Friday, March 20

Banking On Troubles: Waggener Edstrom Worldwide

According to a consumer poll conducted by Waggener Edstrom Worldwide and RT Strategies, a mere 8 percent of consumers have full confidence in banks and financial services companies. The firm compares the low water mark to a 31 percent confidence level reported in 2006 by the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center.

Highlights From Waggener Edstrom Worldwide Nationwide Consumer Poll

• 44 percent of respondents said they heard something from the industry but felt more negative after hearing it.
• 11 percent of respondents heard something from the industry and felt better about it.
• 38 percent of respondents said they have heard nothing directly from the industry at all.

Waggener Edstrom Worldwide concludes that media coverage and/or advertising is shaping public opinion more than direct communication from the industry and that authentic and credible communication positively influences widely held opinions about the industry overall.

"Ironically, at a time when the financial services industry has the most at stake, its communications with consumers and policymakers have descended to a strikingly low level," said Torod Neptune, senior vice president and Global Public Affairs Practice leader at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. "Perhaps one of the most jarring findings in this survey is the sheer lack of industry leadership in communicating what financial services companies are doing to aid in a broad-based economic recovery."

The consumer poll mirrors a cursory public sentiment report we conducted for a national bank last month, which demonstrated the financial services industry as a whole is causing individual bank brand erosion as a direct result of accepting TARP funds. Areas of concern across the industry include mismanagement, financial waste, security, trust, and longevity.

Where we differ from Waggener Edstrom Worldwide is in its recommendation that there is an opportunity for financial services leaders to step forward in the midst of this storm and proactively communicate a message of trust. Unlike most messages, trust cannot be communicated as an industry as much as it has to be earned at a ratio of one-to-one.

What is also missing from the Waggener Edstrom Worldwide conclusions is that some banks are communicating direct to clients. And, by in large, there are reasons that TARP banks have remained largely quiet. Specifically, not all of them needed TARP funds. The reason they accepted the funds is sound, but it does not resonate with the public while individual banks are targeted for public floggings.

So is there a solution? Sure. But the opportunity isn't to step forward in the midst of this storm and proactively communicate for the industry in an environment where it's good sport to take shots at financial services, where individual bank decisions can erode the credibility of whomever picks up the mantle, or where government has positioned itself in an adversarial role. Instead, an individual bank needs to focus on what it can manage — its own communication to employees, customers, and prospects.

In addition, the message wouldn't be one of trust, but rather one demonstrated by reliability and longevity. And by "demonstrated," I mean with evidence that suggests it is provably true. Each bank, of course, needs to develop a message based on its own situation and core values, assuming it hasn't drifted too far away from those.

Interestingly enough, the less reported on portion of the study reveals that consumers appear willing to give the industry the benefit of the doubt on questions about industry practices, such as the use of TARP funds. That tells me the 8 percent finding that is carrying some headlines today isn't so much about the industry as much as it demonstrates how popular it is to say "I don't trust banks, um, except the one that has my money."



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