The Rabobank Brand Refresh: Return to Heritage

Rabobank recently went through the process of unifying its vast and diverse brand architecture and executing a brand refresh for its visual identity, for which VIM Group acted as its implementation and project management partner. We sat down with Chris Kersbergen, Global Head of Brand at Rabobank, to talk about the brand’s recent transformation and what it means for the organisation.

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Rabobank is one of the largest financial institutions in the world, with active operations in over 40 countries. Its history spans more than 120 years, having been founded originally as a cooperative bank in the 1890s.

Over the years, Rabobank has developed more than 2,000 products for individual customers and 1,400 products for business clients in the Netherlands, and 976 different entities globally. However, in the last couple of years, Rabobank faced the kind of challenge unique to organisations of its size and calibre.

“One of our biggest challenges was functional. We haven’t been able to maintain our visual identity consistently for some time now. We have a ′wall of shame′ with all these logos, applications, and variations. And because we empower local autonomy at Rabobank, we have a lot of people from different departments adding stuff to the brand. If you would have asked 12 people what their image of Rabobank is, you’d get 13 different answers”, says Chris Kersbergen.

But the project, massive and complex as it already is, posed an even bigger challenge for Rabobank:

“Unifying the brand architecture and creating a new visual identity also meant confronting the question of what it truly means to be a unified Rabobank brand. After a lot of soul-searching and data analytics, we landed on a return to our heritage. Rabobank started as a cooperative bank. It was built on the tenet that whatever you can’t achieve on your own, you can achieve together. So, we put the brand’s cooperative character back at the centre of our identity, starting with a company-wide programme to revitalise the cooperative identity from the inside out.”

"Unifying the brand architecture and creating a new visual identity also meant confronting the question of what it truly means to be a unified Rabobank brand."

A brand refresh fit for the times

Rabobank’s new visual identity reflects this return to the core, exemplified by a simpler, more straightforward look and feel, built for digital applications. Chris explains: “Our old visual identity was practical but got lost in translation and didn’t fit the needs of the time we live in. We needed to reset some guidelines and take back ownership of the brand. The logo, for one, was from 25 years ago. The main brand colour, too, was not very suitable for use in digital media. Fundamentally, we wanted a brand identity that would allow our people to express themselves freely. We needed a new visual identity to be future-proof. And by future-proof, I mean it needed to be flexible for UX iterations and faithful to the corporate story.”

The transition has not been easy. Rabobank has a massive global operation spread across several countries, an extensive digital presence, and nearly 40,000 employees. Executing the project without disrupting operations meant a patient, gradual implementation process, intensive collaboration between the different departments within the bank, and specialised external support from experienced brand implementation experts from VIM Group. That and investing heavily in brand technology solutions. The goal, says Chris, was to empower their teams in their brand-related work while ensuring consistency across the board:

“We have tools for everything from automating account registrations to empowering employees to share relevant stories via social media. We’ve invested a lot in the brand portal to support our employees and give them a greater sense of autonomy. We don’t want to be the brand police and say ‘no’ all day. We want to be two steps ahead.” 

“We have tools for everything from automating account registrations to empowering employees to share relevant stories via social media.” 

Strengthening Rabobank’s digital presence

Rabobank’s recent brand update is the logical next step in enhancing its already-extensive digital presence. The brand has been cultivating a solid digital experience centred on its desire to translate a similar, if not better, customer journey to its digital channels. The move to digital banking, according to Chris, has not always been easy:

“Going digital has been a challenge. Sometimes it creates tensions; other times, it creates opportunities. Certain expectations had to be met. But we had to step up. If you can’t compete in that game, you’re out. So, we worked very hard to get to where we are. We embraced digitalisation. And we co-created the new visual identity with our digital designers, allowing a more dynamic and flexible identity that gives room for UX iterations and optimisation. We made different choices. And I think we have done a good job there — we have the best rating on the app store. We made our app as lean and as simple as possible and enriched it with value-adding content because we want to help our customers. We are advocating for financial awareness. Through our digital content, we keep our more than two million members in the loop by giving them educational content and updates on what’s happening with the brand and the communities we’re serving. And through the app, they can cast their vote to influence our community investments in the area where they live.”

