HSBC, (previously known as Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation), has evolved over 137 years from mercantile roots in Asia to become one of the top financial services organisations in the world. It is now present in 81 countries, serving 31 million customers, through 7,000 offices.

However, prior to 1999 HSBC was known by as many as 50 different local names in individual markets (Midland in UK, Bamerindus in Brazil, Marine Midland in USA, Hongkong Bank in most of Asia, and so forth). “HSBC” had little consumer equity in these markets.

The Problem: HSBC was the world’s second largest bank – but no-one knew it!

HSBC decided that they were not leveraging their global footprint to their best advantage and it was time to consolidate and unite behind a single, harmonious global brand.

In March 1999, Lowe & Partners Worldwide were appointed as the global lead agency for HSBC Holdings plc to spearhead building HSBC into a truly global brand, as befitted their global presence.

The intent, right from the start, was always about more than just creating a global ad campaign. The goal was to create a brand ‘mantra’ or philosophy that would encompass a 360 degree strategic vision spanning everything the organisation thinks and does going forward, from new product development to HR policy to communications to business strategy.

The strategic approach

In order to address the bank’s overall goal, Lowe and HSBC adopted a phased approach: Phase 1 was simply to create awareness of the new HSBC brand identity around the world, and then Phase 2 was to build a differentiated and relevant brand proposition using HSBC’s core brand values.

Phase 1: Generate awareness for the new brand identity

The ‘Symbols’ campaign

HSBC acted decisively. In a very limited amount of time, they changed their name simultaneously around the world. In England, the well-known ‘Midland’ signs outside high street banks came down overnight, and the new HSBC logo went up. A logo that meant almost nothing to the average man on the street. And this was a story being played out globally. A basic level of positive awareness was critical.

In this first phase, Lowe devised the ‘Symbols’ campaign. A deceptively simple idea that could work easily across markets, and would stand out and be noticed. The creative execution cleverly juxtaposed the HSBC logo with other widely understood symbols of services, needs, emotions and values to communicate the bank’s global reach, integrity and straightforwardness. The premise was simple: like the other symbols which had become synonymous with their category, the HSBC logo should become the universally acknowledged emblem of excellence and integrity in financial services.

Brand awareness for the new HSBC name and logo climbed rapidly after the launch and reached the required levels in all key markets – including those where HSBC replaced a long-standing recognised brand. Favourability ratings also improved, which was quite outstanding given the previous history of some of these long standing brand names.

In all, a solid foundation was laid and it was now time to progress to phase 2 and invest the brand, (that people now recognised as a symbol of quality), with more differentiating brand qualities.

Phase 2: Differentiation

‘The world’s local bank’

With the first phase successfully completed, the next challenge was the classic global brand dilemma: How to balance the need for global consistency with local relevance?

Through extensive research, Lowe and HSBC together discovered that whilst consumers around the world saw the benefits of a large, global bank, they resisted the prevailing ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality of global brands. They questioned how a huge, global bank like HSBC could treat them as individuals and tailor their products and offerings accordingly.

Lowe and HSBC identified that one of the most important differentiators about HSBC was their approach to doing business around the world. Because HSBC grew up as part of the community in many countries over many years, this led to an organisational culture that embraces strong, empowered, and truly local presence. HSBC’s ‘multi-local’ approach is rare amongst global brands and unique in the financial services category.

Further research affirmed this route could be highly motivating. For many consumers, global brands are impersonal, arrogant and distant – and ‘culturally imperialistic’. The task was therefore to capitalise on the bank’s ‘multi-local’ approach to make ‘global’ feel personally relevant and compelling.

HSBC’s local staff has a genuine understanding of their own people, country and culture. Because HSBC harnesses and shares its local financial knowledge for the benefit of its customers globally, the bank is like “local bankers to the world.” To put it more simply, HSBC is “the world’s local bank.”

The recent global campaign, developed with creative inputs from Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand, centred on a core advertising idea which dramatised the apparent paradox of a global institution operating at a very local, personal level.

Results have been encouraging. Apart from overwhelmingly positive consumer response, indicators from worldwide advertising tracking are beginning to show clear advances in awareness, likeability and effectiveness scores across key markets. In addition, a magazine poll saw HSBC being voted as Asia’s most successful brand this year. “HSBC is becoming recognised as a great brand and leading brand export from Asia to the rest of the world.”