Bakare: Consistency in Strategy Shaped the FirstBank Brand

Hafiz Bakare,

A former bank chief executive who had initially served as Chief Strategy Officer of First Bank of Nigeria Plc, Hafiz Bakare, in this interview speaks about transformational phases of First Bank as well as on some specific brand building efforts of the promoters of the bank. Raheem Akingbolu provides the excerpts:

As someone who had handled the management of the FBN brand, what would you describe as the brand essence of the bank?
The thematic brand essence of the bank arising from the Brand Transformation Project and which also guided management of the brand when I was in charge was: “Dependably Dynamic”. This was consistent with the two key imperatives of “Growth” and “Modernisation” which underpinned the bank’s strategic intent of being “the clear leader in the financial services industry”. Even if the actual words of the brand essence have changed based on recent rebranding efforts by the current management of the bank, the philosophy remains the same. That is, a bank that takes pride in its rich history, longevity, time honored ethical values that confer solidity and safety, while it has made itself nimble and modern enough to adapt to the dynamic operating environment and be strongly competitive! Dependably Dynamic as brand essence represents the single concept which drives the understanding of the brand and best personifies the behaviour, products and services of the bank even as it has its roots in the past, present and future. The brand essence captures the spirit of all the four identified brand pillars at the time and which remain relevant: Leadership, Safety & Security, Enterprise and Service Excellence.

What are your reminiscences on managing the corporate image of a brand like FBN?
The foundation for managing the brand’s corporate image was laid by the Brand Transformation Project which was ongoing when I joined the bank. When I later assumed the role of Chief Strategy Officer, the erstwhile Corporate Affairs Department came fully within my purview under the name Image Management in addition to the responsibilities handled by the former Chief Strategy Officer. Image management was headed by Jide Ogundele from the old Corporate Affairs while Brand Management was headed by Emmanuel Obeta, who was hired for the purpose in the course of the Brand Transformation Project, both of them reporting to me as members of the team. As these individuals subsequently moved on to other roles within and outside the bank, I got the CEO’s concurrence to merge all image management, brand management and corporate communications activities as one single Brand Management Department for greater synergy to achieve our objectives under me as Chief Strategy Officer, and engaged someone who had earlier joined the team, Helen Uju Ogboh (still in the Bank but has moved on to other responsibilities) to work with me in driving the process. Brand projection and management of corporate image were then actualised and driven within the context of the larger role of the Chief Strategy Officer as strategic activities vital to corporate success. Therefore, on one hand, we drove “direct” initiatives around advertisement and significant presence in local and international media coupled with deliberate feature articles; outdoor advertising on billboards and wall drapes; sponsorship of and participation at strategic local and international events (World Economic Forum, Economist Conferences, etc) with speaking opportunities at the highest level; international awards and presence at CEO and Board levels; use of Below The line items (calendars, diaries, corporate gifts etc) as conscious means of strategic brand projection due to the quality and timeliness being competitive tools; as well as general branding.

On the other hand, my role as Chief Strategy Officer also enabled me to leverage various other initiatives within my purview and fully optimise opportunities for brand projection and corporate image enhancement. Some of these included branch development in liaison with other stakeholders complete with proper branding to enhance customer experience in the outlets; creation of new subsidiaries of the bank and extending the group co-ordination role to ensure uniform branding across all subsidiaries both locally and internationally projecting the First Bank monolithic brand, expansion of the bank internationally in Asia and Europe with representative offices or branches, enhancement of the design, quality and content of the bank’s Annual Report reinforcing the First Bank corporate identity and the variants of the bank’s brand colours at different times; the Bank’s hydrid offer making it the first Nigerian institution to attain N1 trillion market capitalization, which was well exploited in the press; Standard & Poor’s international ratings being the first in the 100-year history of the Bank and the second Nigerian corporate to obtain such thereby raising the bank’s international profile; investor relations participation at various international fora (London Stock Exchange, IFC Washington DC, Merrill Lynch, Renaissance Capital etc) to project the brand and tell the FirstBank story usually together with the then Chief Risk Officer, Mr. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who later became the Bank’s CEO, subsequently Central Bank Governor and now Emir of Kano.

How were you able to surmount the challenges of managing the brand image of an old bank that still remained relevant, modern and contemporary?
It is very important to state that as Chief Strategy Officer responsible for Corporate Planning & Group Co-ordination of which the realigned Brand Management was part, I had the full support of the MD/CEO, Mr. Jacobs Moyo Ajekigbe to whom I reported directly. Ajekigbe allowed freedom of thought in the implementation of the Brand Strategy developed with my team members, drawing inspiration from the Brand Transformation Project which was aligned with the Bank’s overall corporate aspirations underpinned by the key imperatives of “Growth” and “Modernisation”.

