For our second client interview in this series, I had the pleasure of talking to Nanne Bos, Head of Global Brand Management at ING. We discussed the ongoing digital transformation at ING, and where he sees the future of brand management and customer interaction.

What is your biggest brand management challenge?

Nanne Bos: If you look at ING, the greatest challenge that we face is how to manage our brand in a digital context. If you compare the way that we interact with customers now to how we did at the start of the digital era, fifteen years ago, you will see a huge shift in behaviour. Where previously 90-95% of our contact with customers would have been physical, with people going into branches and through call centres, now there has been a dramatic shift and in some of our most advanced markets 98% of our interaction with customers is through digital channels. Approximately 60% of this interaction is on a mobile device and that number is constantly increasing. This shift in consumer behaviour in combination with the change in media consumption has greatly redefined the role of brand management.

This evolution of brand management has also changed the roles of people inside our organisation. For example, one member of my team joined ING in 1968, straight out of design school, and is now five years away from retirement. When he began, his role was focused mainly around the design of forms, over time implementing logos onto buildings became a key part of his role. Now if you look at the challenges that he and our other designers are facing, they’re constantly having to redefine what the brand actually is, and then figure out how to apply it to new touch points and technologies. An example of this is the Apple Watch, which is a brand-new technology that didn’t exist five years ago. Our designers have had to decide how to best represent our brand and messaging through this application. Who knows what will be the next new thing –  my prediction is that within the next ten years we will move away from screens and mobile devices all together, and that voice will become the main interface.

With the majority of interactions with customers moving away from analogue to digital, traditional brands are faced with a need to adapt to this change and learn how to create a meaningful brand connection in the digital world. Young brands such as Google and Uber have burst onto the scene over the past 20 years and have been incredibly successful. But is the success of these companies due to the fact that they are the first to offer a service, or is it because they have succeeded in creating strong brands? I believe it is the former; that these brands are the first movers who have played a major role in founding a new category and have risen to success due to a lack of competition. Consumers don’t yet have any clear perceptions of the brands in terms of value or associations, but this is maybe not so important as long as they do not face real competition. Moreover, these days people are embracing new things much quicker, and are more willing to let go of older brands if they are no longer relevant or if there is a more suitable, digital offering out there.

Cat Wise: I will admit that almost all of my banking is done on my mobile, the only exception being when I receive a cheque from an older family member for my birthday. I like the change, especially the 24/7 accessibility.

NB: Most people do like the shift, and very quickly come to expect it as standard. Things are moving so quickly that we constantly have to keep up with people’s expectations of a digital brand. Being a traditional company, in a very traditional industry, we have to deal with a lot of legacy – as a result, we are constantly reassessing what actually is a bank and how a bank is organised now, and in the future. The impact on the industry in general is massive.

The way we are organised has changed, we are no longer a fleet of companies that more or less operate under the same brand, and this has an impact on our brand governance. We have to look at how we manage our brand and brand assets. Before, we would implement a brand portal, define sets of guidelines and then hope that everyone would stick to the rules, constantly playing “VI police”; correcting people and persuading them why they should follow the rules. This approach doesn’t work in the digital world. Every interaction is personal, and needs to be relevant to a very specific place and person, every time. Global brands need to be much more flexible than before. As a result, brand management has become a lot more dynamic. There has been a shift from enforcing consistency, to encouraging coherence. We have to consider many different systems for what we want to manage and how to manage it. A wider range of skills is needed to build and manage brands these days. Departments that were previously considered to be separate could now be merged, such as UX and brand.

We also need to start treating code in the same way we do traditional visual design. If you take Spotify as an example, they have developed a global design language called “Glue” that they use to shape and evolve the design language across all platforms, ultimately creating a consistent user experience across all of their products. At ING, we have started a project called Orange Juice, the idea of which is that we have a central place where developers and UX designers can develop interfaces for customers, etc., and share and reuse bits and pieces of code and other design elements in other places too. This system is incredibly flexible and allows people to take ownership of their work, throughout the organisation, on a global and local scale. By setting up a central system where all of these code and design elements are constantly reviewed for bugs, cleaned up, checked for brand compliance and made available to the organisation, we build coherence. This is a completely new field of brand management, but I think it clearly indicates the massive shift that faces the future of our profession.

