A brief history of trust

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The Ufficio di San Giorgio, founded in the Republic of Genoa in 1407, is believed to be the oldest chartered bank in the world. It was instrumental in the growth and power of the Genoese Republic, acting as governor of many of its overseas empires and serving customers as prominent as Christopher Columbus and King Charles V. For four centuries it remained a renowned institution across the whole of Europe, until Napoleon’s conquest of Italy eventually led to its closure in 1805. In the face of such success, one can’t help but suppose that the many generations of people running the bank were sophisticated strategists with a well-developed understanding of their customers’ motivations to do business with them.

Six centuries and three years later it’s not unreasonable to expect financial services professionals to have built upon that learning, evolved and moved on. So consider this piece in last week’s press from the Marketing Director of a contemporary pan-European financial services giant speaking about a review (presumably lengthy and costly) of their brand positioning, in which she says the following:

“One of our key findings was that trust was key to the relationship with our customers. We have been looking at all the areas where we need to be seen as reliable, which is a key driver of trust in our industry. It’s basically about keeping our promises.”

No shit, Sherlock. You don’t say! Even Sybil Fawlty, whose responsibility for customer experience didn’t extend beyond the outskirts of Torquay, might have found that statement of the bleedin’ obvious a bit too, well, bleedin’ obvious to commit to print. 

I mean, come on, this is hardly an original insight into what makes financial services brands tick, is it? Trust, and therein keeping of promises, is the foundational principle of money itself – “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of twenty pounds” it says on the British notes in my wallet; “In God We Trust” on a US dollar – not a 21st Century phenomenon hitherto unseen. For years, centuries and millennia of financial transacting it is a basic and obvious truth. That this company describes it today as a “finding” makes me wonder where they’ve been looking all these years.

My point here is not that the observation is wrong. Sure, trust is important. But it always has been, so unless this is a confession to past untrustworthiness I really don’t see how or who this helps. It’s not a brand strategy, it’s table-stakes for staying in business. It’s not differentiating, every financial services business in the world is pursuing the same goal. It’s not a ‘big idea’ that will spawn innovations in products, services and customer experience, and it’s not a rallying cry for internal staff or customers to get behind – no one gets excited for very long by the Emperor’s new clothes. So, for me, that’s a waste of time, effort and money because if you’re going to review your brand strategy you should make sure it aims to achieve every single one of those things.

Even if you fail to achieve that, at least try to come up with something that a medieval brand manager would not already have known.

First published on The Crossed Cow, 23 February 2010.