As earlier stated, I joined the bank in 2003 as part of the Group responsible for anchoring the project and by the time I actually took over in 2006 a lot of foundational work had been done. The rationale was that for an organisation that had been around for over a century, there was the need to refocus and energise our brand in response to contemporary realities. This rationale had been clearly communicated and imbibed by different stakeholders including staff by 2006 while we were at the stage of what was called Brand Acculturation which involved extensive training of staff on different aspects of the new brand with the support of Alder Consulting which had been extensively involved in the implementation of the entire project working with the main Brand Consultants, Enterprise IG of South Africa.

So, the idea of rejuvenating and constantly refreshing and extending the brand from different perspectives was reasonably well understood and shared across the Bank by the time I assumed direct responsibility for managing the brand image. Being fully in charge, it became necessary to emphasise that this was beyond change of logo, aesthetics and overall physical look of our workplace which were very necessary but the initiatives must be all-encompassing to create the brand image that would drive the Dependably Dynamic brand essence.
We thus came up with a robust Brand Strategy which guided the implementation of various initiatives, some of which were novel to the Bank at the time and have endured with the successive leadership of the Bank and the Marketing Communications Division which is what the Brand Management I supervised came to be called after it was hived off to stand alone at the point I moved on in 2009.

Let’s talk a bit about some specific brand building efforts of the bank while you were in the saddle. What were their KPIs? And, how far were they achieved by the efforts?
The brand building efforts were rolled out and implemented within the context of the Brand Strategy developed with my team to provide a shared understanding of what underpinned individual and seemingly disparate initiatives. As earlier indicated, the bank had embarked on the Enterprise Transformation Projects – Century II in 1996 and Century II – The New Frontier in 2001. To rejuvenate the brand as part of these renewal efforts, the Bank further commissioned the Brand Transformation Project, which was launched in 2004. The Brand Strategy drew inspiration from this to ensure a coordinated approach to engaging competition on the projection of the FirstBank brand and increasing the share of mind and wallet of the increasingly more sophisticated and discerning banking public.
The Brand Strategy was based on the bank’s strategic intent of being “the clear leader in the financial services industry”, which was hinged on the two imperatives of “Growth” and “Modernisation”. So, implementation of our brand building efforts was anchored on four major areas: the bank’s retail environment; advertisements and signage deployment; promotions and events sponsorships and acculturation.

For the bank’s retail environment, this centered on implementing with support from General Services Department, radical changes in the outlook, ambiance and elegance of our branches being customers’ points of interface with the brand. Between 2006 and 2009 that I was in charge, we developed 129 new branches reflecting the new brand image in all respects. More importantly, as part of a deliberate program, we remodeled the exterior and interior of over 200 existing branches to facilitate uniformity of brand and customer experience across our locations.
Advertisements: With the support of Consultants, we developed new corporate advert for the Bank as well as product adverts for U-first, the umbrella brand adopted for the Bank’s consumer banking suite of products; ran the Corporate and U-first commercials on international media such as CNN, Supersport as well as on local media, Channels TV, NTA, AIT and state-owned TV stations; enhanced the Bank’s presence in the international media/circuit through various platforms like the CNN Magazine programme – CNN Eye On Africa; ran advertisements on strategic pages and sponsored feature interviews in international magazines like The Banker, Global Finance, Business In Africa, Institutional Investor, JeuneAfric, Euromoney, Emerging Markets, The Economist, targeting key events like World Economic Forum, IMF/World Bank meetings, Economist Conferences; ran press campaigns with supplementary press statements in the Global Finance Magazine in celebration of the Global Finance awards won by the Bank during the IMF/World Bank meetings and always ensured strong representation, the Bank has continued to win these awards.

Also significantly improved FirstBank’s relationship with the press to facilitate positive and objective disposition, part of this included for example full sponsorship of print and broadcast journalists to international events for effective coverage of the Bank’s participation; initiated and consistently locked in FirstBank advert slot on Channels Business News during the station’s flagship “Channels News at 10.00pm”, and the Bank has continued with this till date; ensured the Bank’s keyevents or activities whether local or international were reported on the same day on Channels TV and the next edition of NTA Newsline; ensured that photo stories of the Bank’s events were placed on the front pages of all major newspapers; THISDAY, Punch, Guardian, etc, the day after such events; ensured all adverts in local print media were specifically placed in pages two or three in the major newspapers for maximum impact; initiated placement of press releases or sponsored articles where we told our story in our own way on the front page of key newspapers, for example THISDAY “Window”, to announce landmark achievements or significant developments; ran press campaigns to showcase the Bank’s commitment to the Small and Medium Enterprises Equity Investment Scheme (SMEEIS) through First Funds Limited; ran multi-media campaigns on the Bank’s intervention in the agriculture sector of the economy; ran a robust Savings Promo campaign to facilitate the Bank’s drive for savings deposits and showcase incentive for loyal customers. Also significantly repackaged and enhanced the Bank’s Annual Report in terms of content, design, disclosure level, advertisement of the Bank and its products particularly U-First suite, making the Annual Report a major brand projection tool.

