Metro Bank's CEO on why PR matters more than advertising

You would expect the first new bank on the British high street for more than a century to burst on to the scene with a multi-million-pound advertising blitz.

Craig Donaldson: Metro Bank CEO
Craig Donaldson: Metro Bank CEO

After all, £25m+ a year is a pretty standard spend in the sector and gaining the attention of a cynical, mistrusting public is not so much an uphill as a vertical challenge.

Not Metro Bank.

Aside from very modest local press advertising, the new kid on the banking block has rejected traditional marketing methods in favour of investing its efforts in PR and reputation management."Reputation is at the heart of everything we do," CEO Craig Donaldson asserts. "There's no point having a big marketing campaign at odds with the service and what's being said in the press. It's about consistency of values - you can't advertise yourself as 'the helpful bank' if you're not helpful."

Responsibility for communicating the bank's proposition falls squarely on Donaldson's shoulders.

He is so intimately involved in its comms and reputation management that he insists media coverage reports are sent directly to him and that the bank's PR firm Lansons Communications reports to him.

He stresses that building relationships and talking to the media should fall to him or Metro Bank founder Vernon Hill rather than some faceless spokesperson. "I've met more than 50 journalists so far this year because it's important to build these relationships so they know about the bank and what we're achieving," he says. "You can't just chase PR for the sake of it and flip-flop around with your messaging. It's easier to be credible if you're consistent in your strategy and those messages are more authentic if they come from those leading that strategy."

Consistency is a theme that consistently peppers Donaldson's conversation.

He concedes the bank's position as one of the ultimate challenger brands gives it the opportunity to use PR to punch above its weight, but argues the bank's approach owes more to visions and values of which other banks seem to have lost sight.

"Some financial services brands seemed to forget delivering profit is a by-product of offering services that people want in a way they want," he argues. "We all need to get back to focusing on customers rather than profit."

The bank has a simple but relentless focus on service, convenience and value - not mere words, it claims, but the foundation of its business model. Metro Bank launched in 2010 and now has 19 stores (note "stores" not branches) in South East England.

It looks to live its brand values through quirky touches like offering lollipops and dog treats, but there is greater substance behind these media-friendly flourishes.

Donaldson tells the story of a significant investor doing due diligence via a spot of mystery shopping in its Earls Court store. One of the staff unfortunately spilt a cup of coffee over this individual. As well as giving the now damp prospective investor some towels to dry off, the staffer handed him £20 to get his dry cleaning done.

Almost any other business, the investor later commented, would have asked for a receipt to refund, but Metro Bank attempted instead just to make his life easier. That, Donaldson says, illustrates brand values coming to life and the reason the investor and customer brand are one and the same.

"Our investors know we're offering great service - having that clarity of proposition is a fundamental part of what they're buying into," he says. "From the board to everyone in our stores, we all have to have that clarity of vision and values."

Donaldson came across Hill, who founded the unflinchingly expansionist Commerce Bank in the US, while working at RBS and studying at Harvard. Donaldson's message of how a bank can be loved by customers, colleagues and shareholders - "when most struggle to achieve one" - resonated. So when Hill set up in the UK, he remembered Donaldson's shared vision and brought him in from the start.

Metro Bank's evangelical view of values and vision is winning converts. Though the bank reported an "expected" £34.6m loss in 2012, it already has 200,000 customers, £1bn under deposit and the aim to grow its store network to 200 by 2020.

Cracking the glass ceiling of high street banking is a mammoth task. Metro Bank is nevertheless a case in point of a wider industry beginning to accept that reputation can be counted in pounds and pence.

ROUTE TO THE TOP

2009 CEO, Metro Bank

2005 Managing director of UK retail products, RBS and NatWest

2003 Product manager, Halifax and Bank of Scotland (HBOS)

2002 Head of sales and operations for North West, Wales and Northern Ireland, HBOS

1995 Commercial director of mortgages and insurance, head of products and marketing, savings and investments, Barclays

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