• Transform magazine
  • June 26, 2019

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Brand experience: Oman Arab Bank

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For one of Oman’s biggest brands, Oman Arab Bank, a better in-branch experience became the centrepiece of a brand repositioning strategy that encouraged a more personal relationship between the bank and its customers. Melina Thalassinou reports

Iraq, a country that has been tortured by over a decade of war, with a population that struggles to survive, holds second place for the country with the highest ranking of kindness to strangers, according to the Charities Aid Foundation’s  ‘World Giving Index 2018.’ A country that has experienced, and continues to experience, such harrowing events, still has the strength to be kind to others – with 81% of its population having helped a stranger in just one month prior to interview – because of the strength of the Middle Eastern culture of hospitality and kindness.

Most countries takes pride in their hospitality towards visitors and strangers. However, the Middle East has even more reason to do so. The region’s traditions regarding hospitality go deeper and further back in history than others, deriving from a nomadic history in which travellers passing through the region were the only source of information and human contact outside of the clan social structure.

Hospitality isn’t expressed only within one’s home. It is expressed through every human interaction in the region. Middle Eastern countries’ culture of hospitality and kindness however, doesn’t always translate into the corporate world, with a prime example being the typical cold, uninviting bank branch model that put data over brand experience and seems as removed from Middle Eastern culture as possible.

For Oman Arab Bank (OAB), brand experience in its banks has become inextricably linked to hospitality. With 45 years of banking experience, the OAB was one of Oman’s earliest corporate banks. It has since expanded to 60 branches and 148 cash points across the sultanate. But, the brand’s physical expression was underdeveloped as it was not updated alongside this growth. Now, a focus on experience is bringing hospitality back into the bank’s branches.

Ibrahim Gailani, head of branch transformation at Oman Arab Bank says, “Three years ago we set out a vision for our retail banking division, for Oman Arab Bank. The vision was that we wanted to be the leading retail bank in Oman in terms of customer experience. What that meant for us was that any customer touchpoints, be it physical or digital, we have to excel in them and we have to give the highest service and convenience in each one of those transactions and each one of those contact points.”

Across Oman Arab Bank’s branches, the inconsistencies in its visual identity are obvious. The bank didn’t have a defined look and feel and each branch was disconnected from the others. For that reason, London-based branding and interior design agency I-AM, took on the responsibility to completely transform OAB’s customer experience.

For the new approach to OAB’s brand experience, I-AM combined the ‘expression of local landscapes and culture,’ while focusing on enhancing its customer engagement through the creation of a brand experience that is personal and interactive, enforcing a unique bond between the bank and its customers. “One of the big things that’s happening in all markets around the world and was having a big impact on Oman Arab Bank was the impact of digital banking,” says Pete Champion, partner and creative strategy director at I-AM. The agency worked with OAB to identify the changes necessary to provide a better branch experience for customers – focusing on digital and physical touchpoints, alike.

The main imperative with OAB’s brief to I-AM was to shift the nature of the experience in its branches from a transactional experience, to one that felt more oriented around relationship development. Meaningful face-to-face conversations and an appealing environment and crafting a place where people would choose to spend time, were the brand’s priorities.

“Throughout the planning there was a big question mark on return on investment,” Gailani says. Despite a trend of banks looking to reduce their branches, cost and focusing on their digital presence rather than their physical one, the complete opposite direction. That decision made its board uncomfortable and reluctant at the beginning of the project. “Internally there was a challenge: If we do invest, then how can we recover or how do we get the return and what sort of business growth do we need in order to make that investment?” Gailani adds.

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To convince the board, OAB presented a three-year plan, proving that the investment was not just for the sake of the branch itself, but for the whole brand. “We are investing in our brand. We are investing in our reputation. We are building a franchise. By investing in these branches, we are sending signals across the country that we are back and we really want to lead in the customer experience space. It’s not just about renovating a branch. It’s really revamping your image in the market,” says Gailani.

The message the renovated brand experience aimed to covey was simple. “We wanted the design to be traditional, as Omanis are very protective and proud of their heritage, yet we wanted it to be modern and fresh,” says Gailani. Seeing the immediate competitors connect with the local communities and the country of Oman itself, I-AM took inspiration from Oman’s sky and its layered landscape, building a brand experience that incorporates the distinctive cubic shapes traditional to Omani built environments.

The agency came up with the concept of the ‘Omani Skyline,’ which OAB was on board with from the very beginning. The colour palette, the use of the layout, the traditional images, the different zones of the branches and the transitioning from one zone to another, were all part of the new brand experience. Additionally, inside the branches, the bank introduced national ID card readers into its queueing machines, as well as digital signature pads into the furniture with moving screens for customer visibility, that made the branch functional and paperless and gave it a contemporary look while ensuring its transition to digital.

Champion says, “You get these very blue, very changing skies, you get the layers of the mountains and the landscape and then you get the built environment which is the manmade part. All of those layers are beautiful individually.  So, we decided to express the idea of that landscape through the architecture space. We’ve got slices of different colours of blue at high levels hanging down from ceilings to represent different changes of the sky and then we have the layering of the landscape. The style, even in the seating area and the meeting rooms, is a very simple architectural style, which relates with how the cityscape comes across and how the built landscape feels.”

Apart from being aesthetically pleasing, the new visual identity was instrumental for the brand’s communications strategy and optimisation. OAB uses a journalistic style of photography as well as a vivid landscape style that is displayed across each space within the bank branch. This offers a different approach to the more commercial communications and core assets typical of banking communications.

Achieving consistency among the OAB’s vast number of branches was not simple. I-AM developed a design system that deployed the bank’s core brand consistently, with an ability to translate it across different applications. Because of that, there are many elements in the design system that are unique. The slices of blue glass that hang from the ceiling, for instance, and the style of the furniture inside, are individual elements that are distinctively different from anything OAB’s competitors are doing. They can also be reassembled and reconfigured in different ways, while maintaining consistency, despite the flexibility of their implementation.

However, the project didn’t lack in challenges. It was vital that when changing the bank’s experience, it ensured that both the staff, who will operate the refitted branches, and the customers, who will use the refitted branches, understand how the new version of the branch actually works. The other main challenge was the shift from a branch environment which was very traditional and transactional, to a new, more human space. Champion says, “You went into the old style branches and it was like a bank of bank tellers and counters and that was dominating the experience whereas now when you step into our new designed branches the tellers are very secondary. That’s such a big adjustment for the customers and for the staff. Also, we had to think from a design point of view about how we manage the transactional traffic which was very heavy in some cases. It’s called migration, when you move customers from using tellers to using more automated, more digital means of basic banking.”

The rebrand has been crowned with success, with the average customer wait times diminishing from eight minutes to three minutes, 40 seconds and the use of self-service facilities increasing by 38%. According to Gailani, “The impact has been phenomenal, not only in terms of customer experience, and brand value in the market, but real dollar value as well.” Indeed, a significant increase was noted in deposits of $78m. Furthermore, there was a notable increase in efficiency, with the usage of self-service growing by 38&, which resulted in a 25% reduction off staff in branches.  

“We want customers to start to love the bank. We want the customers to feel a reason to use the bank beyond just the functional reasons, the rational reasons and the economical reasons,” says Champion, and they have succeeded. The new brand experience I-AM created with OAB reflects the Middle eastern culture of hospitality. It creates an emotional connection with its customers, it provides a designed, completely immersive and ambient environment, which is multi-sensory and makes the customers feel good. The value that brand experience brings to the picture is not just about optimising the function of the bank, but also about the way the bank feels and the impact that has on commercial value and positioning the brand as one of the most hospitable, welcoming and personable in Oman.