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Community spirit behind Darlington Building Society’s successful year


Caroline Darnbrook’s work at Darlington Building Society has seen membership numbers soar since 2015. A brand refresh, “tangible” marketing initiatives and innovative product development have been key to her success, as she tells Nigel Wright.

Darlington Building Society was formed in 1856, as the town emerged as a central hub in the development of the modern railway. Today it enjoys a balance sheet of £585 million and has 10 branches across the region, including in Darlington as well as Middlesbrough and Stockton. Launched specifically to help Darlington people, the organisation has remained an integral part of the community through 160 years of change. After a 20 year career at CYBG (Clydesdale Bank, Yorkshire Bank), in 2014 Caroline Darnbrook left to pursue a freelance marketing career. It proved short-lived, however, when one of her first contracts soon turned into a permanent role, as she explains: 

“Following the recession, Darlington Building Society was ready to reengage with brand building and I was hired to perform a marketing audit. It was a great opportunity because the foundations were solid and the brand had a strong heritage. Though, I knew could make a difference in certain areas. Amidst a competitive, innovative and saturated financial services marketplace, the Society needed ‘future proofing.’ I made three recommendations: Customer Segmentation, Customer Insight, and a Brand Refresh. I was hired permanently to execute my plan.”

According to Caroline, Darlington Building Society needed a more targeted approach to customer development. It had never previously segmented its membership base. New memberships had declined during the last decade and therefore her immediate priority was defining key target markets. Customer insight followed, as Caroline and her five person team built a knowledge bank of member needs and changing market conditions. Brand perceptions, the value people associated with building societies, as well as perceived differences between building societies and banks, were key themes. Several conclusions were drawn from the research, which informed plans to refresh the brand.

A key finding, according to Caroline, was that customers favourable towards the brand couldn’t describe what Darlington Building Society stood for. While this may seem an alarming revelation for any business, Caroline was reassured, as she explained: “It meant repositioning the brand wasn’t necessary. We just needed to make sure that people were aware of our position, as well as our different products.”

Caroline chose to focus on the idea of ‘sharing’ as a fundamental aspect of the brand refresh. The organisation, she noted, consists of three entities: the business, its members and the community. This, she says, forms a virtuous circle: “Members invest in the Society and the Society supports the community, which results in a better life for members because it’s their community. If we’re making a difference to people’s lives, then it gives purpose and meaning to our brand.”

While the concept of sharing is easy to articulate, Caroline knew she had to make it “tangible’ to embed it in the minds of current and potential members. A perfect opportunity for the brand relaunch presented itself in 2016 when the Society was due to celebrate its 160th anniversary.

In the 12 months leading up to the milestone, initiatives were planned and incorporated into the marketing strategy that would bring to life the concept of sharing and its association with Darlington Building Society. These were focused around three pledges linked to the number ‘160’: staff would complete 160 days of volunteering, the Society would support 160 organisations in the area and help to raise £160,000 for its chosen charities and causes.

Caroline explained how during the Customer Insight process, members indicated they wanted a stronger voice in how Darlington Building Society engaged with local communities. Members, therefore, were involved in choosing the causes and organisations which would receive support as part of the brand relaunch. Three types of causes were selected: People Helping People, Medical Research, and the Elderly & Loneliness. The volunteering pledge had a “phenomenal” impact on employee engagement too, says Caroline, as staff enthusiastically offered their time and skills to local organisations. This included typical voluntary tasks like painting and gardening, but also encompassed skills development opportunities, such as when members of the finance team assisted a credit union with planning. Overall, it was a huge success:

“We relaunched the brand in September 2015, which included our new logo developed by Shift agency. Across all our messaging was a greater emphasis on the idea of sharing, volunteering and having an impact in the community. The pledges were then launched in January 2016, by which point the association of ‘sharing’ and Darlington Building Society was embedded in the minds of current and potential members. By the end of 2016, we’d surpassed our targets across all three pledges. An incredible effort from the whole organisation.”

