Observations by Claire Irving

I’ve just finished reading MegaChange 50: The world in 2050, written by a group of writers from the Economist. As the title suggests, the book gives a view on the trends shaping the world and its development in the future.

Amidst the many fascinating themes and projections, the chapter that surprisingly captured my attention was the one on globalization. After all, the concept is hardly new - global markets have existed since the late 1800’s, and the term has been commonplace since the 1990’s. Laza Kekic  (one of the book’s authors) defines globalization as “The extension of markets across frontiers. The declining importance of national boundaries on goods capital and technology, culture and ideas.”  He has it spot on when he says despite globalization being one of the most powerful trends since WW2, in reality it’s not gone as far as people think, we’re actually only semi-globalized. This idea is always apparent to me than when I interact with retail banks.

Banks are missing a trick

Many such banks point to their global status as a gold star in the hopes of enticing today’s more affluent, contemporary consumer to develop lifetime value from these global citizens where-ever they travel, live or work.  Since 2008, however, regulation of banks has increased, enabled by the joint efforts of banks and regulatory bodies. The laws that have become practice were designed to increase consumer confidence and shift the power balance in a complex sector that was perceived to be badly broken. Yet, protectionism seems to have evolved into operating strategies that are more about institutional control than collaborative consumerism and trends towards collective intelligence. Far from empowering retail customers, some banks are on the brink of disabling our ability to become our own life architects and independent money managers.

As financial services continue to operate in part from a mindset of insecurity and thereby fail to be truly visionary, the things that back up their rhetoric and make the consumer experience real (such as operating infrastructure) may be harming both societal and economic growth. How can you live and work effectively abroad and not be supported by a truly integrated bank? Over the past ten years banks have come to use their brand primarily as a platform for social media, tactical marketing and un-substantive strap-lines. What’s frustrating to me as a brand strategist is that banks are missing a trick to utilize their brands as a driver of organizational philosophy, talent management, customer service, operations and technological development. Essential elements that define the customer experience and facilitate global integration. Although regulation clearly hampers full integration, the customer experience is still being divorced from customer insight.

Since moving abroad I’ve racked up 100 examples of financial services companies in the US and UK who talk the global talk but don’t walk the global walk.  I’ve experienced things such as credit history that doesn’t transfer within the same bank, having checks sent in the wrong currency, finding no dialing from abroad telephone numbers published online, opening hours that only work if you’re domestically based or routinely wake up at 4am, being unable to register a UK card unless you have a permanent UK address, activation codes that expire as soon as they are posted, and customer service agents who helpfully suggest a branch visit is the only way to sort something out (note: NatWest, a leading UK bank –  this is not helpful banking, especially when you live 5,000 miles away, and HSBC – you’re ahead of the pack). These simple glitches have cost me money, time and forever eroded my loyalty.

To make it to 2050, a brand must be brave

In another chapter of MegaChange, Adrian Wooldridge identifies the concept of creative destruction, something which companies will need to live by, not just adopt, to make the world better. Indeed, as long-term trends such as career cycles (rather than paths), flexible working and global living define our world, brands need to reflect them, review the relevance of “doing things the way they’ve always been done” and radically change the rules. The brands that will survive to 2050 will be brave enough to innovate for the customer not the industry and will create a more equal consumer-corporate relationship driven by collaboration, trust and sharing an engaging vision. More personally, I hope NatWest does this before 2050 or, as an alternative, at least starts to offers air miles for its international customers instead of very low interest.