What a trip to the bank can teach us about the limits of CSR and marketing

Are your actions in line with your advertising? What's your brand's non-verbal communication saying? Photo credit: Liam Quinn, Flickr

Are your actions in line with your advertising? What's your brand's non-verbal communication saying?
Photo credit: Liam Quinn, Flickr

Today, I had to go to banks: my own, and the one that holds my credit card. Let's just say that the only thing good that came out of visiting the latter was an opportunity to illustrate that marketing and corporate social responsibility (CSR) have their limits in raising the profile of your brand.

When words and actions don't mesh 

At the credit card bank, I went up to the teller, presented my credit card, explained that I didn't have a bank account with them, but that I needed help getting a cash advance. 

"Oh!" She exclaimed. "You don't have an account here? Would you like one? It would make it so much easier."

I smiled. "I have many accounts at another bank that I'm quite happy with. But thank you for offering. So, how can I get that advance?"

The teller stared grimly at her screen, muttering to herself. "What sort of banking fees are you paying at your bank?"

"Nothing," I said, wondering exactly what that had to do with my cash advance. 

"We can give you the same rate with an account here. We can transfer everything electronically, and have you all set up."

"No, thank you. What about that cash advance?"

"Oh. You have to do that at the ATM."

"Well, one problem is that I've lost the PIN for this credit card."

"Oh. Well you have to call the number on the back and report it. Have a good day. May I help the next customer?"

I am certain that this bank spends a large amount of money on marketing, advertising, public relations, and corporate social responsibility. I know this partially because while I waited in line, an animated screen advertised at me for 10 minutes, and above that, a " Proud sponsor of Ride for the Cure" banner fluttered gently in the air-con breeze. I actually enjoyed the ads, and they had me feeling that it wouldn't be a bad place to bank, because they seemed to offer things that made banking fit my life, and I was happy to see that they were supporting charities. Key message success, right? 

Then, I met the teller. She wasn't awful; she wasn't even that bad, aside from the fact she was over-focussed on selling, rather than meeting my needs. The issue was the huge disconnect between their messages of ease, convenience, corporate social responsibility, and "we'll help you do what you need to do" with what I actually faced as a customer. 

Actions speak louder than words

In 1967, Dr. Albert Mehrabian posited that when people say things they don't mean (like saying "maybe" when you mean "no"), their audience prefers to rely on non-verbal cues 93% of the time to derive actual meaning. (Fun fact: this is often misreported as 93% of communication being non-verbal. This video shows how ridiculous that is.) 

The banking example demonstrates this: If your brand's "verbal" communication—advertising, marketing, CSR—conflicts with its "non-verbal" communication—how you act, conduct your business, and treat your customers—your audience will disregard your messages in favour of your actions almost all of the time.

If your brand is getting flack on social media, and you're expecting a CSR campaign to make people feel better about you, that will only go so far, especially if your actions are communicating apathy, obstruction, shoddy service and bad products.

What is your brand communicating?