Profile: Banking Without Boundaries
"To have great dreams, you need cash," Sarajit Mitra said at the opening of his talk at the Festival of Media Asia 2011 in Singapore, prompting the audience to break out in laughter. But there's no denying that statement, which sums up the role he plays at HSBC.
As global head of marketing and client experience in global banking and markets, Mitra faces the challenging task of strengthening consumer optimism amid the economic turmoil.
"Half the world is in a recessionary state, and the other half - the emerging markets - is fairly optimistic about its future. However, there is such a strong dynamic and opportunity in this interaction that HSBC is seeing, by virtue of its business in over 86 countries," he says.
Having worked with HSBC since 2003, Mitra believes marketers in financial services hold great social responsibility to their communities because money, ultimately, fuels growth and improves the quality of lives.
"To spur the growth of businesses, you need capital capabilities and connectivity, and for that you need strong institutions.
"Customers today expect financial institutions to understand their businesses and where their businesses are heading in terms of growth and management of risk."
Therein lies his second challenge - endeavouring to deliver the bank's values and respect for people and their cultures in a sector where traditionally, the focus has been on products and services.
"Marketing in financial institutions is a major challenge because you start in a position where people are sceptical about what you're doing, especially in recent times, and they can't clearly see what you're doing," he says.
"My role is to bring the bank to the customers. HSBC respects the cultures in which it operates and we respect people for what they are, and these are key aspects of our communications."
This is evident in its ads over the past few years, which include elements of family values and human connections, with a dash of wit and emotions.
"Family values, connections, cultures ... these are key values the bank propagates. We want to demonstrate that we are following our customers, wherever they are, and we understand their needs," he says.
To reflect this, HSBC embarked on its global airport branding strategy, which the bank pioneered in 2001, by advertising on jet bridges at London's Heathrow Airport. Since then, it has expanded to more than 40 airports in 86 countries.
The global airport branding strategy - a testament to HSBC's claim as the world's local bank - aims to demonstrate the bank's international reach and capabilities.
"This is an increasingly interconnected world. When you take off in London and land in Shanghai, for example, you see the brand the way you recognise it and it creates a perception that HSBC has the ability to do cross-border business.
"The strategic objective for the future of HSBC is about helping businesses grow across borders because that's where the future is. It's about global business."
Much akin to its global airport strategy, which reflects the bank's attempts to follow customer trends, its other plan is to deliver customised content on websites.
"If you think about it, there is no real reason to visit a company's corporate website unless you want to learn more about the products the company has to offer. Through research, we've found customers seek information from news websites, publications and corporate websites, in that order," Mitra says.
Based on that, HSBC embarked on creating content through various websites, such as Business Without Borders, while updating its own www.hsbcnet.com.
Business Without Borders is a portal where readers can acquire independent information collated from various news sources such as The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Bloomberg.
Its own website comprises two types of content - insights and information on HSBC's products and services. "These two distinct parts come together in delivering the whole customer experience that may help our customers solve challenges they face in their businesses," he says.
Nevertheless, Mitra stresses corporate websites have a role to play in delivering evidence of the bank's capabilities to support customer needs.
While the global airport strategy invokes in customers a sense of familiarity with the bank, putting content on other business-related websites demonstrates HSBC understands its customers' needs and is keeping a close watch on consumer trends.
"The way media is changing, it is difficult to predict what the next trend will be. But if technology in 50 years evolves to an extent that it will allay the fear of transacting online, I would predict pretty much all financial services will be digitally based," Mitra says.
While HSBC's advertising budget is not increasing overall, more is being spent on digital media and it will continue to increase its online presence and engagement with customers.
"The process of choosing to buy products in the retail space is moving online, but that's not yet the case in the corporate space because of issues of credits and privacy in accessing clients' credentials," he says.
When asked whether technology will make his task in cultivating the human connection more challenging, he says: "On the contrary, technology will strengthen and reinforce relationships.
"With more data and information, marketers will be able to judge whether you are worthy of their products and services and consumers will be able to judge whether they are worthy of the products and services.
"Furthermore, technology will have everything working off one platform. It will allow for more face-time and cut down on travel.
"It's very important for marketers to embrace technology, but it starts with people and relationships. You have to understand customer behaviour and attitudes because the return-on-investment is on influencing opinions and choices."
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