The image of banking is all about being big and corporate and boring, says Chris Skinner. How do you rebrand for the digital age?

Why are most bank brands just acronyms? I know it’s a silly question, as banks are acronyms because who wants to say “John Pierpont Morgan Chase” when it’s easier just to say JPM, but it’s endemic to banking that banks are acronyms. I was just writing down a few: HSBC, SCB, OCBC, DBS, ICICI, ICBC, ANZ, BOA, BBVA, RBS, BNP, ING, TSB, DNB, AIB … and the list goes on and on. In fact, when I look at a variety of industries, banking is the only one with large-scale acronym mania.

In the top brands in automotive industries, there’s only one acronym: BMW. In technology, there’s IBM, HP and SAP. In retail you get CVS, H&M and Ikea (or would you rather say Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd?). But in banking, there’s loads.

Now I know it’s because their names are often too long to articulate, but it’s also because banking is very B2B-oriented. When you’re dealing with commerce and trade, people don’t mind abbreviating the company name to a few letters, but when you’re a retailer … well, you need a cool name: Apple, Nike, Samsung, Amazon, Disney. Or would you rather deal with ABC, MNO or XYZ?

Mind you, this is changing. After all, most challenger banks are not using acronyms in their names: Bunq, Che, Monzo, Hello, Atom, Starling, Soon, Tandem, Tide and so on. I mean, you wouldn’t start a new branded retail firm today and say let’s call ourselves Knob, or I hope you wouldn’t.

And maybe this is another reason why I regularly hear startups uttering who wants to deal with a big corporate faceless bank?, because that’s what they come across as being: Big, corporate swinging dicks; an industry that has corridors of grey-faced people wearing suits and ties, with stringent rules and massive atrium-style receptions. The image is all about being big and corporate and boring. The image is meant to promote stability as a big, corporate organisation, where staff are given uniforms to sit in the front desks, but that’s not working today.

In fact, it’s another sign of the cultural change of finance that the millennials want their banking to be boring, yet fun. How to do that? I want you to kind of be like Robert Pattinson?

It’s a tough call, but the banks that are trying to turn around from being legacy corporations to cool fintechs need to really focus on their branding pretty heavily in the process. For example, star of my Digital Bank book was Michal Panowicz, talking about the transformation at mBank. I always remember him saying that when the new bank was launched, they threw away the old bank. They didn’t literally shut the whole thing down, but what he was pointing to is that they rebranded. In 2013, mBank was BRE Bank, one of those many other acronym banks that are big, faceless corporations. Suddenly, it was like a new bank launched: mBank. Overnight, all the branches rebranded, as well as all the branch materials.

Now I know that most retail banks think marketing isn’t that important, but the one thing you really need to do as you relaunch the bank for the digital age is ask: Does our brand work? Do people like walking into a firm whose name means nothing? Do we need to rethink our logo, colours and name to make this new digital bank work?

Alternatively, you could always acquire one of those bright, young startups and rebrand that way. Yes, maybe ING could buy Knab and call themselves Knabbing … just a thought.

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– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here. Image by Jukkarin Suwanno,

About the author

Chris Skinner

Chris Skinner is an independent commentator on the financial markets through the Finanser, and chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club, which he founded in 2004. He is an author of numerous books covering everything from European regulations in banking through to the credit crisis, to the future of banking.

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