Bank Shows It Understands Customers With Global Message

Q&A With Alex Hungate, Head Of Personal Financial Services and Marketing, HSBC

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YORK, Pa. ( -- At HSBC, London-based Alex Hungate has a unique job in that it combines oversight of global marketing with the business leadership of personal financial services, but he expects that to become more common. "Going forward, particularly in service organizations, customer experience will come to be seen as another marketing discipline that top marketers need to understand. Understand how to measure it, and of course understand how to manage it. That's not always the perception today."

Alex Hungate, head of personal financial services, HSBC
Alex Hungate, head of personal financial services, HSBC
Ad Age: HSBC has done pretty well bearing up in the current financial crisis. How has marketing played a role?

Mr. Hungate: Today customers are much more focused on values. So values, either explicitly or implicitly, have become more important to our marketing. For us, it's essentially a small shift based from where we come from, but we've tweaked the positioning around understanding customers better to understanding different points of value. Those are the things that dictate people's life choices and financial decisions. The fact that HSBC can recognize those different values [makes us] better placed to provide the financial solutions.

Ad Age: Is there an increased pressure to make marketing work better, or insistence on a better ROI, in this economy?

Mr. Hungate: We, like most companies out there, are trying to make sure the money we spend is as effective as possible. We're doing a lot more digital upgrading and spending more there, especially globally. The best optimization for digital is on a global basis.

Ad Age: How do you make sure the global message is consistent? That what's on the ground in Hong Kong matches up with what's on the ground in Kuala Lumpur?

Mr. Hungate: First, it's the people. The HSBC employees themselves tend to be from various backgrounds and have worked in many places around the world, so they understand global marketing. Then the second is the marketing-skills training we provide. Then the brand positioning has to reflect the marketing community inside HSBC. They all have a common sense of ownership of the brand positioning, and so they're part of developing it and keeping it up to date.

Agency alignment is important as well. And then there's the whole kind of boring processes around it: governance, measurement, and, going right alongside that, performance. A lot goes into this, and it takes a lot of work frankly, to implement and keep that balance.

Ad Age: Is the idea of a big global brand message becoming less important?

Mr. Hungate: What is important is to have that global positioning and strategy. Now, is it activated uniformly? No, it isn't. A lot goes into each regional or local plan. We create locally relevant media plans -- but always against the same global positioning. The kind of one-to-one marketing and digital targeting you're talking about is all good news. We're very much early adopters. ... But it probably does mean that big pan-regional TV ads are less effective than they once were.

Ad Age: How has the relationship with your agency, WPP, changed over the years?

Mr. Hungate: They've always been very responsive. We beefed up the requirements for digital, for example, in certain places around the world where we felt it was lacking. And they responded, buying up some smaller agencies in some cases, and now we feel we're strong there. If we didn't have a single global network -- if we had multiple agencies in many countries -- it would be extremely difficult to coordinate. The structure we have with them is set up to do that. It's a global agreement with economies of scale. They have Team HSBC which is a specific set of people designated only for the HSBC business.

Ad Age: What long-term effect do you think the recession will have on global marketing?

Mr. Hungate: It's even more important for marketers to understand the values of customers and customers now want to know what are the values of the companies they use. Increasingly they want to know what you do on issues, such as sustainability or work in the community. In the past at HSBC, that was separate from marketing. I also think that we've seen, particularly for banks, the foundation of security and trust that customers had has been shaken. That's happened more in mature markets, but even emerging markets saw it, maybe through a local branch of a global bank. I don't believe that financial institutions can go out there anymore and say "It's OK, you can trust us" as a marketing message.

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