Building a brand is a complex and multi-faceted process. Even when a range of brand-building tasks are completed, it’s rare that one knows for sure which of them contributes the most to building a trusted and sustainable brand. There are numerous pressures, including the urgency to launch and budget constraints. There is no magic formula for branding an Islamic bank, but this is our story and I hope there are lessons in what we did or did not do and even in the things we wished we’d done better.
I am writing this from the perspective of a bank based in South Africa, where Muslims are the minority and the country is not governed under Shari’ah law.
In the Beginning
The first big decision is naming your bank. In making this decision, you have a choice of whether to include the word "Islamic" in the name of the bank or to go with an indicative word such as "Al Riba" or "Amanah". Absa Islamic Banking chose the former route. The advantage has been absolute clarity to the primary target audience of Muslims in South Africa, but the disadvantage is that the secondary audience of non-Muslims feel excluded, even though Islamic banking is available to anyone who chooses an alternative to conventional banking. This means that a great deal of effort must go into ensuring that all of the bank’s staff members and the general public are clearly informed that Islamic banking is a choice available to everyone and not exclusively to Muslims.
Once we had the name and, being a division of an established bank, a colour that we were required to use in our branding, we set out in search of a company with Islamic marketing experience. None existed in South Africa, so we settled for a small agency that was willing to learn with us. We chose a typical Islamic picture and built it into a brand image that we could live with, as we were under pressure to get our first products to market. We decided on the slogan, "Your trusted partner in Shari’ah compliant banking," and added some text about our products and the Shari’ah approval process. We included a call to action and how to access the products. And with that we had our first advertisement.
The brand extensions of this included posters and Shari’ah certificates for our branches, advertisements for special times such as Ramadan and Eid and a modest range of branded goods. The most ambitious and memorable of these was a Hajj pack for our customers who were going on Hajj in the year that we launched. This was a sturdy backpack that included a branded water bottle, prayer mat and shoe bag.
Relationships in Support of the Brand
No matter how impactful we believed they were, we knew that branding elements on their own would be of little value. Relationships are a vital part of Islamic banking. So the small start-up team put enormous effort into getting out into Muslim communities all over the country. The team spoke about the concept of Islamic banking and answered questions from those who wanted more information and those who doubted the Shari’ah compliance of an Islamic banking division of a conventional bank.
We held presentations in community halls, luxurious venues and in tents where we shared Iftaar with rural communities. We addressed women’s organisations, schools and Shari’ah scholars. Anyone who was interested became our audience and the number of people we reached was only limited by the amount of time we had in each day and the modest size of our team.
Educating the Bank Staff
Absa agreed that Islamic banking would be available at any of its approximately 800 branches nationally, but the staff of most of those branches were non – Muslim.
Islamic banking was completely foreign to them and counterintuitive to the rules of conventional banking which they knew so well.
This required intensive education and internal communication. This process continues to this day, as we aim for a consistent and positive brand experience whenever someone walks into a branch and asks for an Islamic product. We could not employ mystery shoppers, so we had to perform that function ourselves. The worst experience was walking into a branch, asking to open an Islamic banking account and being told to go to a branch in a Muslim area. The best is always finding non-Muslim branch staff who are excellent at selling our products. Today, we’re proud of the fact that our top 10 branch sales people are all non-Muslim.
This year we have launched a new training programme and a DVD for use in branch staff meetings. It shows how simple it is to open an Islamic banking account and how to cross-sell Islamic banking products to a customer.
Taking the Brand to a New Level
After our first year in business, we realised that the design of our initial brand identity was no at the level we wanted. We decided to work with a large through-the-line agency and put in the time required to help them develop a brand identity we would feel proud of.
After much deliberation, we finally all agreed on a strong and relevant brand identity image of the door of the Mosque of Prophet Mohammed, which is on the Prophets Dome in Madinah. This door is a very symbolic icon of the Muslim faith which is inscribed in Arabic.
We rewrote the Arabic inscription on the door to read "Islamic Banking from Absa" in Arabic.
We shortened our tagline to "Banking the Shari’ah Way." We also created a typically Islamic pattern around the centre of the door.
We developed our own logo, which will become a synonymous symbol of our Islamic Banking brand. The logo features a red seal with "Islamic Banking from Absa" on it in Arabic.
The Arabic translation is placed under our name in English.
It’s important to build brand identity strength.
We set out to do this by incorporating our new design and logo onto posters, in our branches and on cheque books and debit cards.
Not stopping there, we also developed a range of new corporate gifts with the logo on them, complete with the Arabic translation. The wonderful red and gold images that we used for the new branding and logo were met with great positivity and were quickly adopted by Absa staff and customers. To reinforce the Islamic banking brand, we have gone out of our way to use the red and gold colours, as well as our logo, on everything we do, including wrapping gifts.
We have found that by doing this we have been able to entrench the new Islamic Banking brand within the Muslim and other markets.
Publicising Our Differentiator
Currently, we have the broadest offering by a bank, with a full range of access channels. We publicised this differentiator using billboards, radio and print advertisements which drew attention to our ability to offer "Islamic Banking anywhere, anytime."
Doing More With Less
During 2008, marketing budgets came under pressure from the global financial crisis. We had to find low-cost ways of continuing our quest to build brand awareness. These included marketing messages printed on ATM slips, ATM screen images, direct mail letters and SMSs to customers and marketing messages on personalised cheque statements. We also made use of the television screens in branches, targeting people in branch queues with a 45-second insert which revolved as part of the TV schedule in every branch throughout banking hours.
The most successful exercise in this category was our Ramadan promotion. Absa produces branded bottled water which is available in branches for people standing in the queue. We designed Islamic Banking neck tags to go with these bottles. During Ramadan, we encouraged our sales consultants to adopt a mosque and to provide water with our branded neck tag for people to break their fast. This "Absa Islamic Banking water" has become very popular and we regularly receive requests for it from mosques, charity events and schools. It has even been supplied to people waiting in the sun for animals to be slaughtered for Eid.
The Way Forward
Our approach continues to be a combination of brand awareness, connecting with communities and educating Absa staff members to enhance the brand experience. We’ve embarked on some exciting initiatives lately, such as entertaining clients at the DFL Indian Premier League cricket matches and hosting exclusively female events.
We have done this in recognition of the important role women play in financial decisions. We also believe strongly in the importance of educating young people about Islamic banking, as they will have choices that their parents did not.
As Islamic banking attracts attention all over the world, even receiving endorsement from the Vatican newspaper, the pressure on branding and differentiation will grow and we look forward to continued innovation in this field.
By Ahmed Moola
© Business Islamica 2009