Funny things, brands. You want your brand to be perceived by your customers as having a specific set of values and your customers, all too often, perceive something quite different.
Take Marks & Spencer, for example. I know it is an easy target, but that does not mean there are not lessons here for us all. The M&S brand was always perceived as meaning good quality. Slightly more expensive, but good quality.
But then M&S made its big mistake – it assumed that because its brand meant good quality in 1970, then it would always mean good quality. By making this assumption, it lost sight of its customers who were increasingly seeing M&S as old-fashioned and unexciting.
No company can afford to lose sight of how its customers’ attitudes and behaviours are changing, nor to keep a close eye on the competition and see how it is developing. But it is not just a question of making sure your brand continues to deliver the perceived values that you want it to. There is the question of how you develop and extend the brand so that it delivers those perceived values in greater depth or breadth. Mind you, Virgin tried it with trains and look what happened.
So what has all this got to do with financial services, and mortgage lenders in particular? Well, plenty. Take adverse credit business, for example. Traditional high street lenders guard their brand values carefully – and quite rightly so – but these values do not always sit that well with developing mortgages where there is an adverse credit history. One answer is to have a separate company, a different brand with different brand values, as Britannia did with Verso.
There are lots of things you can do with your existing brand to grow its values, or re-build it in M&S’s case. It is all down to understanding your customers and providing them with the experience they expect. For M&S, this involves changing the face and style of its stores, introducing new designer ranges and making the stores a place to visit for more than just underwear.
In the financial services high street, what is wrong with taking the idea of the cybercafe and using it to create more of a relaxed ‘coffee shop’ environment for selling mortgages? If it provides the customer with the experience that supports and builds on the brand values, it can only be a good thing.
Of course, it does not end there. Customers are always changing, the competitive market place is always changing. So companies have to change as well, recognising that attitudes and behaviour do not stand still.
Jeff Sutherland-Kay is head of intermediary sales development at Alliance & Leicester