A strong brand is a multi-billion dollar asset in today’s competitive marketplace. It is a complex and ever-evolving system. HSBC’s brand incorporates a visual identity, customer experience, a master brand, sub-brands, campaigns, typography, colour palettes – and so much more. In this exhibition we explore the fascinating heritage that lies behind it all.
The bank flag
HSBC opened its doors for business in Hong Kong in 1865, helping to finance trade between Asia and the rest of the world. We made a successful start and began to build a network of branches across Asia, Europe and North America. The modern concept of branding was a long way off. However, the bank’s leadership took great efforts to nurture a reputation for integrity, efficiency and astute knowledge of local markets. This was soon reinforced with a simple yet effective form of advertising, in the shape of a bank flag that flew proudly above its buildings.
The flag can be spotted in photographs dating from the 1890s, but they were possibly introduced even earlier than that. The design was composed of a white rectangle, divided diagonally, to produce a red hourglass shape. Like many early Hong Kong companies, we were set up by a Scottish expatriate; and like other company flags of that era, the design is likely to have been inspired by the Scottish flag, the cross of St Andrew.
Did you know?
Thomas Sutherland became a director of Midland Bank (now HSBC UK) in 1898, serving until his retirement in 1910.
Lions and unicorns
The flag quickly became a popular sight, and can still be seen flying above many of our offices today. However, from the outset there was another logo competing for the limelight. HSBC introduced a crest on official records such as banknotes and cheques. This combined a bustling harbour scene from Hong Kong’s Public Seal, with the UK’s royal coat of arms, including its lion and unicorn. The harbour scene illustrated that our founding purpose lay in opening up opportunities for customers through global trade. The design also emphasised our strong position as Hong Kong’s only locally-incorporated bank. The crest was widely used in buildings and advertising campaigns until the 1980s.
The flag and crest would become synonymous with HSBC during its first century of operation. We began to introduce other visual devices as the advertising industry stepped up a gear in the 1970s. One example was ‘Leo’ the cartoon lion. Inspired by Stephen and Stitt, our famous bronze lion statues, Leo appeared in newspaper and television adverts to promote key products and services. He was particularly busy announcing branch openings across Hong Kong, as we initiated a major push into the retail banking sector.
A new identity
HSBC was going through an identity crisis by the late 1970s. We had acquired The British Bank of the Middle East (now HSBC Bank Middle East) and the Mercantile Bank in India. A new subsidiary had opened in California. We had invested in Hang Seng Bank and launched a merchant banking subsidiary named Wardley. Numerous other acquisitions and alliances had seen HSBC develop into a large ‘Group’ of companies, headed up by The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.
This growth and diversification had been a wise move at a time of increasing competition in the global banking sector. However, the Group was now a vast muddle of names and logos. It lacked a cohesive brand that could connect with customers around the world. In 1979 we launched a major ‘Corporate Identity Study’. It aimed to examine the visual identifiers of HSBC, and develop a stronger identity to meet the needs of the diverse cultures, locations and languages of our growing customer base.
Methodology and insights
Graphic Communications Limited, led by renowned designer Henry Steiner, undertook an audit of all logos used by HSBC and its subsidiaries. At the same time, Hill and Knowlton consultants developed a questionnaire to grasp how 200 key stakeholders (including senior executives, customers and financial journalists), located in 16 countries, understood the bank’s existing corporate identities.
The results were clear. A multitude of logos were used interchangeably. The symbols of our main subsidiaries were poorly recognised, even in their home markets. In short, we projected an image of conflicting ideas and inconsistency.
The project team recommended the introduction of a simplified title and graphic for The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and its subsidiaries. It would need to resonate with a global audience and reflect our ambitions as a leading international bank.
The designers set about creating a modern logo, but soon found themselves turning to the bank’s long-standing heritage. Inspiration was found in the traditional red and white flag. Graphic Communications introduced a simple and unique design – the HSBC Hexagon. It was quickly embraced by the bank’s leadership, employees and customers.
…its suggestion of arrows, of trade and communication, East/West and North/South, of its embodying the concept of a group forming a larger integrated structure, of its adaptability and stylistic timelessness.
The new hexagon design was successfully rolled out to an international audience. Its bold ‘bank red’ colouring was seen as auspicious in the home market of Hong Kong. Its basic shape was adaptable to fit anything, from a business card to a billboard. The symbol was presented alongside the name ‘HongkongBank’, to form HSBC’s new corporate signature.
