A strong set of values will build better brand awareness and loyalty for financial services providers than advertising alone, marketing expert Simon Bell says.

Bell argues that industry superannuation funds have a brand advantage over for-profit competitors, because they tend to be founded on more solid values.

Most industry funds have an established identity and a set of values such as reliability and quality which drive awareness and good associations, the University of Melbourne professor of marketing says.

Without displaying such qualities throughout a business, from the leadership down, a bank or super fund will struggle to articulate its message, particularly to Millennial customers, who often place social responsibility and other issues above monetary value, he says.

“Industry super funds have the wonderful advantage of starting from a stronger base of values, while a lot of for-profit banks have lost their way in that no one lives their values,” Bell says. “They can paste as many posters in call centres as they like but if [those values are] not lived, they’re as good as wallpaper.”

The academic, who has focused his research on services and relationship marketing, customer satisfaction, and loyalty in retail and financial services industries, has worked with companies including Goldman Sachs, Telstra, Shell, Agricultural Bank of China, IBM, Clayton Utz and PwC.

He says brand identity now plays a larger part in a company’s value than it did a decade ago.

“If you look at the S&P 500 or the ASX 200, or the most significant firms in the world by their market cap, an average of 80 per cent of the market capitalisation is a result of intangible assets,” he explains. “It’s put accountants in a spin because they don’t know how to measure intangible assets.

“A brand can give customers guarantees, consistency, reliability, choices. It can be a form of continuity [across] generations.”

What the ad budget can’t buy

While advertising is often a key factor in raising brand awareness for companies, some of the best-known brands, such as Google and The Body Shop, have not advertised extensively but have communicated well with their customers.

Bell says building a brand takes time, along with consistent performance in the service process and customer experience, through call centres and other channels.

“What’s lacking in professional services, medical, accounting, consulting, is an understanding of the notion of service quality,” he argues. “What does it mean to our clients and how can we raise the bar. That’s where the biggest uplift can come.”

How to bounce back

It can take just days, even hours, to trash a brand, as recent scandals at Oxfam and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia have shown, he said.

If an organisation suffers a brand-damaging scandal, it must quickly refocus on the core things it should be doing, Bell advises: “Stick your head down…and get back on with creating customer value.”

Initial results from Bell’s recent research into customer loyalty showed core groups of customers can be “inoculated” from bad news.

“Some customers will be there in the trenches and maybe there could be a strategy on the back of this; find those customers and ask for their help, engage them as advocates for the firm’s brand,” he says.

Simon Bell will speak about his research at the 2018 Fund Executives Association Ltd (FEAL) Forum, to be held at Melbourne Business School on March 1. For more information, or to register for the event, please visit the FEAL website.

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