Can you afford your new brand positioning? Ask HSBC, the former “World’s Local Bank”

branding, positioning

It happens time & time again… some bright, creative marketers or agency folks devise a clever new brand positioning for a company or product… so far, so good… The problem, however, is that the clever new positioning rarely gets vetted, analyzed or market-tested to determine the associated benefits and costs (one-time and ongoing).  And, of course, the bitter irony is that the more successful the new positioning is the more money the company may lose as the operating costs associated with the new positioning run out of control.

Case in Point: HSBC –  fka “The World’s Local Bank”
HSBC invested millions and millions of dollars back in the early 2000s to “plant a chip” in the minds of consumers that it was, “The World’s Local Bank”.  And, the bank was quite successful in its campaign as evidenced by the millions of people who would pass by an HSBC branch and instead of saying, “let’s stop off at the HSBC ATM,” they would utter, “let’s stop off at the ATM of the world’s local bank” (okay, perhaps I’m embellishing a bit, but the new positioning was quite successful).But only a few years later, HSBC discovered something rather unfortunate.  The ongoing investment in marketing & operations to support HSBC’s “World’s Local Bank” positioning was outweighing the benefits. The negative ROI of the new positioning was going to cause the global bank to become much, much smaller. Think “The World’s Local Bank” without the word, “World”.
HSBC: The World’s Local Bank.  
Not pretty, especially to shareholders.   The company was gushing money, and, in a post-Lehman Brothers world, even bank’s like HSBC which had successfully weather the financial storm-of-the-century were still extremely vulnerable.What?!?  My local HSBC branch has no phones?  The Cost of Branding Success…
HSBC’s “World’s Local Bank” brand positioning was so successful that even a few years after ditching it, many people, including fifteen-year customers like myself, still thought HSBC was the undisputed king of glocal* banks (i.e. the world’s local bank).Which brings us to a few days ago when I needed to call my local HSBC branch to find out whether the only branch employee with the power to guarantee signatures was in the office.  Despite my best Google ninja-searching, the only phone number I could find was HSBC’s general customer service number – i.e., the 800 number that connects customers to low-cost call centers typically located 1,000+ miles from my local branch in New York City.  As I learned from my subsequent joyful visit to my branch, local branches no longer provided contact numbers to their local banking customers.How could The World’s Local Bank not provide customers with the phone numbers of its local branches?!?  I was outraged… and as I found out only a few hours later, the answer was quite simple.  HSBC was no longer the world’s local bank.  It was just another huge, impersonal bank with a new brand positioning that was apparently so powerful, so captivating that I cannot even remember it.  And, of course, just like any other enormous, impersonal bank, the whole notion of local anything, including the phone numbers of local branches was no longer necessary.  HSBC now has a new image to uphold – one of “global impersonalism”. Local phone numbers begone.

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*In case you’re wondering, yes, it was painful for me to go with an over-used business buzz word like “glocal,” but how much better the sentence flows with its inclusion 🙂