Money. Money. Money.

June 2015, by Awaken Group

*Opinions expressed by Awaken Group writers and contributors are their own.

Money. In today’s world, we cannot do anything without money, not even live. People say, “Money makes the world go round,” and it’s somewhat true as the financial system is the machine that drives economies.

I started my career in communications 14 years ago at one of Germany’s oldest insurance companies. There were two words frequently used in the industry—“service and sales”—that created tension in my mind because they were used almost interchangeably, and it didn’t make sense to me. To customers, they would say, “We are here to serve you,” yet internally at the company, everyone primarily talked about sales.

Greed and the excesses of the recent financial crisis have made banks and financial institutions today among the least trusted sectors in the global economy.

It’s a paradox since the whole idea of anyone entrusting someone else temporary control over one’s wealth is based on trust. In countries such as Vietnam, for example, the true value of trust in the financial system shows up especially during times of economic uncertainty, when many people convert their savings and keep US dollars in cash or gold at home, rather than go to the bank.

When designing any brand strategy and experience, the underlying question for me is: “What strategy will make my client successful for the long run?”

Let’s look at how have banks evolved and tried to compete in recent decades:

The cost of digital convenience

So-Young Kang, who worked at Citibank earlier on in her career, shares: “I remember when I was working at Citibank almost 20 years ago when they were trying to get people to use ATMs. It was all about convenience with internet banking and ATMs. It’s worked but at the cost of customer loyalty as engagement has largely become transactional. People used to know me as their banker by name, and I knew their names.”

Rise of consumerism

Banks have competed to help us afford the things we can’t. More often than not, banks have given people the opportunity to spend more than they have. That has reflected negatively on financial institutions as they have a social responsibility.

Technology has disrupted the role of the bank

Today, technology has replaced some bank services. New financial tech firms such as PayPal, Kickstarter, and Bitcoin are challenging established financial institutions as they identify the needs of Millennials and future generations, and then act on it faster and more boldly than established financial providers.

Given the challenges ahead for established institutions, what can banks do to stay relevant today?

Perhaps it’s time to go back to the true role of a bank in society. Maybe it’s time to question what true value banks add to society and its people.

Financial institutions have forgotten the true value of their role. It’s not just about “making money.” Historically, financial institutions, banks, and insurance firms were intermediaries directing capital to where it is needed and creates the most value – value for society and its individuals.

Financial tools have the ability to facilitate greater goals—those of society. Financial institutions, when aligned to its society’s goals and ideals with good foresight and configured for the future, can be a strong force to enable great prosperity across all levels of society. Banks have traditionally:

  • Catalyzed innovation and entrepreneurship as they finance global business expansions that create jobs
  • Promoted financial literacy to help families control their spending and achieve their goals
  • Helped generations of families build homes and save for their children’s education

This is the privileged role that society has entrusted to banks.

Given the role of banks as stewards of the financial system, how do you build an attractive, authentic, and responsible financial brand today? How do you ensure continuous innovation while being aligned with a greater vision and values? What’s needed?

Firstly, define what you value as an individual and as a financial services provider.

Secondly, define what value you want to provide to society.

How do you live out your clearly defined values in your products, services, marketing and communications?