Bank PHB came into being in 2006 after meeting the CBN requirements on the 27th December 2005 and subsequent signing of the memorandum on the29th of December (two days before the CBN cut off date). The bank therefore started business operations on the 1st of March, 2006 as the 17th ranked bank in the industry but resolved to be among the top 10 banks before June 2010. But by 2007, the then fastest growing bank brand in Nigeria rose to the 8th position (in one year) and as at June 2008, became the 5th ranked bank in Nigeria and targeted the 3rd position by June 2009.
Unfortunately, while some of the banks that survived the consolidation reforms alongside BankPHB are still very much around and waxing strong today, the brand PHB never lived to realise it's target. Failure became imminent for this brand that once professed that "someday, cars will run on water" and once positioned itself as the most innovative bank brand in Nigeria, when it started loosing it's brand reputation.
I was attracted to the bank late 2008 by the perception of innovation which the brand was pushing out at the time. Being a somewhat 'restless' mind, I always sought for fresh challenges to task my creativity and young innovative mind. For whatever reasons at the time, I felt bank PHB suited the profile of a brand that possessed a platform where my creativity could easily find expression and recognition. As such, resigning my job with a multinational manufacturing company wasn't a big decision to make as soon as I was offered the job after a very relaxed interview session.
As a matter of fact, my passion for creativity made me lead my stream (class) at the time to develop a liability product for the bank less than 2 weeks into our 3-month induction training. We were well celebrated by the leadership of the bank and as such were invited to present to the head of Retail Banking at the head office. As a matter of fact, that was the first time a set of trainees would attempt to develop such a retail product for the bank while in training. This was a task that was usually carried out by the core professional strategy team of the retail banking unit. The passion and enthusiasm was unparalleled, we were a team of young talents that were ready to challenge the status quo and commit to helping the brand achieve it's strategic objectives in our little ways. However, it didn't take us 3-months before we started getting fillers as to the true nature of the brand that has systematically controlled the perception of the public. Indeed, "perception is reality". Of course, the rest is history.
Haven come that close to the brand, I feel compelled to share my thoughts about the likely intangible factors that contributed to the failure of the brand from an insider perspective. The following are 3 factors that I think saw the bank through to failure:
1. BRAND OVER AMBITION
At the time, the bank was comfortably seated as the 5th largest bank brand in Nigeria and in my own opinion, all she needed to do was to be consistent in both her business and service models and in a matter of time, she would have achieved her target of being among the top 3 banks. However, over ambition made the leadership of the bank switch focus and direction from sustaining their business and service model, thinking that the only way to fast-track their ambition was to takeover another banking entity to swell it's existing asset base. Hence the move to takeover Spring bank at the time. The move was clearly one of the key corporate strategies of the bank because virtually all the heads of various banking units who facilitated some of our training classes were proudful whenever they spoke to us about what they called the "hostile" takeover of Spring Bank.
Bank PHB, which had earlier bought substantial stakes in Spring Bank, announced the successful completion of its mandatory bid, which it opened November 28, 2008, for the acquisition of over three billion shares of Spring Bank Plc. Bank PHB had opened the bid in order to take its stake to 51 per cent to give it controlling stakes in Spring Bank, this culminated in the takeover. But the deal was riddled with petitions, controversies and suits instituted by some aggrieved shareholders of Spring Bank who insisted the takeover by Bank PHB did not follow due process. They alleged that the “mandatory bid” Bank PHB sought was illegal because two thirds of the 33 per cent it claimed were “rejected” and “warehoused” shares. Known in banking parlance as “bubble capital”, the said shares were alleged to have been fraudulently acquired by some directors of Legacy Guardian Express Bank and Citizens Bank, two of the six banks that merged to form Spring Bank. The aggrieved shareholders were then granted an injunction against Bank PHB by the Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja on December 19, 2008 and this was sure to spell doom for bank PHB.
At this time, PHB had committed about 60 billion Naira to mop up shares of Spring Bank and all that sum became stuck as a result of the litigation process that never came to an end before Sanusi introduced his stress test on banks. The implication of this was that the liquidity of the bank had become so low that it was impossible to pass the stress test. The then Minister of State for Finance, Mr. Remi Babalola, in his report had declared the acquisition of Spring Bank Plc by Bank PHB Plc as “improper”. This move proved to be one of the Major implosions of the brand PHB and you know as much as i do that the bank never recovered.
