HSBC – aligning brand values with national heritage.

HSBC signageIt’s interesting to note how HSBC is capitalizing on its Chinese roots in its current brand promotion. I used to be a customer of the old Midland Bank, when it was taken over by HSBC many years ago. The new owners were very low-key about the branding, reassuring customers that little would change and they would be like every other bank on the high street. Those were the days, of course, when banks were fairly universally respected.

HSBC is now promoting itself as a global bank – but more significantly as an unashamedly Chinese/Hong Kong bank. Advertising and promotional material employs oriental actors and artifacts, and Chinese metaphors abound in the creative concepts.

We can only speculate upon the strategic thinking behind this subtle shift in positioning, but it does seem to make sense to build upon a point of differentiation in a crowded and muddy marketplace. With European banks mired in debt turmoil and the Chinese economy still relatively buoyant, it may make sense to differentiate yourself from the western banks.

It is not a unique strategy to build upon your national roots. If those national values have international currency and also accord with your brand values, it can make a great deal of sense. We have seen German brands build upon their national characteristics and reputation for engineering expertise, while Italian brands have exploited a distinction for style and design. Banking, however, has been a strange category where reputation and probity have always been key brand values –  one might almost say critical success factors. British banks used to delight in their traditional values.  Sadly, recent history has tarnished many reputations and banking brands  in general are viewed with caution and suspicion.

It might seem curious for a Chinese heritage to be considered a brand asset – certainly it would not be the first characteristic to spring to mind. But it certainly creates a valid platform upon which to build a brand definition. At the moment the chinese economy is still some thing of a tiger so perhaps it makes sense to ride it. However, there is a Chinese proverb ”Ch’i ‘hu nan hsia pei”, which may be translated as ”He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.”



  1. Ian,
    This is a very interesting case study and your comments are quite sharp and to the point. From a semiotic point of view it is worth noting that this is a case of under-codedness, where as yet minimally existing perceptions about a brand sign may give rise gradually to an emergent code, through effective employment of brandcomms and streamlining internal marketing according to repositioning guidelines. But let us bear in mind that HSBC has been pursuing a glocal positioning for quite some time now, while exalting the values of cultural relativism and multi-perspectivism. Assuming that this projected brand personality has solidified thus far in consumers’associative apparatus, then the new seemingly country-of-origin inspired positioning structure is an affirmation of the possibility of transferring brand values from one culture to another. In fact, weren’t it for the fundamental branding element of multi-culturalism as endemic in the brand’s kernel, then the establishment of the credibility of such an associative transfer might require additional substantiation. Certainly dominant perceptions about rising economies and the prevalent continental economic turmoil facilitate the credibility of such brand associative transfers, but their role is that of a facilitator. The transfer is effected as a «natural» progression of an existing positioning pillar, by virtue of which the brand has been endowed with almost infinite possibilities.

    1. Thanks, George. I agree wholehartedly with your comments. What particularly interested me was the strategic decision to take that particular stance and the thinking behind it.
      Once again thanks for your insightful comments.

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