Variations of the main design were available across the Group to suit local circumstances. Subsidiaries could even retain their own names for now, if that made strategic sense in their local markets.
Further changes lay ahead. We took full ownership of US bank Marine Midland in 1987, followed by Midland Bank in the UK in 1992. There was also expansion in Latin America. HSBC was now one of the world’s biggest banks. Once again, the Group became acutely conscious of the complicated mix of names and logos presented to customers around the world. Another major marketing programme swung into action as the millennium approached. More than 300 subsidiaries were re-branded with the HSBC name and hexagon logo in 1999.
At the same time, HSBC acknowledged the integral relationship between corporate identity and brand in an increasingly competitive market. It was no longer enough to make our buildings and products instantly recognisable. We had to purposely promote an awareness of HSBC’s core values in order to gain the confidence of our customers. The introduction of a defined consumer brand/brand architecture was a powerful step.
Over the years the HSBC Group has grown both organically and by acquisition. Historically, we have operated under different names in different places. Our policy of retaining the separate identities of the companies we acquired because they were well-known names in their local markets served us well for many years. However, times change and we must change with them.
Advertising campaigns were reshaped to promote HSBC’s international identity. We launched ‘Your World of Financial Services’ in 2001, with the hexagon prominently displayed. This was followed by ‘The world’s local bank’ strapline in 2002. These campaigns highlighted the bank’s unique understanding of people, countries and cultures, and our exceptional on-the-ground expertise. The latter strapline was retained for a full decade thanks to its strong alignment with our global ambitions of the period. Subsequent campaigns included ‘In the Future’ (launched 2012) and ‘Supporting Human Ambition’ (launched 2015), with the hexagon still prominent.
'Clip from ‘The world’s local bank: an explanation’, featuring the first television and cinema adverts launched by HSBC as part of its new global campaign
From the inception of “The world’s local bank”, local knowledge and the celebration of cultural diversity has been a major theme in the HSBC brand.
Elevating the hexagon
The hexagon had developed into a globally-recognised logo by the time HSBC celebrated its 150th anniversary. However, we were once again facing an identity crisis. A global brand audit showed there were a vast number of ways that our brand was showing up across different customer touchpoints. We were witnessing a significant decline in brand value across markets, and it was time for a rethink.
The classic HSBC identity was reengineered for the digital age in 2016. The hexagon was moved ahead of the bank name, acting as a front door to the brand. The typography was simplified to make it more contemporary and fit for multiple screens, from stadiums to mobiles. A masterbrand was approved, along with a rigid brand architecture to ensure consistency across all business lines, markets, propositions and activities. A new global brand promise and line was launched: ‘Together We Thrive’.
Extract from an interview with HSBC Sound creator Jean-Michel Jarre
Further change was on the horizon as we entered the new decade. In 2020, Group CEO Noel Quinn challenged the organisation to think about why we exist as a bank, and the values that should guide us every day. It sparked one of the largest consultation exercises ever run, with input from thousands of employees and customers. The conversation resulted in a redefined purpose – Opening up a world of opportunity – that puts the customer more clearly than ever at the heart of the bank.
In 2021, we strengthened our brand by making it more iconic, attractive, and memorable for our audiences, services, and markets. It is digital-first and accessible by design. The Hexagon remains the anchor, supported by core colours of red, white and black; our HSBC Red being particularly evocative of a bold and confident brand.
A glimpse of the content on our digital war memorial in Birmingham
To the sorrowing relatives we wish to extend our heartfelt sympathy. The distinctions which have been won by many of our men for acts of bravery and devotion to duty prove that they carry with them to the battlefield that loyalty and zeal which inspired them in the performance of their peacetime occupation. We are proud of them.
Edward Holden, Chairman, speaking at the bank's annual dinner in 1918
We will remember
Stories of conflict and the courage displayed by bank employees during times of adversity are threaded through HSBC’s global and predecessor history. Inspirational examples of service and survival have continued to the present day, with employees performing military and civilian duties in a number of campaigns across the globe. In more recent times, conflict has appeared in new guises. HSBC employee Ignacio Echeverría heroically protected others during the 2017 terrorist attack at London Bridge. He was posthumously granted the George Medal and a Memorial Award was established in his name. Today, we recognise and commemorate the actions of our colleagues, past and present, in the annual Remembrance Day ceremony.