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Why HSBC chose to move on from being 'the world’s local bank’

"The world's local bank." It's a phrase which instantaneously interlinks itself with HSBC, yet despite the leading lender shaking off this slogan years ago, its powerful message still lingers.

In 2002, HSBC rebranded itself as "the world's local bank", a term which—accompanied with a host of clever and memorable advertising campaigns—propelled HSBC into the international public eye. However years later, the bank felt it could no longer live up to this title.

Like several other leading banks, HSBC was struck by the horrors of the financial crisis and had to find ways of picking itself back up in the aftermath. In 2011 HSBC decided to reshape and refocus how it worked as a business, which involved a string of cost-cutting measures, scaling back retail operations and inevitably, the phasing out its iconic motto.

"The HSBC's brand, particularly 'the world's local bank' and its strapline was an incredibly powerful positioning for us," Chris Clark, HSBC's outgoing global head of marketing, told CNBC's "Marketing.Media.Money".

"(However), the reality of our business is that we have to simplify it, so taking out quite a lot of small countries meant we probably weren't really 'the world's local bank' and actually moving away from it is difficult," he added.

"Obviously there's a management challenge called 'find another one' but it's also difficult to get it out of people's heads – I mean if I had that pen in 'Men in Black' where they take the alien out of your head and do a little 'bzzz', it would be wonderful, but I don't."

Customers use ATM cashpoints outside a HSBC bank branch in London on June 9, 2015.
Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images
Customers use ATM cashpoints outside a HSBC bank branch in London on June 9, 2015.

From 2011 and onwards, HSBC shut a number of its branches in several countries, and withdrew from some emerging markets, including the sale of its Brazilian business. The transaction of its entire business in Brazil to Banco Bradesco—announced during Summer 2015—recently met all the regulatory approvals necessary and was completed in July 2016.

Despite not seeing itself as "the world's local bank" anymore, the lender still has around 4,400 offices in over 70 countries worldwide across several continents. In 2011, when the rebranding process got underway, HSBC had around 7,500 offices in 87 countries.

"(The motto) became something that didn't position us in the way in which was truthful about the nature of our business. We weren't 'the world's local bank'. We didn't have branches in places like Thailand anymore and so it sort of is slightly disingenuous to sort of claim to be it."

"So actually what you've got to do is start thinking about the kinds of products and services that people are going to need from banks in the future."

Looking at HSBC's ad campaigns over the years, in the early 2000s, comedy and wit was a big part of its television adverts highlighting HSBC as both a global player and how it didn't underestimate the 'importance of local knowledge'.

However, in its most recent adverts, there's been a shift in sentiment, with the brand taking a more serious note at times, presenting itself as resilient, and dependable to its customers.

What however has remained a key part of HSBC's marketing throughout the years Clark tells CNBC is the story-telling aspect; with its 2015 campaign—which includes posters found in international airports—applying the theme of ambition, to show the audience how it can come in various shapes and sizes.

While HSBC may no longer see itself as "the world's local bank", its main objective remains very much internationally-focused, with the hope to be the "world's leading and most respected international bank"; one that helps people—as HSBC puts it—"realize their ambitions" and lets businesses and economies thrive and prosper.

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