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Premium brands can draw a lot of added value from their long history. But they must not lose sight of the future. The example of Bethmann Bank shows how a traditional brand is managed.

By Alexandra Vitt-Kraus, Head of Marketing and Communication, Bethmann Bank.

For most of the established premium brands, their own tradition plays an important role. This is understandable, as one’s own history often offers numerous points of reference that one likes to associate with a premium claim. However, this tradition can also become an obstacle if it becomes rigid and is seen as a museum. This is not a new insight, but it has been gaining in importance for some years. The digitalisation of almost all areas of life is accompanied by faster and faster development. A contemporary and future-oriented brand must be able to withstand the speed of this change, which can sometimes come across as an upheaval. The willingness to change is therefore an essential part of brand management. Even iconic brand symbols such as the Mercedes logo have been refreshed and adapted over the decades – without losing their distinctiveness. In addition to the design language, however, the future viability of a premium brand depends above all on its own self-image: on the one hand, an attitude and brand values based on its own tradition and, on the other, a consistent forward orientation.

Private banks – a (brand) world of their own

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The future viability of a premium brand is based on tradition and consistent forward orientation.

Let’s take a short excursion into the world of private banks: Almost all old private banks emerged from trading companies that initially pooled their deposits and used them for financing. Most of the initially small institutions were run by personally liable partners, the private bankers. They bore the name of the founders or the founding families: Oppenheim, Rothschild or our example Bethmann are some of the better known names. It was not until 1870 that the first joint-stock institutions appeared on the German scene with Schaaffhausen’schen Bankverein (banking association) and Deutsche Bank. Banks as legal entities. What is normal today was a paradigm shift at the end of the 19th century.

But back to the small, family-run banks: only the least of them are still family-owned today. In the whole of Germany, there are still about 20 houses, among them Bankhaus Metzler, Berenberg Bank or Warburg. In addition, however, there are still a number of financial institutions in the tradition of owner-managed houses that still operate successfully in the market as private bank brands. What they all have in common is that they can look back on a similar history.

The beginning of brand management and the example of Bethmann Bank

Let’s start with what these banks did not have in the beginning, namely their own understanding of being a brand. Instead, they were largely content to function as family businesses. Incidentally, the same was true of the family offices that also existed at the time, small companies for managing the assets of one or more families. From the middle of the 19th century onwards, however, the takeovers and acquisitions of these family businesses became more frequent, which meant that the name of the houses and the rights to use them became more important. Without these rights, no bank could change hands or the previous owning family could withdraw from the activity. This phase, at least in the German banking landscape, can perhaps even be recorded as the birth epoch of a brand consciousness in the financial industry. 

It quickly became clear that a brand could be synonymous with the way business was conducted. The brand thus became an increasingly important element of commitment to a specific house – not only towards clients, but also towards existing or potential employees. For both, the brand was therefore discovered as something that offers protection and creates identification. In principle, this has not changed until today.

Back to Bethmann Bank: As was the case with many other private banks before, the Bethmann family separated from their bank in 1976. Johann Philipp von Bethmann initially sold 50% of the shares to Bayerische Vereinsbank. The second half followed in 1983. Bankhaus Bethmann became a subsidiary of Bayerische Vereinsbank for asset management in the private customer business.

A traditional brand meets the demands of the 21st century

In the 70s and 80s, changes usually took place at a comparatively leisurely pace. Within this already rather slow-moving world, private banks were once again a bastion of stability, with bank clerks and counter clerks working in their panelled offices. The arrival of the internet fundamentally changed this world. The real “game changer” began to take its course with digitalisation: Transparency, greater comparability and increasing regulation became more and more relevant factors.

What does this have to do with the brand? Plenty! The more transparent and regulated a market is, the more comparable the offer becomes and the more difficult it is to differentiate from the competition purely on the basis of factual performance characteristics. The brand and its maintenance thus become more important, especially for a bank. In addition, there is no tangible product that can be used for personal identification, as in the automotive industry.

The “delivery”, i.e. the pure product or service part, is increasingly becoming the hygiene factor, apart from a few special offers for complex assets. The decisive factor for successfully addressing customers and employees is rather how the bank appears to them as a brand and how it feels to them.

