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Back from the banking brink?

Wednesday 15 June 2011 - by Simon Atkinson

Simon Atkinson, assistant chief executive at Ipsos Mori wonders if the UK's Fairbanking Mark will restore trust in retail banks and whether it will make them stand out from the crowd.

Surely this is too little, too late? The introduction of the Fairbanking Mark, however well-intentioned, can do little to salvage the reputation of this tarnished industry. Its associations with the financial crisis and the economic downturn are just too strong.

This is, after all, a sector which is riddled with questionable practice, and full of fat cats who happily collect their ever-increasing bonuses, oblivious to the PR fallout and indeed the struggles of everyday Britons.

Surely? Well, maybe. It's certainly true to say that the sector's reputation is going to take some repairing. And not least among the journalists who write about business and financial issues. For so many years our research found them rating the sector pretty highly. An industry they would recommend to their friends. This goodwill evaporated almost overnight.

But perhaps it's not all so bad.

Let's move away from the City, to the High Street. And from the "financial services sector" to something more immediate: my bank. When we do this we get a somewhat different picture.

Whatever we may say about them, some 71 per cent of us feel loyal to a bank or building society, ahead of supermarkets and mobile phone providers.

This may or may not be based on inertia, and on a sense that "they are all the same", as opposed to any feeling of warmth or sense of there being a mutually profitable relationship. But it's not too hard to find some positive "vital signs".

We trust the banks with our personal data. Ratings on customer service, while not exactly stellar, are generally good. And when we ask about satisfaction with current accounts, we have found ourselves reporting numbers based on the number very satisfied - something we have to do when we are researching a category where the vast majority are favourable and very few are actively critical.

Where banks have struggled is to differentiate their own unique qualities and character from their rivals. We can - and indeed observers frequently do - point to notable exceptions like First Direct and Nationwide. But the overarching mood is that they are much of a muchness.

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