Barclays' branding is déjà vu once more

I defy any reader to find a worse-run brand than Barclays over the past decade.

Mark Ritson

No, I am not talking about the various scandals that engulfed the bank in recent years. I am talking about the reason why those incidents arose in the first place and the reason why they had such a negative impact on the bank. For me, Barclays represents a salutary lesson in how not to do corporate branding.

To explain why Barclays is such a branding basket-case, you have to look back over the past decade and step onto some of the biggest toes in marketing. To observe Barclays’ branding over this period is to experience a particularly appalling case of branding déjà vu in which the same mistakes are made again and again.

Back in 2000, the brand was reeling from a series of damaging memos and the fact that its ‘Big’ campaign, featuring Sir Anthony Hopkins in the back of a limousine extolling the virtues of being a giant bank, appeared at the same time as Barclays closing 200 branches.

Senior marketing talent and a new vision for the brand was needed. So in came Simon Gulliford in 2001 with a totally new brand approach based around positioning Barclays as being ‘Fluent in Finance’. Cue BBH, actor Samuel L Jackson and a confusing ad series in which Jackson rambled about the price of shoes.

In 2004 Gulliford left the role and Jim Hytner arrived with a totally different vision for Barclays. Out went the fluency approach and in came a new position based on Barclays’ ‘inventive spirit’ and a new advertising campaign featuring the strapline ‘Now there’s a thought’. Once again there was a twist as an accounting firm threatened an injunction as it had used the strapline for five years - so much for being inventive. The campaign and Barclays’ new positioning soon disappeared, followed soon after by Hytner, who returned to advertising land.

It was then Libby Chambers’ turn. She also had a new vision for Barclays based on ‘Take one small step’, in which another TV campaign showed Barclays helping its customers better manage their money. I’d say Barclays was hardly in a position to offer any such guidance given that, in August of that year, it had to make an emergency request to borrow £1.6bn from the Bank of England to help settle a shortfall caused by an error in the City’s electronic trading system. 

By 2009, Chambers had left the role and Barclays opted not to replace her. No new marketing chief meant, for once, that Barclays opted against a new brand position. The ‘Take One Small Step’ campaign continued with a new set of ads, again featuring comedian Stephen Merchant, talking over symbolic images like a giant egg timer and a self-propelled railway carriage. Once again, however, tragedy was close by when fellow comedian Michael Spicer recorded his own cynical soundtrack of the ads and replayed them on YouTube to hilarious and damning effect.

And now here we are in 2013. Barclays has a big-name head of brand in David Wheldon, a new campaign based on ‘You-shaped Banking’ and another completely new trajectory that bears no resemblance to previous campaigns.

The campaign is part of a broader attempt under new chief executive Antony Jenkins to make Barclays a “values-driven business” in which the whole bank is driven by a single “common purpose”, “helping people achieve their ambitions - in the right way”. Cue a set of clichéd videos of Barclays’ current leadership team talking earnestly about things such as integrity and excellence without acknowledging that some of them were at the bank during the Libor interest-rate scandal (for which Barclays paid a £290m misconduct fine).

Barclays needs a new set of imposed values like I need a second colon. What the brand needs is continuity and consistency. It takes 10 years of the same thing to build any kind of brand. But try telling that to the new team now running Barclays or indeed any of the previous incumbents. As far as I can see, all of them arrived, missed the point, introduced something new and then left the building having made things worse.

The key to Barclays’ salvation is not to be found in something new but rather something old. If the Barclays’ brand team knew what they were doing they would go back to 1690 and to Lombard Street in London.

They would avoid imposing anything new on an exhausted internal culture and a cynical external market. Instead they would return to the origins of Barclays before it became besieged by ‘bold’ new brand positionings, expensive TV campaigns and the repeated imposition of superficial new values.

Barclays was, once, a great bank and a great brand. The only way to secure its future is to go back to heritage, origins and founders. The good news for Barclays is that it has a very strong heritage and, based on recent history, it is only about two years away from a new marketing chief and another chance to get things right.

Readers' comments (8)

  • Great article Mark and totally on the money so to speak. It strikes me that your closing comments and advice to the team at Barclays is universally applicable. So many businesses attempt to reinvent themselves forgetting that they were once, or have become great business, for a reason and one that is distinct and true to their culture. It's a particularly common problem when launching significant new initiatives or developing major parts of their businesses - they fail to draw on founding values and abiding qualities.

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  • I couldn't agree more Mark.
    It's a fact that during tough times, people retreat to the comfort of the "village" as typified by brands like Nike re-releasing legacy products or the growth in the heritage food market.

    The Barclays brand hasn't been without controversyin the past and has survived it.

    This is just the time to be reflecting on the qualities of the people that have formed the bedrock of that survival, while looking forward of course, a lesson which can be applied to any number of organisations, especally in Europe.

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  • In additon to the above, Jenkins must recognise that the Barclays brand stands no chance of recovery unless he takes a holistic approach to ensuring that his people can keep the promises made by the Marketing dept. This means close coordination with HR and the CEO's office as a minimum, as debated at length on the CIPD site:

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  • Looks like just banker bashing to me.

    Seeing as all these ads relate to the UK retail bank, has the business suffered?
    Revenue in 1999 was 5bn, in 2012 it was closer to 10bn.

    Surely a business in a mature market cannot double in revenue if their marketing is a case study for how not to do things.

    Is there also some confusion between long-term brand positioning campaigns and short bursts of product advertising?

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  • Lovely work Mark. Samuel L Jackson sounds very Dr Seuss doesnt he? What is the bull for?

    That said I disagree with the old ways being THE way. Sure its one option but some proper thought leadership is needed rather than just management leadership. We herd them here, we herd them there is the current style. What you are right about Mark is that they need to stop and take stock.

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  • Is there a brand that Mark can't save with heritage?

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  • The fact that such bold marketing displays are timed so awfully at points that actually contradict the message Barclays are trying to portray is a lesson, as Mark says, to resort to a simpler strategy reflecting its origins. This could be a decisive factor in helping rebuild the relationship between banks and the consumer by removing the smokescreen of false promises and grandness which severely damages the crucial trust element. Transparency is vital in a business where the understanding between the firm and the consumer is so small. Resorting back to the humble, clear approach of its origin will be a step forward, not a step back.

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