Bankers are not known for their marketing flair, and Fortis is no exception if we judge from the web presence. Fortis appeared in 1991 from a merger of AG Group, VSB and AMEV. The emerging corporate identity was inspired from the Latin word for strength. In 1999, Fortis merged with General Bank and CGER, two Belgian banks, as well as Credit Lyonnais Bank Nederland, which General Bank had just acquired. Through several of its merged companies, Fortis' roots go back to the 19th and even 18th century low countries, which now form the Benelux custom-union of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Among others, the Assurantie Stad Rotterdam Company was founded in 1720, and VSB and General Bank, go back to 1817 and 1822 respectively.
Abandoning brand equity as part of M&A transactions is a costly issue that is often debated. In the current case, for instance, General Bank had basically kept the same corporate identity for 177 years and was the market leader in its home country. The banking industry has a whole graveyard of prestigious names now extinct. With about 50,000 employees, the conglomerate of Fortis is a banking giant in the Benelux market (which numbers about 26 million inhabitants).
The cyber visitor is first welcomed by a splash page directing him to one of the country-based sites. (The page is automatically skipped in subsequent visits.) Unfortunately, the splash page misses the opportunity to create a splash, i.e., an emotion in the hearts of consumers.
The welcome is indeed rather lukewarm and…. Well judge for yourself. The text reads: "Please select your country and language. Fortis's country-based websites provide extensive corporate information. They also contain information aimed at the target groups in these countries." Informative perhaps but not exactly aimed at the heart.
The four language/country versions of the Fortis corporate site are virtually identical and well aligned with the brand. The logo is multi-colored, and so is the site. The navigation menu is located at the top of the screen, blending with colorful cubes and pictures. The ensemble rotates every few seconds in a rather mechanical way. Also on the front page, some buttons (Annual Report, Quarterly Results, etc.) change colors in a similar fashion. It's at least a little more colorful than most bank sites, and here is used to denote the different sections of the site.
With the site layout being different from the "amazon.com" conventions (menu on the left, logo above it, etc.), the usability suffers. The logo, for instance, is not a hyperlink to go back to the "home" page-a near instinctual action at this point. There is however a "home" button, located in the lower right corner, which is totally counterintuitive.
Stumbling on usability issues, the visitor is likely to get frustrated, which is not the kind of emotion a brand manager would wish for his baby. Crisp functionality is also a feature one expects on a bank or financial site to reinforce the belief that all is button-downed when it comes to the money.
Surfing the site is much easier the further one drills down, as inside pages respect usability conventions and make the experience more predictable. Again, we like the use of colors that enhance the logo concept. This aspect of the branding is basic but positive.
More fundamentally, however, it is hard to figure out what the brand positioning strategy might be, other than "undifferentiated banking group." Without the brand equity of its predecessors, Fortis is like a compass on the North Pole: It seems to have lost its sense of direction.
Fortis might still enjoy a strong lead in its home market, but the increasingly competitive European banking market calls for a more convincing strategy if it is to stay around for another 200 years.
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