In 2017, it’s nothing new for a bank or financial institution to compete on ethics and values. But there’s one UK bank where those factors have been interwoven into its being throughout its history: The Co-operative Bank. Formed in 1872 as the loan and deposit department of Manchester’s Co-operative Wholesale Society, it’s changed ownership over that time (and is currently up for sale), yet its purpose has stayed the same: to ‘pioneer banking that makes a positive difference to the lives of our customers and communities.’ Much more than mere marketing speak, its ethics and purpose are hardwired into the bank’s management and governance.
The Co-op Bank is the only UK bank to have a customer-led ethical policy, a policy that covers not only the provision of banking services but also is designed to ensure that the business is in tune with the values and ethics it shares with customers. “We also have a duty to use our voice to stand up for causes,” says the brand on its website. For example, the bank was one of the first organisations to support international action against landmines, going further than refusing to provide banking services to companies that profited from the trade in landmines, instead actively campaigning for change.
How do those ethics manifest in everyday consumer banking? Marketing Director Alastair Pegg says it’s as simple as this: “Let’s not rip people off.”
Alastair’s proud that The Co-op Bank is a human brand. “Behaving in a human way is acting on common sense,” he says. Its guiding principle is to treat customers fairly.
“We recognise that being ethical means different things to different people, so we need consistency. But essentially it means that we behave in the same way we’d like to be treated ourselves.”
“Our focus every day is to put the customer at the heart of what we do. In some organisations it’s a cliche to say that, but here it’s what we really do,” he says. “It’s important that the The Co-op Bank hires the right people who buy into our values.”
The organisation constantly strives to improve customer standards and aims to fulfil its goal of ‘making a difference every day’. “We’re not perfect at everything,” says Alastair. “But we’re working at it. We need more humanity.”
As a marketer, Alastair acknowledges the power of a story to bring The Co-op Bank’s brand values to life. “In everything we do, internally and externally, it works better if there’s a story. We use storytelling to be true, authentic and human about what we do.”
For example, the brand has made a series of short films for social media on the causes they support. One of the films is about Joshua Coombes, a hairdresser from Exeter, who travels around the country offering free haircuts to the homeless. “We celebrate those people within our communities that make a difference to our lives,” says Alastair.
Storytelling works well as a vehicle for humanising The Co-op Bank’s work, showing where the money goes and bringing their ethical policy to life more tangibly than would a published policy paper.
Part of what it means to be a human brand is having a proper relationship with the customer. As The Co-op Bank doesn’t have an extensive branch network it relies on digital platforms for its relationship with customers. “The challenge in digital is for humanity to shine through. We’re constantly listening to customer feedback about how we can improve the online experience,” says Alastair.
There is some uncertainty ahead for the brand. Alastair says that staying true to its core values will help the bank compete in a marketplace where both emerging brands and established players are seeking to humanise their offering. “Any financial services brand can have fancy advertising. Where it counts is where the decisions are made. At Co-op Bank, we think about the customer at the senior level. For example, we have a Customer Ethics Committee that is responsible for governance. That’s the real difference about us as a brand, it’s hardwired into our management structure.”
A world of increasing political, social and economic unknowns is perhaps driving more consumers to consider banking with a brand that has a strong sense of purpose. Alastair cites recent research that found 37% of UK adults would be interested in an ethical banking proposition. He acknowledges that there is a lack of awareness about the Co-op brand. “The market is there, we just need to tell everyone about us!” he says.