Cooperative brand building

Chris is keen to emphasise how the whole process has been a truly collaborative team effort: “We couldn’t have made the look & feel digital-savvy without the direct involvement of the digital design team. And as brand and reputation are so intertwined, we obviously stay in close contact with our corporate communication colleagues who are stewarding the reputation every day. The Dutch brand campaigns and brand stories are co-created with the retail marketing team in the Netherlands, and our international branded content is co-created with our wholesale colleagues and country CMO’s. Beyond this, we work closely with many other specialised colleagues to bring the brand alive in our member activation, innovation practices and internal and employer branding. So, while I’m happy and proud to share the story of Rabobank’s brand transformation, there are many others who deserve the credit. I’d recommend reading the full case study written with Anoek and Isabelle from my team.”

More than just a cosmetic update

The brand’s transformation is more than just an aesthetic update. Being acutely aware of its influential role as a global financial organisation, Chris says Rabobank believes that this revitalising of its cooperative heritage remains relevant today. “Maybe more than ever”, he says.

“It’s not just a cosmetic change. We are revisiting what makes Rabobank what it is — what our belief system is, how relevant it is to the world we live in today, and how we can apply it to today’s challenges. We are not a company of shareholders; we are not under pressure to meet profit caps or restructure to deliver shareholder values. We are a cooperative. Each local bank reserves a corporate dividend to give back to local communities and members. We have member councils that decide where this money goes and what they believe could best benefit from these funds. And ′cooperative′ pretty much sums it up. It has a rich connotation — it’s all about collaborating; it puts a very human approach to the issues and challenges we are all facing today. It invokes a greater sense of community and focuses on the long-term collective impact. ′Cooperative′ perfectly encapsulated who we are, what we are doing, and what we still want to do for generations to come”, Chris says.

The demand for more accountability, particularly for financial institutions as powerful as Rabobank, is not lost on the organisation either.

Chris says, “We need to recognise that people don’t particularly like banks and are critical. They demand real action. Even companies that have enjoyed stellar reputations over the last couple of years have suffered. Everyone’s trust rating is declining because people think big companies are not moving fast enough on important issues and that big corporations are just looking after themselves. And unfortunately, we are one of these ‘big corporations.’ That is why we put as much energy into real, actual work. In my perspective, too, all this brand building is just PR and improving corporate image when it does not come with real action or if you don’t work with real people.”

For that, Chris says Rabobank is flexing its muscles on work that actually makes a difference in the world.

He explains: “It’s a huge responsibility to be in a position where you can fund the right people and have the power to help transform businesses and industries into something more sustainable. There are movements for change where we believe we have a larger role to play as a brand and an organisation. We have a bigger responsibility to help advance these causes and create solutions that lead to collective long-term benefits. More importantly, we have the power to say no to certain things, and we are approaching these difficult decisions with our cooperative mindset.”

"We are revisiting what makes Rabobank what it is — what our belief system is, how relevant it is to the world we live in today, and how we can apply it to today’s challenges."

The power of the empowered employee

For everything the brand has been doing and everything it is still working to achieve, Chris believes that the true power of the unified and future-proof Rabobank brand lies in its people. And this is where the brand’s cooperative mindset kicks into high gear.

Chris explains, “We have about 40,000 employees, and I can confidently say many of these employees are not just good at what they do. They also come to work to do good, to make a difference. This goes much deeper than the typical CSR programmes. It’s the people that make the brand. I can go on and on about digital solutions and applications, but there is truly no substitute for a workforce that is engaged and more aware; for employees who are confident about how we’re different from other brands and how we are making a difference with the work that we do. Your culture is your brand. That’s why some of the most important brand-building work starts from the inside.”

Learn more about Rabobank’s brand update process and VIM Group’s role in it by reading the case study.

Read more interviews in the Future Proof Your Brand series.

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