What trends are likely to have the largest impact on your brand?

NB: Digital is the biggest trend impacting our brand for sure. I also see that the boundaries between industries are blurring. Traditional brands are starting to stretch their brands. From ING’s perspective, I find this industrial behaviour shift very intriguing. Brands like Amazon are able to stretch and expand their brand offering in many different directions, and are very successful at it. While we as professionals know that brand stretching is difficult and often leads to failure. In marketing literature, you can find a whole range of brands that have failed big time, thinking that they could stretch their brands into new domains. So how are Amazon able to do it so successfully? If Amazon went into banking for example, chances are that they would succeed. But if ING went into books, we would probably fail. We see all of these things happening in the financial industry, and we know that we need to start experimenting. But as a bank, how much can we experiment with our brand? It’s tricky because one of the underlying themes of our brand and industry in general is trust. We need it to survive. However, if we don’t experiment, we will lose definition and become irrelevant, so we will experiment with new brands, new partnerships and endorsements and in the end, we will see how it all comes together.

Another huge factor for us is legislation. New legislation is coming into effect that will open up the markets and change the dynamics in the finance world. Regulations are also changing, and banks will need to experiment with this also. Naturally, a lot of experiments will fail, but there will be a few that hit the nail on the head, creating a new dynamic which will trigger new consumer expectations. This, in combination with increased competition and low interest rates, makes keeping our business model healthy and fit for the future, a constant challenge.

Remaining relevant is something that a lot of people have been talking about over the past few years and a lot of people are sceptical about it. But the world is constantly changing and we need to act quickly. Yes, it’s a challenging time, but it’s also exciting and we have to go along with it.

What tools and technology do you use to manage your brand?

NB: I’m always trying to look ahead to what’s the next new device and right now I’m focused on technology such as Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa. I think that these new concepts point to the future of brand management, as they will become our new interface with consumers. This raises some interesting questions from a brand management perspective: Who owns that voice? Who decides what that voice sounds like? How do you create a personal connection with your consumer and get your brand voice across if someone (or something) else is talking for your brand?

Currently we are very focused on developing apps and touch screen interfaces, but this could change very quickly. Perhaps the next step for us as banking consumers will be to talk to our bank through this smart voice technology. The whole concept of logging into an app the way we do now will become obsolete.

This is a very new territory, but I would not be surprised if this is where we end up not too far from now, and in ten years’ time we will look back and think that the fact that we were all staring at our phone screens all the time is crazy, the same way we look back at smoking in the past.

From a brand management perspective, we also have to look at the future of brand portals. I think we will move away from the traditional portal and will move towards a convergence between the world of traditional design, UX and widgets. The way that all of these skills and elements come together and are managed will change and will become the core of the profession.

Marketing tools and technology are also changing. We’re always looking at how we can reach people. New developments in how we target messages at people and optimise interaction with them emerge all the time. If I look at our marketing budget, I see that TV still plays a major role, despite the numbers declining. It will probably continue to decline, but we need to figure out how to make that same emotional connection with our customers through other channels. I’m not sure that digital channels can make that same connection the way that traditional TV advertising can, so there’s definitely some need to experiment here and find a solution for digital contexts.

Is brand more important now than ever?

NB: The easy answer is yes, but I think there is more nuance to the answer.

At ING, we manage the brand as an organisational brand, and as such the brand is core to the strategy of our organisation. However, in order for ING to remain successful and relevant in a fast changing context, it needs to change. The era of the top-down institute, where the top decides what the direction of the organisation is, and then cascades orders and strict guidelines down from top to bottom, is definitely over.

