Actions Speak Louder Than Jingles

When the global financial crisis knocked the world back on its collective heels, everything went blank for a while. But after the immediate crisis dissipated, many retail banks and other financial service companies hastily returned to “marketing as usual” — with communications filled with jingles, jokes and happy bankers and customers. It’s as if the whole thing never happened and everything is peachy again!

The crisis has had a huge impact on how people feel about banks and governments, but many of the former seem blind to this impact and deaf to what customers really want: actions that prove they have learned the lessons of the crisis. How can trust in banks ever be restored to pre-crisis levels if financial institutions ignore the real changes that the crisis produced?

The financial crisis of 2008 now seems a tipping point in global economic power relationships. While the BRIC countries have resumed their pre-recession growth and are storming ahead undimmed by worry or fear, the economies of Europe and the U.S. linger in crisis, stumbling through the doldrums of sovereign debt crises, huge government cutbacks, “ages of austerity” and Tea Party revolutions. Some very clever people are saying the 2008 market collapse will be seen in future as the point when the West lost power and wealth to the upstart BRIC countries. The air rushed out of our “bubble” economy and consumer confidence in Europe and America has been shattered. Faith in the financial system — even two years later — is still in tatters.

No one is smiling now. The economic crash contributed to the emergence of “The pessimism economy,” a new zeitgeist dominating the West. The idea (espoused by Oliver Bennett in Cultural Pessimism) is that global issues (like climate change, obesity, terrorism and the global financial markets collapse) shifted from being distant “world problems” to become directly “my problem.” This thrusting of the global problems into the personal space has created feelings of powerlessness. They have transformed social values, creating a sharp rise in those valuing the fulfillment of basic human needs for security, order and protection that the developed West has not seen since the war.

Financial services are at the epicenter of the cultural pessimism storm. In June 2009, KPMG reported that only 19 percent of Americans trusted the financial system. The crisis is not abstract: People feel they themselves are paying for the mistakes of the banks, and that bankers have escaped punishment and continue to profit. And governments are seen as bankers’ accomplices. 

How can banks and other financial service companies reignite trust? Can they even do so?

There are two ways of generating trust: building cognitive trust (how I think) and affective trust (how I feel). In the past, many financial services brands largely attempted to build affective trust with their communications. But in this new era of cultural pessimism, this alone won’t cut it. A