recognition among South Africans, until 1998 when it unified and invested in a brand campaign to attract attention both internally and externally.
In 1998, Absa embarked upon a carefully researched strategy to reinvent itself as a bank for all of South Africa under the slogan, "Marketing is the Business, and the Business is Marketing."
Initial research indicated that over 90% of customers who belonged to the banks that were to fall under the Absa banner would remain with the group. Capitalizing on this good fortune, the brand managers at Absa focused on providing personalized client service, and stressed to their employees that this service was to extend to every level of the bank.
In this vein, Angela Bruwer, General Marketing Manager of Absa, points out that "A bank has no tangible product it sells except for client service. Our goal was to provide great service and promote the Absa brand through our people – how they spoke to clients, how they interacted with each other, even how they dressed."
The key marketers then sat down and asked themselves what the bank should be like if it were a person, and came up with the following: progressive, innovative, intelligent, approachable, caring, human. Using these qualities as a guide, ABSA’s motto became "Today, Tomorrow, Together" – a slogan that attempts to promote the solidity of the brand as well as the employees’ commitment to their customers.
Of course with a merger, there’s always a need to reintroduce the brand both to current and potential customers. Absa gave all of its inherited branches a facelift and formed a corresponding new logo that was modern and youthful looking. It was also a loud, fire engine red, a nod to two of the most well known brand names in South Africa: Coca-Cola and Toyota. Bruwer points out that this new design helps promote a "younger energy."
Absa also offered the public free Internet access and email, which immediately attracted a young computer-literate crowd. The bank was quick to capitalize on this interest by undercutting the interest rates of its competitors for first-time home buyers – the very same people who might be setting up a new home as well as their own web page.
These initiatives came on the coattails of an aggressive television campaign that ran in the prime viewing hours of South African TV. These mini-infomercials gave real time updates of what happened at Absa in the last 24 hours. Bruwer points out that in using these real life videos of checking accounts being opened and home loans being approved, Absa was able to say, "This is what we did for customers today."
Absa’s Group Executive Director, Santie Botha, who at age 34 became the youngest director on the Absa Group Board, is also a savvy brand manager whose comments reflect Absa’s attempts to connect with the customer on a human level: "Brands are like people, they have personalities and form relationships. Relationships are not forged between companies, they are the result of interaction between people."
Botha and her team began a blitzkrieg on what Bruwer calls "the bureaucratic ideal" of South African banking. Their blanket marketing campaign was designed to convince potential customers, as well as the customers it had inherited, that staying with Absa meant staying with a company that was not only rock solid, but was also committed to service excellence.
To do this, Bruwer instilled in her staff the concept that "Our product is our people" – and this meant the people on both sides of the counter. Bruwer describes how Absa’s branding gurus took 33,000 fearful, demoralized staff members who were working in a new environment and still shell-shocked from a news-making corporate merger, and put them through imaginative branding sessions.
On some evenings they invited staff members to local cinemas where they were treated to a movie with their spouses and where they would meet senior management figures who urged people to, as Bruwer points out, "live the brand." The bank started an internal television channel that was relayed into all the branches and prescribed a colorful corporate wardrobe. Staff were told that their attitude toward customers and their conversations among themselves even after hours, had a direct effect on how people perceived the bank – and the Absa brand.
Absa also aggressively courted what Bruwer calls "a more inclusive staff profile" who could help woo a younger, hipper – blacker – clientele. This was crucial, as the former customers at the banks that made up Absa fit a conservative, white, older Afrikaans profile, a diminishing market in South Africa.
The company also held "branding road shows" where the staff were introduced to the Absa branding mentality, including the internal motto "You Are Absa." Staff members from all echelons of the corporate structure were assigned employee packs with a letter from the CEO, a CD titled "Alive and Kicking," a special edition of the internal newsletter, Abacus, and the Absa brand book. The results were phenomenal. Within a year, Absa had taken this "fearful, disillusioned" workforce and made believers out of them.
Riana Prins, Brand Manager for Brand Marketing at Absa, proudly points to recent surveys showing staff turnaround at an all time low and annual staff research showing Absa becoming an employer of choice. Staff commitment to Absa is "very positive," she says, and Absa is now "in the second phase of our employee training, which will see our support staff learning that ‘I am the Brand.’ "
Winning the hearts and minds of its own people was only the first challenge. The second was winning over the public. Absa has taken the initiative to sponsor sports events and create scholarships for underprivileged people. The company has put out over US$ 10M (ZAR 116M) to its social investment programs, the Absa Foundation, which operates from the proceeds of 2% of the declared dividend. The Foundation focuses on job creation, education and health improvement in poor areas around South Africa.
Absa also sponsors several regional events with the proceeds going to charity. The bank will, from time to time, promote "casual days" where workers buy stickers that allow them the privilege of shedding their corporate garb and coming to work in jeans and sweats for the benefit of the South African Association for the Physically Disabled.
Another groundbreaking effort has been the formation of The Nation’s Trust, a partnership between Absa and England’s Prince’s Trust. Patrons of the Nations Trust are none other than Former South African President Nelson Mandela and England’s Queen Elizabeth II; it is designed to encourage grass roots entrepreneurship. These projects and others like them have earning Absa the distinction of South Africa’s Most Caring Corporation by the South African Corporate Care Check.
Absa has also cleverly striven to become associated with South Africa’s passion for sports. The bank offers significant financial support to a variety of international sporting events, including the seventh All Africa Games. It also offers sports scholarships and development aid to budding young African athletes who lack access to proper training facilities. Its range of "affinity cards" permits South Africans to support the country’s rugby programs.
The bank has also put massive support into South African arts with its Atelier Awards, which helps fund struggling young artists. These branding exercises have helped Absa not only keep itself in the public eye, but have also enabled it to position itself as the top supporter of burgeoning talent in South Africa, giving further credence to its claim of being a bank that actively helps make the dreams come true of people from all racial backgrounds in South Africa.
Today, Absa enjoys a whopping 95% brand recognition among South Africans and has become one of the 10 leading brands in South Africa, a crown it shares with only one other banking institution, the centenarian Standard Bank. Absa now ranks among the top four banks in South Africa in the majority of business areas and dominates the home loan market in the country. In 2001, it was voted "Bank of the Year/South Africa" by the Banker magazine (published by the Financial Times).
Given the fact that consumers saw the old banks that made up Absa as some of the most bureaucratic and conservative organizations in the South African marketplace, this is a huge step forward and evidence of just how quickly a corporate identity can be reinvented when everyone is on board.
Riana Prins tells us that "ABSA’s corporate vision, to be a customer focused financial services group in targeted market segments, is starting to become a reality through staff training and innovative advertising that forces the public to think about the positive ways that Absa has helped them today. It is on this that Absa will continue to build." As far as the year 2002 is concerned, she tells us that "Our primary focus is to build, protect and nurture the Absa brand… and we are not finished yet."