Billboards which carried a mixture of corporate and product adverts, were aggressively mounted across the country increasing the number of sites from 35 to almost 60 in addition to large wall drapes on walls of buildings in strategic locations across the country including Samuel Asabia House, the Head-Office building on 35, Marina. There was also deliberate airport branding with advertisements using billboards or drapes within and around international and local airports in the country, especially in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Enugu and Port Harcourt. Of particular mention was branding of Terminal II of the Murtala Mohammed Airport [Domestic Wing], Ikeja, Lagos.
There is also signage deployment, that is implemented scenic branding involving directional signs and/or beautification along major roads, entry points of major towns, selected local governments; initiated and rolled-out large pylons as a one-stop corporate and product advert platform in all branches rather than the hitherto disparate and unwieldy product signages.

Under sponsorships and promotions, the bank continued to sponsor international conferences but enhanced participation with speaking opportunities at World Economic Forum, Economist Conferences and new events at Harvard Business School etc; initiated International Conference on Food Security; initiated sponsorship of Calabar Carnival and maintained it annually; endowed strategic projects in some universities to complement the research based endowments, these projects include the Multipurpose Auditorium at the University of Ibadan, the ICT Hot Spot at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Faculty of Dentistry Building at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and 500-Seater Lecture Theatre at OAU Ile-Ife, among others.

Of course, First Bank also deplored massive Below The Line materials, through which it significantly enhanced the quality, branding and timeliness of calendars, diaries, souvenirs etc as deliberate means of competitive relationship management, ensuring distribution to customers latest by early November of the preceding year. This was well appreciated by all stakeholders.
These were some of the brand building efforts of the Bank while I was in the saddle. The overall KPI to signify that these initiatives had the desired impact was the Bank’s brand positioning and ranking as well as awards, both local and international.

What were your most memorable moments and on the other hand, most challenging moments in achieving the transformational phases of FBN?
As I alluded to, my portfolio as Chief Strategy Officer, was rather expansive with coverage which, without being immodest, had not been handled by anyone before or after me, at least to the best of my knowledge! In my response to the first question in the course of this interview, I indicated the various departments under my purview and to put my expansive role in context, at the time I was moving on, Corporate Planning and Group Co-ordination which I headed as Chief Strategy Officer was split into four four distinct Divisions. So, you can appreciate that I would have had many memorable and challenging moments on a regular basis in handling the multifarious responsibilities for transforming FirstBank including the brand management aspect. The sheer scope of responsibility which required hands-on management with the support of my wonderful team was in itself a challenge. Just picture navigating from: planning board retreat in its entirety in different locations across the world from the content to the logistics for all board members; strategy development, review and implementation monitoring/project execution; new business/revenue stream development for the FirstBank Group; operating model reviews etc; to: preparation and printing of Annual Reports of the highest quality in terms of content and branding to cover the Bank and all subsidiaries; professionally handled Annual General Meeting (AGM) and all activities before it being very elaborate in FirstBank (pre-AGM luncheon, pre-AGM cocktail) with full media coverage; FirstBank Quiz and Essay Competitions with media coverage; participation of the Bank at World Economic Forum, IMF/World Bank meetings etc; delivery and branding of corporate gifts and managing vendors; production of Christmas and Sallah cards of the highest quality in a timely manner; production of highest quality calendars and diaries in a timely manner latest by first week in November of the preceding year to create relationship management advantage for managing customers etc. So, from the obviously cerebral to the seemingly regular, a number of the Bank’s milestone activities in the course of a typical year on which you couldn’t have a second chance if there was any slip, revolved around me and the Bank looked up to me in many ways. So, I had to be on my toes and have a “well-oiled machine” to facilitate excellent performance, always!. This was a great challenge which one addressed decisively and consistently during the period but it was also fun.

