HSBC = Hella Serious Brand Contusion

Another banking scandal unfolds, courtesy of

The global bank HSBC has been used by Mexican drug cartels looking to get cash back into the United States, by Saudi Arabian banks that needed access to dollars despite their terrorist ties, and by Iranians who wanted to circumvent United States sanctions.

What's astonishing, especially in light of the recent unapologetic testimony by bankers such as Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase and Barclay's Robert Diamond is this statement by the bank:

The company said in a statement on Monday that “we will apologize, acknowledge these mistakes, answer for our actions and give our absolute commitment to fixing what went wrong.”

But Senator Carl Levin, who leads the banking subcommittee, was not impressed. 

“While the bank is saying all the right things, and that is fine, it has said all the right things before,” he said.

Clearly, HSBC's brand is severely damaged in the eyes of the senator, but what about it's customers? Recent banking scandals have mainly been about complex financial products and poor bets on foreign debt, things that the average consumer or even the average business owner might find remote. But drug lords and terrorists ten deep at the teller's counter? That's another matter entirely, one that is easily grasped and just as easily despised by the everyday customer.

Will this lead HSBC to do some soul searching? Clearly it should, but what can the bank do to win back trust, apart from paying it's debt to society and promising (hollow as that promise might turn out to be) never to do it again?

No, that's probably not going to work. I wouldn't bank at an institution that laundered blood money or helped fund bombs used against innocent civilians, and neither would you.

HSBC may need a complete rebrand, or maybe just a refresh. But the brand identity is damaged to the point where it now only has "salvage value," as they say in the property and casualty world. 

Whichever way they go, they need to develop a clear brand strategy, with a brand essence (the heart and soul, the DNA of a brand) that thwarts such nefarious impulses. And in order to really move forward in a demonstrable fashion, HSBC will need to express a brand vision that clearly explains how they are going to use their skills and resources to build a better world for everyone.

Everyone except drug dealers and terrorists, that is.


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