Interbrand Thinking

How HSBC has looked to the past to pivot to the future


Five Questions with Jonathan Castleman, Group Head of Brand and Partnerships’, HSBC

We believe there is a shift from organization-led brands to brand-led organizations (e.g. Disney, Amazon, Apple) where the business is the commercial manifestation of a powerful brand. Do you recognize this shift? What are the challenges and opportunities in it?

I do think this is accurate – whether its Purpose or Brand or both. For us, we have recently simplified and aligned our corporate purpose, strategy and values with our Brand. Historically they loosely connected and held in different departments, but the business strategy and the brand promise unaligned in many ways. We made the move in order to bring our business and our brand together – with one idea at the centre of a very large organisation spanning the globe. This means we now have just one idea, one piece of language, that galvanises our culture, people and services into something customers feel every day, wherever they are. It’s hard in organisation of our scale, but also incredibly powerful.

How we did it was as important as what we did. ‘Opening up a world of opportunity’ was the outcome of extensive consultation with colleagues and customers around the globe who feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for it. It draws heavily on HSBC’s past, but also encapsulates what we need to focus on to succeed in the future to continue finding opportunities for our customers, colleagues and the communities we serve.

Although its early days we are delighted by the way it has been embraced across HSBC and how colleagues see their roles contributing towards it – it’s been transformative by helping focus our attention, choose clearer priorities, and galvanise colleagues’ support. By being Purpose and Brand led, what we are really saying is we are all super clear on what our role and strategy is in people’s lives, what makes us different, and how we go about our business better each day. The best brands in the world instinctively feel it inside and out and it creates a virtuous circle.

Our Best Global Brands data suggests that brands who not only provide superb experiences but also take a leading stance on social issues are more relevant to consumers. How are you approaching this in your organization?

Brand preference is driven by a number of factors – and increasingly by the social stance organisations take as a way of creating shared badges of identity and values. Customers prefer, and rely-on brands to take the actions they can’t necessarily do on their own. We’re an incredibly diverse organisation from our conception – we were born international. We’re a much better bank when we reflect the customers and the communities in which we operate. We know that as an organisation, we aren’t yet diverse enough at all levels – so we are taking real action to ensure HSBC is an even more diverse and inclusive workplace where everyone has the opportunity to develop and progress, and is truly reflective of the society we serve.

Our diversity is best represented by our 150 employee-led resource groups across the world – who are integral to helping us promote the matters that matter to our people and our communities – race, gender, accessibility, LGBT+, tech, innovation, food, sport, culture in all guises and many more that put the right conversations on the table and we take action. Like most great brands, we’re an inside-out brand, in that our people personify our brand and drive our focus on our customers.

The work we’ve done to support our customers over the last three years of Covid, as well as our work to represent the underrepresented, and the social impact of many of our community initiatives is testament to that. From a climate perspective, HSBC is committed to aligning the greenhouse gas emissions of our portfolio of clients to net zero by 2050 or sooner and partnering with our customers means we can help even the most carbon-intensive sectors to decarbonise, while maintaining social and economic stability and growth. We’re transforming our operations and supply chain to be net zero by 2030 or sooner. Our planet needs drastic and lasting action to protect it from the damaging effects of climate change.

All of our work is guided by the values underpinning our purpose, so it goes beyond a ‘stance’ into genuine action. These are the behaviours that help us to identify and unlock new opportunities on the global stage – and together they represent the kind of organisation that we want HSBC to be.

Iconic brands will continue to invest in communicating their brand values and benefits – as ultimately this is what drives customer loyalty, sentiment and trust.

Why, in a recession, should a business continue to invest in their brand? How do you think the investment in brand and marketing, will evolve or change over the next 12 – 18 months?

Data consistently shows that brands that invest through a downturn emerge stronger and grow faster than those that do not.

For us, our brand is how we bring our purpose to life – so it’s important for this to be continue being a consistent message and experience for our customers. For them to continue to trust us.

Our brand marketing strategy is to drive preference, based on our relentless focus on our customers – that is done over many years of consistent investment and focus.

Iconic brands will continue to invest in communicating their brand values and benefits – as ultimately this is what drives customer loyalty, sentiment and trust.

How has your competition evolved over the past 24 months? Where are you seeing or experiencing the greatest threats? What are the biggest opportunities? Are you seeing new or surprising competitors entering the space?

There are fintechs, established brands, new entrants and alternatives entering the financial services markets all the time. Our priority is to focus on what we do best and what we can control – and that is improving our service to our customers. Our ambition is to be the preferred international financial partner for our clients, and this has not changed over the last 24 months. At a time when the world feels increasingly volatile due to technological pressures, climate change, geopolitics and the pandemic, we need to increasingly focus our efforts on being the leading international bank.

Playing at that level is of fundamental importance and sets us apart from our competition in what we do best. The breadth and depth of our network and heritage is key to many of our customers – our global and local knowledge across 63 markets enables us to work with the world’s biggest businesses, governments and international organisations to enact real change.

When it comes to tracking competitors, our radar needs to be broad and include alternative providers inside and outside of our category. But research shows that traditional banks do remain the most trusted, with safety and stability a key driver of this trust. This presents a strategic advantage for banks like us – we just need to continue to strive to always execute better from an experience point of view to the new standards of customer expectation.

When it comes to tracking competitors, our radar needs to be broad and include alternative providers inside and outside of our category.

We have come to recognize brands as being powerful acts of leadership. In what ways do your brand’s moves reflect you/your organization’s belief system? 

Probably the biggest single step for us has been aligning our purpose with our customer promise – Opening up a world of opportunity – it is why we exist and is clearly stated on all our communications to customers.  

We’re currently launching a new brand campaign, Open Questions, across a series of channels around the world. Its role is to encourage audiences to engage with our purpose, embedding it as part of the fabric of our organisation and how customers interact with us.  

It builds on our culture as a forward-thinking and creative brand that is comfortable engaging with thought-provoking and complex issues and highlights our international scale. Our research shows that the campaign is shifting the perception of HSBC as a bank that is ‘playful’ and ‘human’, qualities rarely associated with the banking category. 

It has the power to unlock dynamic conversations, and ask bigger, bolder and more ambitious questions.  

The questions all ladder up to our company purpose and work across the four pillars of our global strategy: international wealth and business, digitisation at scale, company culture, and our collective transition to net zero. They are the questions that will drive progress in those core areas of expertise at HSBC.