Brand and Communications in Finance: Today’s Challenges for Financial Services Brands

Five years ago, we had the pleasure of sitting down with expert brand and communications executive Nanne Bos, to discuss tips on future-proofing your brand. A few years later, much has changed in the world. We caught up with him again, to find out if these changes have caused his insights into marketing and branding in the finance sector to evolve.

With over 25 years of experience across branding, marketing and communications, Aegon CCO Nanne Bos has a wealth of insights into how marketing in the finance sector is transforming to keep up with the needs of our digital world.

Bos begins by highlighting what he describes as a “general challenge for everyone” in brand and reputation management. This is the “increasingly complex world” in which brands need to navigate.

According to Bos, technology has changed the way individuals interact with brands irrevocably. “In the past, life was simple. You had a clear overview of your stakeholders,” he explains. “You could maybe say, there’s my internal audience, then there’s my external audience, which would be my customers, the media, etc.”

Today, this is no longer the case. “We’re all consumers, we’re all employees, shareholders and activists. Internal has become external.  We’re all everything at once, and we do not shy away from voicing our opinions about everything at the moment,” says Bos, adding that this makes it “increasingly difficult to set course and navigate through those changes”.

“As opinions increasingly become polarised, brands need to think twice before going on the barricades.”

The age of polarised opinions: Why brands shouldn’t pick sides 

According to Bos, “Over the last years, brands have been increasingly under pressure from their constituencies – employees, customers, investors and the communities in which we operate – to take a stand on high-profile political and social movements. You see this on a national level and on a global level. Whereas the theory says brands need to be purposeful, it has increasingly become difficult to choose the right side.”

This, he suggests, requires brands to practise more vigilance, only taking a stand when it aligns with brand strategy and purpose and when brands can meaningfully influence the issue. Most importantly, before taking a stand, brands need to reflect on whether their customers agree with speaking out.

“People have very different perspectives, and we will all have our personal views,” he continues. “As opinions increasingly become polarised, brands need to think twice before going on the barricades. As if you choose a side, you increasingly run the risk of ending up on the wrong side for at least half of your customers and your employees. You can’t control the discussion, so focussing on your own brand purpose and where you can make a meaningful impact is often the smarter way to handle things.”

“Where in the past branding was positioning your brand in the minds of people, today it's all about positioning yourself in the lives of people."

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Steering your brand through tough economic waters 

Bos is also conscious of the challenges factors such as the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn present for brands.

“You need to reflect on where you are in the economic cycle,” he says, adding that unfortunately, the world is not currently on an upwards trajectory. Many countries are experiencing “economic headwinds” such as “recession and inflation”.

An economic downturn leads to more stress, as well as more “disappointed people, whether it’s employees, or customers”.

As a result, says Bos, you often see a shift in the focus of the brand and communications function, from building to defending the brand.

Marketing and branding in a complex world  

“The world has become way more complex, so the good old ways, when you developed your campaign, you had a specific target audience and you had a specific idea in mind of how you wanted it to be perceived, and then you worked for months and then you launched  and then measured the outcome, that whole model is gone,” says Bos.

“Where in the past branding was positioning your brand in the minds of people, today it’s all about positioning yourself in the lives of people. It’s about asking yourself how to become part of the daily routines of people and how to play a meaningful role. Brands have become digital experiences,” he says.

“This is specifically the case in financial services where the products are pretty intangible. The big change today is that the experience our products offer has become mainly digital. So your brand has become a mainly digital experience.

"We are now lagging behind the attention span of a goldfish, so I do not believe that the content produced by A.I. will be able to do the job."

Artificial intelligence and the future of branding

While the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as ChatGPT has led to many doomsayers, Bos is optimistic. “Marketing is always very quick in adapting to new developments, and that’s the way it should be.

