Depending on which branding survey you believe, consumers view global banking giant HSBC as either one of the world's top corporate brands or have little opinion of it at all.
In a recent report from the New York marketing research firm Millward Brown, HSBC was deemed the world's 28th most-valuable corporate brand, the highest rank of any bank with global operations. It also ranked No. 20 among all global brands in a report issued this year by Brand Finance, a British firm.
But in a March report issued by CoreBrand, another New York marketing research firm, HSBC ranked number 232 out of the world's brands. That trailed such brands as the beleaguered retailer Sears and oil producer BP, which was responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
These widely disparate results are not unique to HSBC. In surveys asking consumers how they view corporate brands, ranking for banks such as Citigroup (NYSE: C), Bank of America (BAC) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) are all over the map.
Survey designs partly explain the lack of consensus one survey might focus on things like convenience and price, while another might look at emotional attachment or familiarity but the biggest reason for the disparity is an overall ambivalence toward banks, observers say. Consumers don't like or dislike their banks, they just don't see much difference between them because they generally all offer the same products and services, observers say.
Chris Nichols, the chief strategy officer at CenterState Banks (CSFL) in Winter Haven, Fla., adds that even though banks are essentially offering commodity products, they have done a poor job of distinguishing themselves through expert marketing or branding.
"Banks have not invested in their brands and the customer is left with nothing but price for comparison," Nichols says. "A bank without a brand becomes just a provider of products instead of a trusted financial advisor. Brands can mean different things which is why survey results differ so much."
To be sure, some banks fared well in the surveys released by Millward Brown, CoreBrands and Brand Finance, all of which looked at the value of corporate brands around the world. Wells Fargo (WFC), for example ranked No. 13 in Millward Brown's poll and No. 15 in Brand Finance's survey.
Credit card networks also performed well when compared with firms in other industries. In CoreBrand's poll, American Express (AXP) Visa (NYSE: V) and MasterCard (MA) all ranked among the top 20 most-valuable brands in CoreBrand's survey and in the top 25 in Millward Brown's poll.
Oscar Yuan, a vice president at Millward Brown, says it's not surprising that card companies scored higher than banks, because consumers interact with their credit cards on an almost-daily basis.
"Credit cards get you in front of consumers in a way that mortgages and asset management doesn't," Yuan says.
Overall, though, there is little consistency in consumers' perception of bank brands. Case in point; Bank of America ranked No. 21 in Brand Finance's survey of 500 firms but came in at No. 129 in CoreBrand's poll of 900 brands. JPMorgan Chase ranked No. 28 in the Brand Finance survey and No. 148 in the CoreBrand poll.
Compare that with the very consistent rankings for tech giants Google and Apple. Google ranked No. 1 in the Millward Brown survey and No. 3 in the Brand Finance poll, while Apple ranked No. 2 in the Millward Brown report and No. 3 in Brand Finance's
The financial crisis could still be fresh in consumers' memories when assessing banks' brands. American Banker has found in its annual examination of banks' reputations that the banking industry fares poorly when compared with other sectors, such as retail and technology.
Chris Riegel, the chief executive of Stratacache, a Dayton, Ohio, firm that consults banks on technology, says that banks might also score higher in branding surveys if they were aggressive or creative in their marketing. Few, for example, will use celebrities to pitch products and rarely will banks take aim at one another the way retailers might.
"Banks tend to be very conservative," he says. "Banks generally don't attack other banks, not the same way that retailers do. Walmart will talk about how you pay less at their store than at Target," for example.
On the bright side, observers say, bank brands tend not to suffer much from negative headlines.
HSBC's brand performed well in the Millward Brown and Brand Finance studies despite the fact that it in late 2012 the bank agreed to pay almost $2 billion to U.S. regulators as a penalty for anti-money laundering problems.
Most consumers simply don't keep up with those types of internal corporate sagas, says Stratacache's Riegel.
"The average consumer is more aligned with [Cleveland Browns quarterback] Johnny Manziel's draft status rather than whether a bank has a major scandal going on," Riegel says.