my part and resentful silence on his, suddenly seemed a lot longer than the usual 20 minutes.
But as the big banks go from hero to zero in about as much time as it takes to get 20 quid from an ATM, Fred the Shred clings to his pension pot and people down the pub debate how many noughts there are in a trillion, I’m starting to wonder if we aren’t about to see a return to the days when being short of 27p was no laughing matter (even though it was to me). Sad? Maybe. Boring? Perhaps – but at a time when Nationwide is actually featuring the word ‘boring’ on its posters as it seeks to reposition its brand, perhaps we’re heading back to a world of permanently tight credit, puritanical bank managers and, let’s face it, a perception that working in a bank carried with it a sense of duty and responsibility in return for a certain status in society.
Be that as it may, one thing’s for sure – the messages that banks have been giving out about the employment experience they offer, the values that underpin their employer brands, the whole armoury of arguments they use to attract talent (and even the nature of the talent they attract) suddenly seem as out of date and worthless as a ten bob note. Only last autumn, in a focus group that was part of the brand development project I was leading for First Great Western, one participant compared the modest, realistic, low-key approach that rail company had taken in its induction programme with that of her previous employer, NatWest. “It was all ‘NatWest is biggest, we’re this, we’re that, we made this much profit, we’re the greatest’. We all got bored with it after about ten minutes.” I somehow don’t imagine they’ll be making those kinds of noises now, even if they were recruiting.
But when the dust settles, the aftershocks die down and they return to the talent market, what exactly will the banks be saying? There’s no quick fix here; they’ll be looking at the most radical shift, the most dramatic U-turn in employer brand terms that any organisation has ever had to make. We’re talking about nothing less than the fundamental re-branding of an entire industry, an entire employment sector.
But do the banks realise the scale of the task? It seems likely that Fred Goodwin’s replacement at RBS will give anyone raising that issue rather more time than the two minutes that, according to legend, Sir Fred used to grant to anyone trying to interest him in a new idea. Admittedly, the fundamental logic of investment markets, that says you should be getting back into a market when things look like they’ve reached rock bottom, should cut some ice here.
But who’s going to tell them, all those new faces that are now in charge of what’s left of Britain’s banks? And who’s going to help them get it right?