Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bank brands – All bets are off

On Saturday I was walking along in the sunshine and happened to pass an office of U.S. Trust – you know, the New York-based bank for rich people which was bought by Bank of America in 2007. As I stared at the sign out front, I felt uneasy and then slightly sick. No, not because the turkey bacon sandwich I had eaten was acting up. Slightly sick at our entire branding profession and the petty, indulgent services we often perform. Look at that bold, all-caps U.S. Trust signature, I said to myself. See how deliberately B of A preserved the U.S. Trust name in order not to scare off wealthy clients who might think, “Horrors, our clubby institution is now under the thumb of that plebian bank based in North Carolina.”


I noted the oh-so-deliberately placed Bank of America logo to the right of the U.S. TRUST name, a manifest link back to the “parent brand,” in marketing parlance. My eye drifted down to the subordinated Bank of America name, presented with such perfect calculation in front of the prissy phrase “Private Wealth Management,” which was chosen to ward off any undeserving mere millionaire dentist.

How many versions of this placement were tried by the design staff? Was the logo first placed in front of the name, then tried on top, then ghosted back? I know how these exercises go. The goal is to send the perfect message of interconnectedness between the ultra-PRIVATE U.S. Trust and the ultra-strong-and-ubiquitous Bank of America.

And now, in this crisis, it’s all such vanity.

Can you discern the cause of my weltschmerz? Today, this meticulous fussing over size, fonts, kerning, nomenclature and color is TOTALLY irrelevant. Bank of America is openly ridiculed as a ZOMBIE BANK, its assets considered toxic, its stock down from over $40 to under $4 in a single year, its depositors only hanging around because the U.S. government announced that it will protect their money.

All that costly fussing in a slick design studio has been rendered futile as bank after bank succumbs to the industry-wide disaster. One day, many months ago, a proud creative director pronounced that sign ready for placement on the building in front of me. Some day in the future, a workman will come along and lop off that subtly placed logo… or yank off the entire sign and replace it with a sheet of aluminum with red letters that read, DRY CLEANERS.

brandsinger

6 comments:

David Airey said...

Hi Claude,

Being an admirer of Bob Wolf's Bank of America logo, it's a shame to see it used in this way.

There's a definite imbalance to the design, disregarding any of the underlying economic tones.

brandsinger said...

Hi David - thanks for the comment. My point is simply that these design conceits are superfluous, given the shocking mismanagement of this bank. B of A's purchase of Merrill Lynch without understanding the extent of its problems was the latest disaster.

But yes, from the standpoint of sheer strategic design, the logo is a beaut.

Claude

brandsinger said...

Hi David - thanks for the comment. My point is simply that these design conceits are superfluous, given the shocking mismanagement of this bank. B of A's purchase of Merrill Lynch without understanding the extent of its problems was the latest disaster.

But yes, from the standpoint of sheer strategic design, the logo is a beaut.

Claude

Jerry Kuyper said...

I fully agree that tattered corporations still wearing nicely tailored clothes seen out-of-sync with the current financial meltdown.

But there are so many recent examples of ineffective, badly resolved rebrandings (Xerox, YRC, Kraft Foods come to mind) it seems odd to retroactively single out US TRUST for trying to get it right.

The costly fusing of creating a visual identity is minute compared to executive compensation (think pre-merger ML bonuses). How does an identity consultant predict that a respectable institution will become a pariah? If the future was easy to predict, some of our 401Ks would still have a pulse.

We could just use Comic Sans for our clients with the premonition that some day in the future a miscue will occur and then they will be accurately positioned.

If deliberate, meticulous and perfect are inappropriate goals for the visual identity, should we also assume they are not correct for the strategy, key messages and tagline.

"Duh, we're kinda hooked up with B of A, whatever"

mm said...

As part of the bailout, perhaps the visual identities of these banks should be forced to wear sack cloth and ashes.

Their tag lines should be variants of "woe is me for I am undone! Have mercy on me!"

It could be the start of branding trend where the company's internal health is expressed honestly on the outside.

brandsinger said...

Jerry - Thanks, man. Did I...uh...strike a nerve!? Meticulously fussed-over kerning during a 7-point earthquake seems odd to me. But I ain't blaming the honest workers who labored in the effort months ago.

Say mm -- I like your style. And I like that tag line – "Have mercy on me!" If Citi would adopt it people might have a smidgeon of sympathy.

Keep smilin!