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            10 / 02 / 12

            Semiotic Snack: Metro What?

            • Metro Bank is the first entirely new high street bank for a hundred years. In these times of economic brouhaha and disenchantment with the banking sector, this could be exciting news – and Metro Bank certainly looks different on first walking into a branch. I will argue that the principles behind Metro Bank and the way in which it is choosing to operate are sound, attractive and dramatically different in a change-resistant category. There is, though, some confusion in the execution of these principles that I believe affects the bank’s sense of authority and trustworthiness.

              So what does the bank stand for?

              To answer this, let’s first consider what being a bank actually means. The word ‘bank’ engenders trust by offering something concrete to trust in. The ‘imagery’ of a bank is traditionally of a real place where something of value is stored (even if this is not, in practice, what banks are fundamentally about). The Bank of England with its vaults and Gringott’s Bank in ‘Harry Potter’ are good examples of the basis on which banks construct reputations of trust.

              In the wake / midst of the credit crisis, Metro Bank makes its case for trustworthiness primarily through being anti-category in three distinct ways. Firstly, Metro Bank positions itself as the anti-bank – it will be everything that other banks are not: there will be “no stupid bank rules”.

            • Secondly, the experience promised is atypical of the category: branches are called stores and look like 1980’s toy shops. Metro also promises a return to the notion of service associated with ‘old-fashioned’ banking. Consumer convenience and satisfaction are the bank’s aimsand the bank has won awards from both Mumsnet and the Kennel Club for its mother- and dog-friendly policies, respectively. Lastly, there is a childish tone to much of the bank’s identity (‘magic money machine’, lollipops for children, primary colours and an animated mascot).

            • This is certainly different from most other banks, but it is confusing too – why should we trust Metro Bank? The bank, as yet, lacks any genuine authority. Treating a consumer like a child works well when the bank positions itself as older and authoritative; Lloyds TSB’s For the Journey campaign is a good example:

            • Metro Bank however positions itself as a child as well – the kids have taken over the sweetshop. This undermines, rather than generates, the authority that Metro Bank, as a bank, seems to need.

            • Metro Bank urges us to ‘love your bank at last’, but this, I’d argue, is a distraction. Given popular distrust of the banking sector, the idea of a loveable bank might seem like a blessed relief, but in the current financial climate, trust is arguably more important than love when it comes to banks and Metro Bank lacks any clear reason to trust it – are we supposed to trust it because of its sense of fun, its old-fashioned values of service or its opposition to the category norms (a negative definition)?

              And then there’s the name. All other banks reference a founder or place of origin in their names, which enhances the bank’s authority through clear responsibility – whose it is / where it’s from: Lloyd’s, Barclays, Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation, Bradford & Bingley, Halifax etc. ‘Metro’ lacks this sense of identifiable responsibility, in fact lacking any strong associations at all. ‘Metro’ can suggest fluidity: underground trains going in many directions in the dark (hardly a positive image for a bank these days); or it can imply something that is neither one thing nor another, as in ‘metrosexuality’ or 1930’s ‘metroland’ (a euphemism for suburban North-West London – by definition, neither city nor country – coined by the publicity department of the Metropolitan Railway which served this new development).

              Overall, the successful launch of a new bank in one of the most testing financial environments in decades is worthy of congratulation. To premise a bank on getting things right for the consumer above all and doing so with a sense of fun is laudable. We do though still need to know why we can trust Metro Bank – make that clear and my account’s yours, Metro.