“I don’t think ChatGPT is going to replace anything. It will come on top of all the other innovations we have seen. Your iPad did not replace your TV, we still listen to the radio, we still have our bicycles and all that stuff. Historically, if there’s a new medium, it’s always just on top of the previous one, so in that sense, I don’t think ChatGPT will replace everything,” he says.

“There’s a lot of work in our domain that can be replaced by ChatGPT today if you really wanted to do it. But I think we need to challenge ourselves. We’re supposed to be creative people and A.I. tools like ChatGPT are not. So, by using ChatGPT, there is a risk that every marketing department will start to produce the same stuff — wallpaper — where one of the core tasks is to create differentiating experience. The average human attention span has decreased by over 25% in the past few years. We are now lagging behind the attention span of a goldfish (9 seconds), so I do not believe that the content produced by A.I. will be able to do the job.

“Now, you’re very happy if you have a few seconds of attention from people. And it’s moving so fast, with an explosion of channels where people can interact with you, so trying to manage that is a challenge, at times it seems it’s just impossible. But it seems nowadays everybody’s creative and agile, and powered by A.I., so I think the bar will be raised and there will be new standards of creativity – true creativity will remain paramount”, he concludes.

Heritage vs moving forward. Which is more important? 

Next, the conversation shifted to how important a brand’s heritage is compared to the modern need for brands to change and develop with the times.

“We tend not to do enough. That’s my experience after having done 3 rebrands” he says. “So, in the process (of a rebrand implementation), people want to keep to the (existing) identity. So, we tend to get our first proposal from the agency, and it feels safe, and it’s what we’re used to, but it’s often not enough for it to really make an impact with your rebranding programme whatsoever. So, I feel you should go further. If you’re not afraid to move away from your heritage you can move forward in a bold, sleek way. The recent brand move of Twitter to X might be the right one after all, time will tell”.

Bos notes that your need to preserve a brand’s heritage can be very different depending on what your brand does.

“For many fast-moving consumer brands, your brand needs to drive buying behaviour in a supermarket. So, these brands are used to being very careful, of course, because changes would have an impact on the buying behaviour of people. It’s something else if you have a corporate brand and you want to, for example, signal that the organisation is transforming, that you’re moving from one activity to a completely different activity. So, you must really think things through,” he explains.

“The identity of an organisation is dynamic and should evolve over time. It should adapt itself to the context it operates in.”

Prioritising user experience 

How has the digital world changed the way you need to organise your brand and your visual identity? Bos suggests that as we spend more time in the digital realm, the need for user experience (UX) to be prioritised grows.

He adds that increasingly, the way people interact with your product informs their view of the brand. “I think about Apple, it’s about how the user experiences the brand, it’s about how you interact with the brand, the interface. I just got myself a new car, and it’s really in the interface that you feel differentiating brand experience. It’s the way your display is designed, the font you use, its voice and so on…”

Perhaps the answer is for UX to merge with branding departments. “I think when you have an isolated brand department things go wrong, so it’s also about the position of the branding department, the way it works with other functions in the company, so user experience has a huge impact, and that’s not understood yet by many organisations. These worlds (UX and branding) need to be brought together one way or another”.

More touchpoints create the need for greater coherence

Another way that digital marketing is different is that there are so many more touchpoints. “You need to think in systems more, you can’t own it all or dominate it or control all these platforms. So, then the question is what’s more important: Do you need to be consistent or is it more about coherence? I think it’s more about coherence. And then the question is, how do you manage that coherence?”

Bos notes that a brand’s identity is never static. “The identity of an organisation is dynamic and should evolve over time. It should adapt itself to the context it operates in. And for an identity to be owned by multiple stakeholders of an organisation, you need to come up with a flexible system. That takes courage, and time to implement the core of it. But then you can evolve from there at different speeds,” he suggests.

Bos indicates that while we are all still trying to figure out what the evolving digital landscape means for those in the marketing and branding industry, one thing that is certain is that the old ways of doing things may not work anymore.