Darlington Building Society now has several strong case studies highlighting how its volunteering, business support and fundraising efforts have changed people’s lives. It also commits two volunteering days per year for everyone to support causes, as well as donating 5% of net profits back into the local community. Some of the organisations that benefited from the ‘160 themed’ pledges include Great North Air Ambulance, Mountain Rescue, Darlington Cares, Age UK and the Turning Point People's Parliament. Child literacy and financial awareness are other areas where the Society offered local support, including working with schools on literacy development programmes and delivering financial education workshops to young people.

Financial literacy is a real issue in the local area, says Caroline, and moving forward the Society will broaden its outreach efforts to include supporting local adult financial literacy initiatives. She added: “We’re keen to understand the impact of anything we do in the community and are always considering how more and different organisations and people can benefit from our willingness to share time, skills and resources helping others.”

The marketing endeavours didn’t stop there either. On the back of its successful brand relaunch, in 2017 Darlington Building Society revealed a new and ultimately award winning savings product. During the customer segmentation process, Caroline explained how children were identified as a segment of the market that needed focus. Products aimed at young members, she discovered, were also limited and unattractive. A revamp was required and Caroline saw the potential to leverage the Society’s commitment to improving financial education, reward savers and celebrate Darlington’s history and heritage.

Children aren’t bothered about interest rates, says Caroline. Rather, she needed another “tangible” initiative to grab people’s attention, but this time one that young savers could relate to. She began researching Darlington’s history and trains immediately jumped out as an obvious theme – Stockton to Darlington rail being the world's first public railway to use steam locomotives. Working again alongside Shift agency, they explored the idea of mascots, as well as a Kids Club where membership of the club was the reward for saving. From this concept, Darly The Train was born:

“ Darly is a Disney-esque steam train that acts as a money box and, via a tie-in book, narrates a ride through history, heavily featuring Darlington. When children open a savings account at Darlington Building Society, they receive a model Darly. Then, at different savings hurdles, they acquire carriages – bronze, silver and gold for different coins. There’s room for more carriages too and we plan to release additional ones to mark local occasions. For example, the bicentenary of the Stockton to Darlington Railway is in 2025.”

To date, over 300 new children’s saving accounts have been opened since Darly’s launch. And while it’s a great way for getting people through the door, Caroline reveals, as per the essence of the Society's brand, they intend to share Darly too. The local council, for example, have used the little character at the Festival of Ingenuity. “Another gift to the community.”

A tie in book, ‘Darly's Magical History Ride,’ written by former Northern Echo Editor, Peter Baron, and illustrated by Shift agency, became another avenue for local school engagement. Book sales contribute to a foundation established by Darlington Building Society which buys books for local schools. And Caroline also confirmed a Darly themed online educational game is in the pipeline, aimed at financial literacy learning. “ Darly's got a lot of legs,” she says.

Darly The Train was voted as the Integrated Marketing Campaign of the Year at the 2018 North East Marketing Awards. And the initiative played a major role in Caroline’s Marketing Director of the Year nomination and win, on what proved a successful night for the Society:

“We were delighted of course. There were some fantastic people on the shortlists but winning demonstrated that if you do things well and with focus, then you get results. Darlington Building Society has been very clear about who we are, what we are and what difference we want to make. The organisation won seven awards in 2018 across the business, by having a clear strategy and delivering it. It’s been an exciting year.”

Looking back on her 20 year career in financial services, Caroline highlights how customers today still demand face-to-face interactions when it comes to managing their money. In 2018, as well on upgrading its branches, the society invested in improving customer services. Customer service is now a key differentiator for the Society says, Caroline. And in 2019, she confirmed face-to-face and telephone offerings will be complemented by an online service area for members: “Combining traditional and digital services to create multiple customer touch-points is how the sector is evolving.”

Product development remains a priority too. Following the successful launch of its Professionals Mortgage, general enquiries have increased and the society has become visible to a broader customer base. Caroline is now seeking to hire extra product development and digital talent in the coming months, to further leverage opportunities in these two critical areas.

New Chief Executive Andrew Craddock, who joined in November 2018, marks the beginning of a new era in Darlington Building Society’s history. Speaking about his appointment, Caroline said: "The Society needs to remain responsive to the market and positioned as a specialised lender with brokers. Andrew understands this, while at the same time is committed to the essence of sharing and community care at the heart of the brand." She added:

“The most exciting thing is that the story continues. This is just the start of the journey for us – there’s an awful lot more we can accomplish.”

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