What small businesses can learn from the Nigel Farage account row

As the CEO of NatWest, Alison Rose steps down amid the UK’s first ‘debanking’ controversy, we examine where the brand went wrong.

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Helena Young
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This morning, NatWest boss Dame Alison Rose announced she would resign, saying she had made a mistake in speaking to the BBC about the company’s decision to ‘debank’ Nigel Farage.

The move is the latest in a row that has been escalating for several weeks. NatWest, the parent company of Coutts, has been facing mounting criticism over its rationale for closing the ex UKIP leader’s accounts – reportedly due to worries about Farage’s political views.

Ironically enough, NatWest appears to have made this decision to avoid a PR upset. It will be regretting the move now.

Thrust into the centre of a media storm over what Rose has since described as a “serious error of judgement”, the brand is now being forced to examine how it got it so wrong.

What is ‘debanking’?

The row over Nigel Farage’s bank account has all but taken over UK headlines this month. Farage, who is the former leader of the UK Independence Party and a high-profile Brexiteer, first tweeted in early July that his account with Coutts had been closed.

The Coutts Foundation, which is controlled by its parent company, NatWest, is a registered B Corp which positions itself as a purpose-led bank.

At the time, Farage said he had not been given a reason why he had been ‘debanked’. The BBC reported that the account was closed because Farage had no longer met the wealth threshold for Coutts. As it transpires, this report was inaccurate.

When Farage subsequently obtained a document looking at his suitability as a Coutts customer, the 40-page document apparently described him as “xenophobic and racist”.

Questioning the reputational risk of having Mr Farage as a client, it stated his views were not consistent with Coutts’ “position as an inclusive organisation”.

Dame Alison Rose, who has been CEO of NatWest since 2019, was revealed to be the BBC source. This morning, she announced her resignation after facing significant pressure from government officials to step down.

When your values don’t align

The Coutts row is certainly a complicated issue for brands to navigate. But the fallout can teach SMEs a crucial lesson about the importance of aligning your corporate values with your brand proposition.

The Coutts report suggested that Farage’s personal beliefs – which have seen him accused of being anti LGBTQ+T – could conflict with the company’s inclusive values. In doing so, it appeared more hypocritical than righteous.

Whatever your views on Farage, promising to value inclusivity and then blacklisting a person due to controversial views comes across as intolerant.

Coutts’ mission statement is similarly misaligned. Its stated purpose is to “help those with wealth to save, borrow and invest their money for themselves, their families and their future” – a message which, if anything, suggests a commitment to help customers indiscriminately.

Lastly, the bank also failed to take into account the beliefs of its target audience, such as the importance of free speech.

Not coordinating these key branding materials has made it impossible for Coutts to defend its decision to close Farage’s account, opening it up to opprobrium from customers and partners.

What can SMEs learn from the row?

In a letter to the former UKIP leader, Rose has since insisted the assessment of Farage ‘does not reflect the views of the bank’, suggesting that the decision was the action of a rogue employee.

Your organisation’s mission statement is perhaps the most important tool in your marketing strategy. It defines your messaging, and your product or service. It also tells your employees, customers, vendors, suppliers, who you are as a brand.

As such, it is crucial to ensure that every member of the organisation is clear on what the mission is, and how it should be employed. Certainly, any company that preaches inclusivity should think twice before deciding to refuse a customer due to their personal beliefs.

NatWest’s latest messaging has left its service users even more confused about what Coutts and its parent company collectively stand for. Perhaps it’s no longer sure.

Likely, we will see a refreshed website soon, accompanied by a shiny new list of values that align clearly with the brand’s stated purpose.

Next up: read about another key way to understand and define your brand in our guide to developing your organisational culture.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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