Some of the memorable moments would include the hybrid offer in 2007/2008 which was successful in every respect from the publicity managed by Touchstone, a relatively small firm that had never worked for FirstBank before then using a live elephant brought to the Head-Office, to the actual result which led to FirstBank being the first Nigerian company to attain N1trillion market capitalization. Then there was the partnership with Sanlam, the global South-African based insurance conglomerate, which I initiated at a cocktail event in London and eventually led to an MOU finally giving rise to FBN Insurance that has become a major force in the Nigerian insurance industry.
I could go on and on but one other moment I recall with mixed feelings was when a vendor who had been invited to our competitive and very transparent bidding process for ‘Below The Line’ items tried to offer me bribe stating to my face that everyone had a price! Of course, I rebuffed him and advised that he should put his mind on competing fairly if he was still interested in continuing because the team had no favourites. As fate would have it, based on the quality of his company’s presentation and other clearly defined parameters, he eventually came out the best from the process at all levels up to the Executive Committee! He subsequently showed great admiration for the Bank and the governance system when he was engaged. If I had compromised and accepted his bribe, he would have sworn that it was the bribe that got him the contract and that there was no way you could get ahead with a Nigerian institution even FirstBank, without “greasing palms”.

Would you say that FBN has been consistent and proactive in its strategic image management?
I would say yes. All the points made in the course of this interview clearly indicate such consistency and being strategic. The succeeding teams after I left in 2009 have built on the foundation to take the brand to another level. A number of the local and international platforms we opened up are still being leveraged to even greater extent. Event sponsorships with speaking and branding opportunities, exotic and high-profile branding of corporate events like AGMs, year-end parties etc, presence in local media for example advertisement in the business segment of the flagship Channels News At 10.00 which we initiated during my tenure has continued till date, international fora like World Economic Forum has continued to be leveraged even beyond participation. There has also been a rebranding exercise subsequent to my exit which has reviewed the logo to give further dynamism even as the brand has remained monolithic, ensuring uniformity across all subsidiaries which have increased substantially all over Africa since I left. There is continued centralized control of brand standards and reputation management. And even though Marketing Communications is a separate Division unlike the model when I served, I believe it has been able to synchronize well with other Divisions in the Bank where such co-operation is required to enhance the image of the Bank.

How will you assess the Bank’s current corporate image and its rating?
I believe the current corporate image is still consistent with what we tried to achieve with the Dependably Dynamic brand essence as it continues to portray a Bank that is proud to project its rich history and longevity while it strongly adapts to the dynamic operating environment to be modern and competitive. It offers services to customers within the context of very strong and unapologetic but reasonable corporate governance and risk management. I would rate the corporate image A++.

Going forward, how far into the future can you see the FBN brand; and what future do you see for it?
Very far! There were moments in recent history when the continued existence of the FirstBank brand was challenged in the bid to fast-track its African expansion through a planned merger deal but the idea was eventually stepped down after series of long-drawn, rigorous and extensive reviews over a couple of years and I strongly believe that the lessons of those moments would ensure that the iconic brand continues to flourish. Even when actions might have been taken in recent times on the altar of expediency and the need to maintain lead in a fiercely competitive market, the consequences of such actions have reinforced the Bank’s resolve to stay true to its time honoured principles which have upheld it this far on its journey. Indeed, well into the future, I believe the history of the bank, the valued traditions and approach to governance will always ensure the FirstBankbrand continues to exist as a major player in Nigeria, Africa and internationally.

How does it feel to have at one time, been a part of the 125-year old premier bank in Nigeria, First Bank of Nigeria?
Great and nostalgic as I was not just a part but made some modest contributions which I will dwell on in the course of the interview. I first got involved with FirstBank as a Management Consultantin 1996 when I was a key member of the Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) led Enterprise Transformation Project tagged “Century II”, which laid the foundation to reposition the bank for a more successful second century of operations, maintaining leadership in a more challenging and dynamic financial services industry. Among other deliverables on that major project, I had primary responsibility for conceiving the idea of a new Consumer Banking Strategic Business Unit (SBU) and developing the SBU Strategy along with a FirstBank counterpart staff, Mrs. Christy Okoye, then an Assistant General Manager who later became the pioneer Head of that SBU and eventually an Executive Director in the Bank.

I subsequently joined the banking industry and some years later in 2003 came back to FirstBankto start a career that lasted six years. I served as the Bank’s Chief Strategy Officer with responsibilities covering Strategy and Implementation (for the Bank and the Group);New Business Development; Mergers & Acquisitions;Conception/Incubation of New Subsidiaries and Group Co-ordination; Economic Intelligence; Local/International Ratings, Investor Relations, Brand Management and Corporate Communications. At some point I also oversaw the Products portfolio covering Consumer Banking Products, Agricultural Business, Money Transfer and Wholesale Banking Products.
I remain a proud ambassador and alumnus of FirstBank, going on to become an Executive Director in Keystone Bank Limited upon nomination by the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), culminating in my service as Managing Director/CEO having led the post-divestment transition of Keystone Bank upon AMCON’s successful divestment.