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It's not where you come from. It's where you're going.

By Chris Moody

I’m from the North. North of England. North London. Born in Huddersfield. Live in Hampstead.

Essentially I’m bi-northern. Like anything with a bi prefix (lateral, sexual, polar) this twin perspective means you tend to see the world a little bit differently (also see bi-focal).

The world of branding, however, tends not to deal very well with dual personalities. Lloyds TSB was essentially a ‘bi-bank’ - two regional entities forced together, first flowering, then wilting in the City of London. That was until this week when, with the resounding sound of ripping financial Velcro, they parted company.

This raises a bunch of questions about how modern UK brands are affected by their roots. As a new TSB customer, with one foot on either side of my north north divide, I feel compelled to add my tuppence worth. Let’s begin with history.

As a 'new’ 'new TSB’ customer I find it interesting that they have chosen to launch themselves as a 200 year-old bank. There is an argument (mine) that when it comes to brand building, heritage is just a bit boring. The fact your brand did something pretty good in the 1800’s means absolutely nothing if you can’t make it mean something to a generation of tweeters and twerkers.

I have shoes that are older than Google and tinned food that has seen more birthdays than Paypal, yet those newbie brands are doing fine and I trust them. So, the fact that TSB were around when we were still paying for things in guineas is not particularly important when I can’t open my mobile banking app.

If you can’t just build your brand on history, what have you got left?

Part of TSB’s heritage is being the 'local’ bank. This is more intriguing as, in many respects, it challenges the idea of a bank being a faceless monolith. It also flies in the face of the digital thinking that extolls the virtues of an interconnected and borderless marketplace.

Branding used to be about consistency, now it’s about cohesion, this means that you can successfully tweak your brand to be locally relevant. Tone of voice used to be a brand’s most important asset, but now it’s more about tone and quality of 'conversation’. Brands don’t have to bray in a monotone, they can adapt for their audience and talk with them not just at them.

So, the real question is just how 'local’ will TSB dare to become? Will the branches and communications in Wolverhampton feel different to those in Westminster? Will they engage real people in real conversation or will they just end up speaking 'bank’ at them like everyone else?

The problem they have is that it takes bravery to speak differently to those around you. Even on a personal level where you come from, how you speak, is often seen as shorthand for your entire personal brand (that’s why people sometimes play safe and dilute it) something exemplified by two recent stories:

BBC presenter Stephanie McGovern recently claimed her strong northern accent had been criticised at an early point in her career and she had even being accused of being “too common for telly”. Whilst conversely a few weeks ago the TV personality Donna Air was ridiculed for conducting an interview in an accent that viewers felt denied her Northern roots. Donna was deemed to have 'sold out’.

This is, of course, nonsense. Both women are bang on for their brand. Because their tone of conversation is appropriate for where they find themselves today - Steph the queen of the VT from the Macclesfield pie factory and Donna the new BFF of the future queen.

Successful 21st century brands are built from an accumulation of assets and experience delivered and expressed in a way that’s relevant for right now. It doesn’t matter if you change your accent or tell people what you did years ago. What matters is that what your brand actually says and does today is both true and authentic.

Time will tell if TSB find their true north but they won’t find it looking backwards.


Chris Moody is creative director at Wolff Olins London.