Storytelling is at the heart of any good marketing campaign. But in our increasingly transparent world, simply telling people who you are is no longer enough. You have to prove it through every action too.

When Ross McEwan addressed customers and staff to outline his company’s strategy in 2014, he was brutally honest. As the CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, McEwan described his organisation as “the least trusted company, in the least trusted sector of the economy.” His remedy to right the wrong was simple; “to build a bank that earns its customers trust, by serving them better than any other bank.”

Trust isn’t the first word that springs to mind when you think of the financial services sector. From Libor-rigging to PPI mis-selling, interest-rate swaps to money laundering, it’s an industry that’s been rocked with scandal upon scandal.

McEwan went on to state, “RBS cannot take trust for granted. It has to be earned through how the bank acts, and how it behaves.” Wise words. When you behave in a way that contradicts what you say, trust starts to erode and cynicism becomes rife. The trouble is, that’s exactly how RBS had been behaving for the past four years.

Promises, promises

Following the 2010 bailout that rendered it 81% owned by the taxpayer, RBS and its subsidiary NatWest, vowed to clean up its act and made a public commitment to become “Britain’s most Helpful Bank”. Déjà vu, anyone?

After collecting feedback from over 30,000 customers, RBS drew up a “Customer Charter”, outlining the minimum service levels people could expect. These fourteen “pledges”, included serving the majority of customers within five minutes, and aiming to have 600 NatWest branches open on Saturdays. In addition, it also identified more than 100 locations in which it was the last remaining bank in town. RBS promised to keep these branches open to continue to provide banking services for the local community.

To let people know about its reformed character, RBS worked with its advertising agency M&C Saatchi, and broadcast the Charter through a high-profile array of expensive TV spots, billboards, and print ads. Unfortunately, whilst the marketing message was heavily promoted, the experience itself didn’t get the same attention. In fact, cracks started to appear as soon as the “campaign”, was launched.

“The focus should not be on talking. Talk is cheap. It must be on action.” – Howard Berman.

Just weeks after, NatWest was hit with a ban from the Advertising Standards Authority for misleading customers. The watchdog took umbrage that its new TV ad didn’t specify the number of branches that would now open on Saturdays, instead allowing viewers to believe that all of them would be. NatWest was told to pull the ad in its current form.

If misleading people wasn’t enough, it appeared the banking giant wasn’t making them a top priority either. Less than a year after announcing the Charter, NatWest and RBS were ordered to pay nearly £3m in fines relating to poor complaint handling. The total would have actually been £4m, if they hadn’t agreed to cough up early.

Failings discovered by the Financial Services Authority included delays in responding to complaints, “poor quality” investigations into complaints, lack of explanation of why complaints were upheld or rejected, and lack of training for complaint handling staff.

Four years after its fanfare launch, the original Charter vanished from the RBS and NatWest websites, and was replaced with a commitment to four very generic principles:

  • We promise to put customers needs first
  • We promise to make banking easier
  • We promise to be there whenever someone needs help
  • We promise to be fair and honest

Would you want to deal with an organisation that didn’t put you first, made things difficult, and couldn’t be trusted? Surely, these are just the basic expectations of any supplier/customer relationship?

Sadly, it appears RBS can’t even abide by these. In the past two years alone, they’ve closed 385 branches even though they promised not to do so in their original Customer Charter. Nearly half of these closures were in fact the “last bank in town”. Not even the branch featured in their TV ad was safe; yep, they’re closing that one too.

The end of storytelling?

The power of storytelling seems to be everywhere lately, especially in marketing. But so little focus is given to the importance of connecting a story with the actual behaviours of people, and the organisation as a whole.

In order to become the UK’s most trusted bank, you’ve got to behave in a trustworthy way. Unfortunately RBS’s previous actions don’t give people any reason to trust it. The company put all of its energy into telling a story, rather than living one.

The Customer Charter was a tactical initiative, largely driven by its marketing department, but not operationalised throughout its business. Customers told RBS what they wanted, and RBS merely broadcast those wants back to them.