Even more decisive for a bank than for companies from other industries is therefore how well it is able to credibly link its brand with values. This is especially true for a private bank.

The brand lives from the inside out

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The premium brand is precisely not a façade behind which the company retreats when needed

This already indicates that it is far from being just about the visual brand appearance. The premium brand is precisely not a façade behind which the company retreats when needed. Bethmann Bank has therefore chosen a very methodical approach and placed the definition of the brand core before the description of the positioning of our brand. A lively, successful and future-oriented brand builds itself from the inside out. For this, its brand core must provide answers to the demands placed on the brand. Of course, this also includes progress and further development. The brand, with the self-image anchored in it, must not only react to automation, regulation, digitalisation, growth, innovations and modern customer requirements, but must also credibly convey that it anticipates and already prepares for future developments in the service of customers and employees. As indicated above, requirements have changed significantly since the mid-1990s and change cycles are becoming shorter and shorter. This also unsettles clients and they are looking for a partner who thinks ahead for them.

This makes it all the more important to define one’s own brand in a stable way and to position it consciously, including socio-politically. People want to buy stories, they want to be part of a community and be received emotionally. More than ever, they therefore ask what the mission of a company is. Whereas values, mission or vision were often dismissed as “gobbledygook” in boardrooms at the turn of the millennium, today they are recognised everywhere as a central element of brand perception. The development has even gone a step further and with it, “purpose”, i.e. the raison d’être, has moved to the centre of brand understanding.   

What content does the brand stand for?

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Brand content must be developed and established in close coordination with the business strategy.

Purpose, mission, brand essence – it should not sound as if Bethmann Bank is already perfect. It understands brand management as a path and all those involved are also very aware of the stages on which they still have a long way to go. What does it mean for the brand, for example, if the bank grows not only organically, but inorganically? In addition to the old private bank brands Bethmann, Dellbrück and Maffei, Bethmann Bank also contains genes from the former private client business of Credit Suisse in Switzerland and LGT in Liechtenstein, both strong brands themselves with a high level of identification.

This can lead to real brand stress. The joint Bethmann brand must therefore continue to sort itself out internally and consolidate its own Bethmann identity. If it does not do this, an internal brand or identity confusion will result. This is why a great deal of attention is paid to this issue.

Defined and comprehensible brand contents help here. These, too, are not simply invented or arise all of a sudden, but are developed and established step by step in close coordination with the business strategy.

For example, the topic of sustainability was not sufficiently noticeably anchored in the brand until recently, it was also only used very cautiously in communication. Yet sustainability has already played an important role in Bethmann Bank’s central service, asset management, for ten years. And it has become increasingly important in recent years. This is a crucial point, because there should never be a major discrepancy between corporate reality and brand over a longer period of time.

Bethmann Bank’s brand strategy was therefore revised and sustainability given more visibility. With the descriptor “Echt.Nachhaltig.Privat.” (Real.Sustainable.Private), it was given a prominent place in the brand presence. Since 2020, this aspect of the brand has also been communicated much more clearly internally and externally, and the market has begun to notice this focus.

Looking ahead

The example of sustainability shows very well what is expected of a premium brand and how it reacts to it. It must not run after every fashion, because that would devalue it. However, it must pick up on important trends and fundamental changes in good time and position itself accordingly – always in close coordination with its own business strategy. Against this background, the adaptability of a brand is its recipe for success and can provide orientation for customers, employees and also the management. In this way, a traditional brand from the century before last also has a purpose in 2022: it not only has a right to exist, but it is also relevant for the present – and for the future.

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A premium brand not only has its right to exist, but it has relevance for the present – and for the future.

All images: © Bethmann Bank AG

The German Design Awards 2022 in the Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt

From 11 to 27 February 2022, the winners of the various categories in the fields of “Excellent Communications Design”, “Excellent Product Design” and “Excellent Architecure” as well as the newcomer finalists and the “Personality of the Year Award” will be shown at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt.

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the German Design Award, the exhibition presents a cross-section of current design trends and takes a look at the development of design in short films.

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