2. BRAND AMNESIA
When a brand forgets what it is supposed to stand for, it is bound to run into trouble. This was the case with bank PHB. I recall that the first class we took while in training school was "Basic Banking Operations" and the first thing Simon Ejima (from the office of the Group Head Banking Operations) did was to expose us to the 'supposed' culture of the brand PHB. In the process, we were compelled to learn (actually, memorise) the former as well as the new vision, mission and core values of the brand. I recall them as follows:
Former vision: to be a leading Financial Institution committed to providing superior customer service by redefining standards.
Former Mission statement: to provide innovative solutions to our customers with passion, while creating optimal value for our stakeholders.
Former Core Values:
D - Deliver on promise
R - Respect for the individual
I - Integrity
P - Professionalism
T - Team Spirit
The expected take-over and subsequent expansion of the bank made them readjust these brand components as follows:
Vision: To become Africa's integrated bank
Mission: together, with passion, we deliver superior value to our customers by redefining service standards
P - Professionalism
B - Business focus
I - Innovation and Leadership
T - Teamwork
D - Dynamism and strength
In practice, the life of the brand was in variance with her core values. Prior to joining bank PHB, I had not really had any close shave with the bank's operations. However, after a month in training, we were posted to branches for a mandatory weeklong "on the job training". We actually underwent these process twice during our induction programme; the first was to gain practical knowledge in banking operations and the second was Market facing experience. I observed during this process that a lot of customers had developed serious hatred for the bank. At the time, the bank had migrated from it's more stable "Equinox" software platform to a newer platform "T24" in order to accommodate the anticipated surge in customer base all in view of the expansion as a result of the 'hostile' takeover of Spring Bank. Unfortunately, the new software was not stable and hence one of the major implications of this was the malfunctioning of the bank's ATMs across the country. A lot of customers dreaded the use of bank PHB ATMs to withdraw funds, the ones that had the courage to defy found themselves in the banking halls the following day to complain about debits where the machine never dispensed cash. Debit reversal was just one of the numerous operations issues customers had to face. The worse part of it was that the operations staff themselves were fed up, as such, situations where the customer service personnel had heated altercations with customers was a recurrent decimal. I observed during this process that most of the bank's touch points did not resonate the brand's core values any-longer (if they ever did). The brand forgot what it stood for. The fact is that brand amnesia is one of the major causes of brand failures world over.
3. BRAND DECEPTION
Often, some brands see the whole marketing process as an act of covering up the reality of their product. I had often commended Insight Communications, the brand communication agency that handled the bank PHB brand at the time for the excellent job they did in conditioning the perception of the public towards the brand PHB considering the fact that at the time, the bank was functionally dysfunctional. Bank PHB deceived the public with their excellent ATL brand communication channels. Any wonder, they invested so much in advertisement at the time. There is a simple Logic that says, you don't spend so much to sell a good product. Al and Laura Ries stated it rightly in their 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, "today most products are bought, not sold." This brand fiction engineered by Insight Communication on behalf of the brand PHb only cemented the downright lies about the brand. However, the brand failed to realise that in this age where markets are increasingly connected, via the Internet and other technologies, consumers can no longer be deceived.
I recall once personally asking Mr. Francis Atuche, the embattled former Managing Director of the Bank at a town hall meeting in Ibadan about the efforts the bank was making to correct the growing negative public perception about the brand. I was shocked by the indifference in his response, he openly said "I am not interested in what people think about the bank..." It took a while for me to get over the fact that the man acclaimed by his subordinates to be one of the most intelligent bank CEOs at the time could offer such unguided response to the question. The negative image of the bank had gone viral online. I remember a thread on www.nairaland.com where several contributors had no good comments about the brand PHB. Then offline the negative word of mouth was also on the upsurge.
In conclusion, I wish to advice existing brands to be consistent in their functional attribute and should try as much as possible not to fall into the trap of toying with the emotions of the customers. Emotions are not to be messed with, it should be handled with care. One step out of the line and the customer may not be willing to forgive. Negative brand reputation is ultimately one the reasons why brands fail.
Note: I dedicate this piece to former Bank PHB Stream 27 members. It's been exactly 3 years since the brand deceived us. But I'm glad that through it all, God has kept us stronger and we have faired better. My greatest joy today is that we have all outlived the brand and that the corrupt and inhuman leadership of the bank are now facing the consequences of their cruel actions.