HSBC, UBS and 3 principles of iconic brands

Two of the world’s most prominent financial brands have recently gone through very different rebrands. The changes introduced by HSBC and UBS have been very differently received and the jury is very much still out of whether either will make a difference for their respective organisations. But a common word shared between the two efforts is the word ‘iconic’, which is an opportunity to pause and consider the efforts of both brands in the light of what could be their long-term ambitions.

All brands aspire to become iconic, but very few achieve it. Iconic status is something that is achieved throughout an evolution of a brand, it’s like an Olympic medal achieved after years of rigorous training. And just like in sports, there’s very little room at the top.

Branding alone cannot make you an iconic brand, only consistency over performing across multiple aspects of your brand can help you get closer to that goal.

However, providing your brand with a powerful meaning system that helps it better engage with the market is a key aspect conducive to eventually being permitted into the exceptionally exclusive club of iconic brands. And because that system is intertwined with the overall behavior and performance of the brand in the market, there are useful lessons to learn from it.

Here are three of the patterns we’ve identified at The Partners.

1. Iconic brands are single minded

There are two ways the word iconic can be defined. On one hand it can mean worthy of great respect – which is how we want the brand to be perceived – but it can also mean a representative symbol of that which is respected. When we talk about brand identity, these two definitions intertwine. Of course brand identities are built of many elements and it is in their interplay that the deep strength lies. But the identity of a truly iconic brand makes a hero of a singular point of focus that becomes instantly recognisable, uniquely ownable and encapsulates the broader brand story in a moment – a literal icon.

The Ralph Lauren Polo crest, Tiffany’s exclusive use of Robin Egg Blue (Pantone 1837), or IBM’s palette of colourful illustrated symbols used for their Smart Planet Campaign are all examples of iconic singularities that form the central point of a broader system.

2. Iconic brands are consistently as well as diversely creative

Once the fundamental single mindedness is achieved, it actually gives a brand more expressive freedom, rather than limiting the range of expression under the policing force of a set of guidelines.

All brand identity systems require careful management of standards if they are to be successful and most young branding efforts start with an emphasis on consistency and focus. However, iconic brands take this to interesting new levels.

There’s an inner confidence to iconic identities that allows more flexibility of expression than for lesser brands. Iconic brands are more concerned with consistency of intent than consistency of how individual elements get applied. Look at how Louis Vuitton allows its own logo to be adapted on products, breaking always from their own iconic pattern to use the word in different ways, Coca-Cola using free-flowing illustrations, or how Nike switching visual styles from campaign to campaign without ever losing the unmistakable attitude.

3. Iconic brands suggest a richer story

The crest on a Mont Blanc pen is a snow-capped mountain top – a pinnacle of accomplishment. Breitling imagery tells a story of intrepid aviators whose survival depends on their wristwatch. The Apple logo would be entirely generic if it were not for Eve’s bite of temptation taken from the right side. Iconic brands don’t just create well-crafted identity systems; they create visual narratives that wordlessly convey a message about the brand.

It’s not about branding it’s about meaning. 

So what about the HSBC and UBS rebrands?

The surprising thing is that judged by the measure of truly iconic brands both banks have merely started their journey. HSBC ruled against rebranding and reviving the Midland name, and instead simply became HSBC UK, in essence, no major branding change. While that name still retains the original strength and connectivity associations, it means that to make a difference in the market HSBC will have to bring a greater focus on creative actions that bring new stories and experiences to life.

UBS, on the other hand, has already made a big step forward: it recently rolled out its most major rebrand since 2009. A digital focused campaign, with work by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz and heavyweight media partners such as LinkedIn, Bloomberg, FT, the Economist, Monocle and Forbes. In the process, they dropped the ‘We will not rest’ tagline, supposedly as it was seemed as too ‘we’ focused. Instead the ambition is to be more customer focused, that famously differentiated theme that no other brand has ever claimed before.  The campaign expresses that ambition by a simple yet effective rhetoric of asking ‘deep questions’ that are relevant to the audience. Followed by a promise that, together, UBS can help them find answers to the questions that involve a financial aspect.The look and feel of the entire design system is fresh and different. The logo is actually the only visual aspect left alone.

On the surface, those two efforts could not be more different. To be fair, one has barely started.

But when judged against the ambitious behaviour principles driving iconic brands, the journey for both HSBC and UBS has barely started. Both still need to win back the respect of a sceptic market, filled with distrustful, vigilant customers who feel like financial brands are happy to take advantage of them whenever possible. Both want to protect their status as representative of the best of their category – but is there even a positive concept of the category left?

A new alliance between financial brands and customers needs to be forged. Both brands have yet to excite creatively and tell richer stories over time across their entire ecosystem. While UBS’s most recent step might be more substantial, one step beyond the campaign’s microsite and you will find yourself deep within a generic bank website. And while the deep questions are appealing, do customers even believe that a financial brand can be on their side or have financial brands are all grudge purchases now?

The story is a campaign story; it’s yet to become a brand story. The bigger drama is still playing out. And a deeper narrative is yet to emerge and reopen the path to iconic status.

Originally posted of the Global Banking and Finance Review, 17 October 2015.