Branding 101: The Customer Covenant & Skin In The Game

The Short Story:

  1. Brands are like people: They should be accountable. Brands should say what they do and do what they say.
  2. Brands often have no skin in the game, so they can get away with not doing what they say. Accountability is lost. Bank brand, in particular have all the upside rewards. Customers have all the downside costs.
  3. Suntrust: an anti-fragile brand with all the upside.
  4. Customer: a fragile family member, with all the downside and a stolen SunTrust debit card.
  5. The customer’s final recourse: After multiple failures to get the brand to be accountable, the customer today has a new option: attempt to invoke the social currency of shame via social media.

The Back Story:

Rather than post an outright rant about stonewalling and impersonal service regarding the SunTrust brand, a bank that declares to be about “The Personal Touch,” I’ve decided to post an observation on the double-edged sword of branding: Making promises to win customers vs Creating the obligation to live up to those promises.

Is there a point at which a brand has lost enough customers through broken promises to either live up to the promise or rewrite it?

In this instance, the SunTrust brand will serve as a very legitimate touchstone for all brands. I’ve wrestled with building and sustaining brands for much of my adult life. I will attempt to take the high road, but confess to being motivated as much by personal disgruntlement as professional observation. The reader is invited to judge.

The 101 Part:

In declaring its status as a brand, a firm (of any kind, in any category) outlines the qualities for which it stands. In doing so, the brand sets more than expectations, it establishes a covenant with each customer. It issues a pledge. It makes a promise.

The SunTrust Customer Covenant:

“Go from financial stress to financial yes. Products and services to make banking a breeze.

“Welcome to SunTrust. We are an organization driven by purpose and a personal touch. We are passionate about Lighting the Way to Financial Well-Being by helping clients, teammates and communities achieve financial confidence.

“You can’t fully enjoy life if you are worried about money. Ready to get started? Join the Movement — we’re here to help.”

The promise is inviting. And shouldn’t a customer be expected to take it at least at face value? Or has advertising made us all so cynical that we never expect any brand promise to be honored?

If a SunTrust customer has a problem, he or she may indeed find a SunTrust representative people to be pleasant. But sadly, they are also quite powerless. The brand promised something beyond mere pleasantry. It promised a “personal touch” and “help.” But the people beyond the pleasantries are walled off and unapproachable. There is no authority that is accessible.

While the brand wants you to think of it as personable, approachable, helpful, resourceful and trustworthy …it is in practice, impersonal, remote, aggressively passive, restrictive and untrustworthy.

Case in point: Imagine that you have a Visa debit card(as did my family member), issued via SunTrust. Your card is lost/stolen, excessive purchases are made totally outside your normal purchasing pattern, and SunTrust refuses to restore your stolen funds. Even after repeated attempts (over 10 months) to make a case and be treated as a real live human person, rather than one among the many faceless plastic account holders.

The refusal itself is rather passive. It is like a pathology, coded into the system, that just lingers in a steady state of refusal, rather than an active, engaged, problem-solving state.

As with just about any brand that grows to significant size, all the systems and processes built to achieve efficiency and scale effectively turn the brand promise into resistant obstacles; impersonal, inflexible and unresponsive. The very real, very living and breathing customer those systems make possible becomes the unwitting, un-person the brand essentially promised he or she would never be. In this purview, SunTrust is not merely the poster-child for this unfortunate state of affairs, it is the abstract, inanimate monolithic entity that exists in direct opposition to its brand promise.

SunTrust, the bank that invokes the warmth and security of the sun has a dark side: all the process and bureaucracy necessary distributed across multiple states and offices and desks and phones and sunny dispositions to squash not only protection and trust, but also to decimate the patience of any and every individual, ignored customer.

You’ve been here before:

It begins with a friendly, yet automated VRU (voice response unit soon to be enhanced with AI) that pronounces this smiling declaration:



And here we go again.

The cheery neutral voice • The needling music • 10 minute holds • 10-day mailing windows • 30 to 45-day review periods • Extended waiting for un-nameable supervisors, un-reachable fraud investigators, ruling on unauthorized debit card transactions without complete information.


SunTrust. We trust our systems, but not our customers.

So finally, the money has been stolen twice. First, by the scoundrel who took the card and made unauthorized purchases. Second, by the very bank my family member trusted to handle his money.

The Skin In The Game Part:

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Antifragile, explains that banks are among the institutions today that no longer have “skin in the game.” As with far too many banks, SunTrust wants all the upside and none of the downside.

SunTrust proves the point. Since one’s relationship with the bank is based on pure anonymity and lack of accountability on the bank’s side, the customer (who is actually seen as that proverbial anonymous number from the bank’s point of view) has only one recourse: public shaming. A SunTrust customer will never see his or her banker at church on Sunday, to borrow Taleb’s example.

So the customer must find some other way to pursue or approximate accountability; seek some other channel to draw attention to the promise-breaking behavior of the bank. Thanks to new social media platforms, (Medium, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter…) that’s easier to do than ever. Evidence the current text.

Another brand enters the scenario here: Visa. A brand that has even less skin in the game. It is shielded by the issuing bank. Visa never promises to be personal, approachable. It just promises to be everywhere you are in order to facilitate a transaction. Of course, in this case, one has to wonder where that supposed $50 debt protection limit comes into play, when the bank’s customer reports the stolen card as soon as possible — and expects losses to be limited to $50.

This story is not merely anecdotal. Scan through the SunTrust Facebook timeline and you’ll find multiple aggravated, angry sufferers attempting to shame SunTrust. This stonewalling is a well-established pattern for SunTrust. SunTrust and Visa likely have an allowable loss percentage, a breakage figure they build into their balance sheets. But, again, how many unhappy ex-customers does it take to force a reality check on the customer covenant?

So much for shaming, huh.

Yes, we human beings are messy and sloppy and make mistakes and some even behave criminally. But when the customer has no face-to-face recourse, no personal appeal, and the brand has no skin in the game, who cares? The bank certainly doesn’t. Only the stiffed customer cares.

And if he or she doesn’t recover the stolen $829.75, or someone else’s $450.11, or anyone’s $50.01, then he or she can certainly invite the brand to expend at least that cost in staffing time and annoyance. And perhaps the loss of a few new accounts. But maybe they don’t really even want customers. When you have millions, what’s one or two disgruntled, grumpy transactors here and there?

It’s a long shot, but maybe the brand will decide to do what it says. However, I suspect the fraud backlog is too deep to address and still make the quarterly numbers the C-Suite needs to make its bonuses. There are enough new customers out there to get us to Q-4 next year. Right?

An even longer shot? That every brand that makes a promise does so with not only the intention of honoring it, but the resources and systems to do so.