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The respect instinct

Why the NatWest Farage debacle is a timely warning to all marketers in all sectors.
‘Respect the customer’ is the iron law of marketing.
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

The verdict is in. Last week, law firm Travers Smith published the findings of its investigation, commissioned by NatWest Bank, into the treatment of Nigel Farage by the bank and its subsidiary Coutts.

The report opined that Coutts, in summarily closing Farage’s account, had acted lawfully but had “communicated poorly”. About former NatWest chief executive Dame Alison Rose, it concluded that she had “conveyed confidential customer information” when passing on details of Farage’s financial situation to a prominent BBC journalist.

NatWest group chairman Sir Howard Davies, summarising the bank’s response to the findings, stated that, on this occasion, “the experience fell short of the standards that any customer could expect”.

There was only one truly, astoundingly surprising thing about the Travers Smith report: that it was commissioned in the first place. What was it that compelled NatWest to deem it necessary to ask an outsider to adjudicate on matters that were incontestable at the time?

It’s not that Rose had denied leaking Farage’s financial details. She admitted that she had passed them on to BBC business editor Simon Jack, and confirmed that she had been happy to corroborate the story in a subsequent call from him – failings for which she both apologised and resigned. Why does it take a law firm to ram into the heads of NatWest leadership that this is, indeed, a confidentiality breach?

Coutts, meanwhile, had itself provided the exit dossier on Farage, following a subject access request, in which it labelled him a “disingenuous grifter”, among other graphic insults. Why does it require subtle legal minds to determine that this amounts to poor communication?

Imagine Farage going into a pub where the landlord, neither warming to the cut of his jib nor the slant of his politics, abruptly throws a pint of beer in his face. Would the pub group find it necessary to commission legal counsel to adjudicate on the reasonableness of the behaviour? Would it eventually conclude that, in breach of clause VI, subsection (d.iii), of the licensed victuallers’ customer guidelines, “the experience fell short of expectations on this occasion”?

Big business achieves much of its efficiency and scale from the expedient of outsourcing. But somehow it has arrived at the stage of outsourcing its conscience. What happened to respect? It should be an instinct, not an outcome of externally mediated guidance. How have famous brands drifted so far from fundamentals that their leaders have abdicated commercial judgement in favour of judging their customers instead? And finding them wanting?

Well, maybe we marketers need to accept our share of the guilt. We are the conduit into the boardroom of everything about consumers and, if we’re honest, we can point to small, unconscious ways in which the language we use dehumanises them.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard the once-common term ‘punters’ to describe the people who buy our goods and services, but the descriptors we assign to consumer cohorts in our segmentation studies are often scarcely more respectful.

Even those segments we wish to focus on get names that assign to rounded human beings a single, immutable term, as though they live in only the consumption dimension and cannot be one thing on a Wednesday and another at the weekend: ‘playful experimentalists’, ‘savvy savers’, ‘home haven hunters’.

Those segments that fall outside the desired target scope get frostier monikers: ‘Mrs Mean’, to describe the mum who doesn’t put much variety on the family breakfast table; ‘treatment deniers’ to delineate people who choose not to take conventional medicines; ‘natural fantasists’ for those who believe beauty can be achieved without scientific ingredients. I’ve yet to come across a segment labelled ‘disingenuous grifters’ but you can see how our professional branding language could encourage others to get there.

The very word ‘target’, especially when used without any reference to the fact that what we are talking about here is people, is a sign to the assembled board that we are comfortable thinking of customers as the disempowered recipients of our smart marketing ordnance.

The current vogue for talking about the ‘aspirational target’ takes this a step further towards judgmentalism. The idea is that you do not show the reality of the typical customer in brand communications, but instead an idealised version of them: younger, slimmer, wealthier.

It can make for short-term commercial gain but masks an inner view that our real-life customers are not quite how we’d wish them to be. And it is all a long way from former adman Steve Henry’s classic advice to “describe the target consumer as though you like them”.

Combine this linguistic waywardness with marketing’s enthusiasm for ‘purpose’ – usually of the ‘higher-order’ kind – and you can glimpse the slippery steps that lead one by one to disdain. We are busy here creating a better planet; since that rousing workshop last January, our lives and talents are harnessed to that aim. What are we to call those, even among our own customer base, who stand in the way? More to the point, what are we to do about them?

Alison Rose had worked at NatWest for 30 years before departing in disgrace this July. What made her suddenly fall prey to insouciant indiscretion? Was it just a momentary lapse, the sort of thing that on a bad day can happen to the best of us? Or was it perhaps reflective of a culture of indifference and disdain that permeated all layers of the corporate hierarchy she had spent three decades climbing?

Either way, it’s not that NatWest, nor even the insult-throwers at Coutts, should be viewed as outliers in their casual disregard for people on whom they’d much rather prefer their salaries did not depend.

It’s widespread. It starts small, with convenient linguistic lapses that we all sort of understand yet rarely consciously examine. It gets amplified by our current obsession with rising above the marketplace to put the world to rights. Where Farage and NatWest have done us a favour is to make graphic where it can lead. ‘Respect the customer’ is the iron law of marketing. We don’t need a firm of lawyers to tell us that it all too often gets broken.