So rather than just telling a story, what happens if you focus all of your attention on actually living a story, that’s worth telling?

A bank that doesn’t think it’s a bank

In every branch of Umpqua Bank, is a prominently displayed telephone. It connects directly to the desk of the CEO Ray Davis. If Ray is at his desk, he will personally answer. And he’ll greet the caller with the same cheery line everyone uses across all of its branches “Hello, welcome to the world’s greatest bank!”

When Ray took over as the CEO of Umpqua in the mid-nineties, people laughed at him for insisting that each one of his 40 employees answer the phone in this way.

Twenty years later, and they’re laughing on the other side of their faces. Ray’s refusal to run his bank like a stuffy institution has seen Umpqua mushroom from just a few branches and a handful of staff, to nearly 400 locations, with 5,000 employees and over $20 billion in assets. It’s also been featured in Fortune magazine’s national top 100 “Best Places to Work” every year since 2007.

Whilst RBS is busy shutting branches, Umpqua is busy opening them. RBS believes that many branches are no longer needed, as customers simply want to bank online. Perhaps. Or perhaps the in-branch RBS experience is so tedious, frustrating, and soulless, that customers would do anything to avoid it.

Umpqua refers to its branches as “stores”; a nod to the fact that Ray Davis considers them to be in the retail business, not the banking business. A great retail store is somewhere with good products, engaging layouts, and friendly staff. It’s the kind of place people actually look forward to going to. Yes, a bank you enjoy visiting.

Umpqua believes that they can help turn an errand, into pleasant escape. Each store has freshly ground coffee, free Wi-Fi and super-comfy chairs. Umpqua “Associates” even hand out a chocolate with every cash withdrawal.

Pretty easy things for competitors to copy, sure. But nobody at Umpqua is going to give you the evil eye for helping yourself to an extra Americano, or sneer at you for spending an hour surfing the web, without actually doing any “banking”.

In addition, stores host yoga classes, book clubs, movie nights, and art exhibitions. Umpqua believes that a bank has a active role to play in supporting the neighbourhood in which it serves. As well as opening its doors to house events, it also offers Associates paid time off to volunteer within their community, to support local schools and charities. So far, Umpqua Associates have donated more than 280,000 hours in the communities they serve. And incredibly, more than 80% of Associates participate annually!

At Umpqua, there’s no fictional storytelling in the form of empty advertising claims; this remarkable company is simply living its story everyday.

The marketing that it does carry out merely amplifies who Umpqua already is, rather than weaving a tale of who it wishes it was. Umpqua likes to think of itself as the community’s best friend. And what would a best friend do? Help you move of course! So rather than expensive and meaningless TV spots, Umpqua transformed an old truck into a one-of-a-kind bank account moving facility that took the hassle out of switching banks.

Rather than expecting customers to come to the bank, they took the bank to them. And proved first hand just how easy it was to “Umpquatize”.

At Umpqua, “The World’s Greatest Bank” is not a tagline, its a state of mind. Umpqua demonstrates that the future of marketing is in doing, not telling. That by putting all your attention into doing, you’ll actually have something that’s worth saying.

Are you telling your story, or living it?

According to a study carried out by communications agency Cohn & Wolfe, if you want to be around for the long term, you have to prove to your customers that you are “acting in an authentic matter, communicating clearly and being transparent in your business practices.” In other words, you have to live your story, not just tell it.

Are you truly living your story? Consider the following:

  • Does your story help to fuel, align and guide behaviour?
  • Is your story infused into your culture, operations and customer experience?
  • Does your story act as a lens for the creation of new products and services?
  • Is your story a leadership priority, or a tactical marketing initiative?
  • Do you recruit people that actively understand and champion your story?

In our increasingly transparent and connected world, there is no longer a lag between your message, and who you are as a company. To build trust, you have to demonstrate the truthfulness of your words through behaviour that is consistent with what you say.

The days of meaningless taglines and empty promises are gone. You can’t just tell people you’re funny. You’ve got to make them laugh too.