Banks were among the earliest adopters of semiotics and the communications of retail banks became the first semiotics case studies. One of these is Halifax, which appeared in the seminal how-to paper Demystifying Semiotics [hyperlink] (Lawes, 2002). At the time, Halifax’s branding and communications were rather unconventional. They were a riot of colour at a time when British banking was semiotically very conservative and dominated by black, navy blue and racing green, because it was conventionally agreed that those things signified trustworthiness. Demystifying Semiotics showed how Halifax deployed semiotic signs such as its bright, vivid colour palette and the branch staff who became the stars of its advertising, to set itself apart as a bank that was approachable and as much fun as banking could be. Lawes then went on to solve dozens of business problems for banks and financial providers, not only in branding but in innovation, across products such as credit cards, current accounts, savings, mortgages and pensions. We also went on to publish more papers such as How to differentiate your finance brand using semiotics (2007).

Did you know?

  • The way consumers feel about their own spending is morally loaded and even has quasi-religious themes such as virtue, shame and guilt. The most avid shoppers sometimes talk as though they had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Fascinatingly, the point of this linguistic behaviour is not only to acknowledge and defer to conventional (sensible, virtuous) wisdom about money and spending (don’t run up debt, don’t buy things you don’t need) but also to provide for and facilitate exactly those behaviours which are being acknowledged as undesirable.
  • Many consumers stick with the same bank for a long time so that a psychological contract is built up. Customers expect that having a long history with a bank will result in personalised service, sympathy and tolerance from the bank when a individual meets with a financial crisis. Not many banks are good at meeting this expectation.
  • Be careful when including images that are intended to be simple or literal representations of customers – this is a common trope in pensions and retirement marketing. It’s easy to go wrong because society changes quickly and the self-image of consumers changes with it. Baby boomers were not a shy generation, many mature people are avid users of social media and through this they project clear messages about how they see themselves and how they want to be treated. This can be semiotically decoded and converted into better, more strategic banking and finance comms.

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