Now I believe organisations like ours need to become more nimble. We do this by adopting a more agile way of working. We’re moving towards setting up smaller, agile squads that are able move quickly to adapt to the needs of the consumer. The new challenge that arises with this is, how do you make sure that all of these small teams don’t run in many different directions? This is where we as brand professionals need to play a crucial role. It can help steer them in the right direction, provide clarity and promote coherence. The importance of brand is much higher when it becomes a strategic driver, and not an after-thought.

There are a lot of start-ups emerging in the financial industry, but many of them will fail, or get absorbed by an existing organisation because they lack the brand equity that is needed in our category. It’s one thing to invent new technology for financial services, but banking is ultimately about money, trust, and the lives of people. In this context, I believe that brand is more important than before in order for ING to remain successful.

However, there are also new circumstances where I think you can argue that brand has become less important. If you’re focused on providing a service then you’ll be more concerned about being present in the ecosystems where people already are. For example, if you wanted to be the sole payment system for Facebook, it’s not about the strength of your own brand, but your ability to provide that service and the ability to be linked to someone else’s brand.

Which brands do you admire or use as inspiration?

NB: I like Starbucks a lot because they manage to succeed in whatever context they’re in. They safeguard their brand well and create a Starbucks atmosphere wherever they are; whether that’s inside a book store or a gas station. They also succeed by creating a personalised service for their consumers through their small behaviours such as asking for the customer’s name and making the cup “theirs”.

I also like newer brands such as Spotify because of their Glue system and how they’ve merged the brand department with digital development and UX design.

And what I like about Uber is that they have such a smart organisation and have cracked the consistency/relevance dilemma. With organisations like this there’s always the question of ownership of the brand. The more mandate you give to people, the more ownership they can take. Ideally you want the people who face the customer to take ownership of the brand, which is exactly what Uber does. You will always lose some consistency with this model, but because Uber have such smart processes and because they’re completely free in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation, they have managed to completely break down the paradigm of a traditional decentralised organisation.

My ultimate dream is complete coherence within my organisation, with everyone in the company taking ownership of whatever needs to be done from a brand perspective.

How has your brand department changed of the past five years?

NB: We are currently changing the way our function is structured within ING globally, as well as how we manage our brand perception. We’ve come from the typical multinational structure. A central global brand management department that sets the guidelines and then the business units had to stick more or less (more often than less) to those guidelines. The business units would constantly try and push the boundaries of those guidelines while the head office would think they were in complete control of the brand, but this was rarely the case. In this old system, the corporate department would insist on consistency and the business units would argue about the relevance in their local markets.

Now we’re trying to become more agile. Previously, we treated Brand Management as the icing on the cake, the thing you do at the end of the process to make sure everything looks good. When I began five years ago, we started to change this and step by step succeeded in bringing the brand back where it belongs: close to the corporate strategy. Instead of being the final thought in all processes, it has become the starting point and feeds into the processes of all departments. Branding in general should move from being operational to much more strategic work in terms of guidance and helping departments to do their work. As we make this move to be more agile, we should also work to be more collaborative, with different expertise and focus points coming together to address all projects from a brand point of view.

Where do you see the future of brand management in five years time?

NB: Brand management will remain strategic. I still think that there will be a merger between brand design and UX design. Then I think the question will depend on the type of brand being managed. If you’re working for a holding company that has a large portfolio of brands, it will be different from managing an organisational brand.

But generally, I do see a need to make a global collaborative team that is responsible for strategic direction and then form smaller units that can focus on execution. These units should be made up of a variety of expertise, such as brand, UX or digital design as well as digital development and IT. These units can then bring expertise to specific markets. And instead of building a global team of managers, the team should be made up of consultants who can work on all types of projects, either on a global scale, or who could be sent to local units where they could help them to develop and reposition the brand. Ultimately, it’s about building a team that is much more flexible and collaborative.

Nanne Bos is Head of Global Brand Management at ING.

In June 2017, Marc Cloosterman and Laurens Hoekstra published Future-Proof Your Brand, a book that explores brand implementation and management, and the insights gained from our 25+ years of experience.