Bernard Ginns: Put politely, Midland Bank is dead and buried as a brand

IN JOURNALISM as in life, it is important to remember your Ps and Qs at all times, even when faced with downright hostility, maddening obfuscation or just plain unhelpfulness.

Yesterday morning, I phoned the retail banking media office for HSBC to ask when Europe’s largest bank will decide on the new name for its UK high street business.

“There’s no decision on that,” said a press officer in a tone that managed to combine both haughtiness and sleepiness.

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I pointed out that the chairman Douglas Flint told the Financial Times that Midland Bank was “the odds-on favourite”.

“They reported it,” she responded. “It has not been confirmed.”

I asked if the First Direct name was in the mix. “We are not commenting on it,” she replied.

I asked when HSBC was moving its retail bank to Birmingham. “2019,” said the press officer.

This conversation was going nowhere fast. “Thank you very much for your help,” I said as sincerely as I could and rang off.

Ten minutes later and after I’d tapped out the first half a dozen pars of this column, the self-same press officer rang back on my mobile to correct the date of the move.

She said it would begin in mid 2017. “The deadline for ring-fencing is January 1, 2019,” she added.

She sounded much more cheerful this time. Had she drunk some coffee? Had the sun broken through the clouds above Canary Wharf? Had she remembered that press officers are supposed to help the media?

I explained that I was planning to write a column suggesting that First Direct would be a much better brand for the retail network; as a name, Midland Bank won’t mean anything to anyone under 40 and the next generation of bank customers.

“They won’t like that,” she said. I think she even managed a little laugh. It pays to be polite.

To remind you, HSBC is planning to cut up to 8,000 British jobs and rebrand its UK retail banking unit, which it could sell in response to new rules stating such businesses must be separate from investment banking in order to protect customers.

Stuart Gulliver, the chief executive, told investors last week the group could not make a decision on whether to keep the business until it knew whether regulators would allow HSBC to continue to have a say in its future strategy, such as dividend policy.

HSBC announced in March that it would base its retail and commercial banking business in Birmingham. The group bought Midland Bank in 1992 and moved its headquarters to London from Hong Kong in 1993. The Midland Bank name was phased out by 1999. First Direct, on the other hand, was founded in Yorkshire in 1989.

Mr Gulliver said he would consult with staff and customers over the next few months on the future name of the business.

As a journalist (and I disclose a customer), I have a view. It is this. Midland Bank as a brand ceased to exist 16 years ago. Why spend all that money trying to revive something that won’t mean anything to half the population?

First Direct, on the other hand, is one of Britain’s best-known and best-loved brands, judging by a recent customer survey from the consumer champion Which?

The Leeds-based lender is digital, dynamic and modern, everything that Midland is not and can never be.

Expanding the brand onto the high street could both attract digital natives and the loyal die-hard branch customers who will be familiar with the 26-year-old First Direct brand.

Consider please what is happening to retail banking. Digital is bringing about a major decline in the use of branches and bringing with it huge opportunities to cut costs.

Why waste a load of investors’ cash marketing a Midland Bank brand that is to all intents and purposes dead and buried? I tried to put that politely.