When the doors open on the National Bank of Canada's new flagship branch in Toronto's financial district later this spring, the red carpet will be ready.
National is renovating office space in a prominent location, one block west of King and Bay streets where the head offices of four of the Big Five banks tower. When National reveals its new space in the former Reuters office at King and York Streets, it will be the latest entry in a global trend to rethink the way banks attract and serve their customers.
After two decades of bank branch closures and an explosion of electronic banking, some institutions are beginning to rediscover the value of physical locations, as financial products become more complex.
"As much as our customers want to deal with us at ATMs or online to get information and do routine transactions, when they make major purchasing decisions, like choosing investments or getting a mortgage, they still want to talk to someone face-to-face," said Pat Minicucci, National's senior vice-president for personal and commercial banking for Central, Western and Atlantic Canada.
"We're going to go from obscurity [a branch at York and Adelaide, one block north of the new site]to having our new flagship branch on one of the most high-profile corners in the financial district."
The bank has hired Ruscio Studio, a high-end retail design firm from Montreal, to put the National Bank's brand on the flagship branches in Toronto and Montreal. President Robert Ruscio says his goal is to create a warm and inviting space where clients and potential clients will want to come in and stay for a while to interact with staff.
"We want National to have a much greater presence in the Toronto market and we want the branch to reveal the personality of the bank itself," he said.
One of the first design elements visitors will notice is the vibrant red carpet that will ground the sleek modern space. "We're rolling out the red carpet for our clients," Mr. Minicucci said. "They're special to us and we want to show them that we're giving them special treatment. We want them to come in and give us a try."
Like other banks in Europe and the United States, National and ING Direct are revamping key offices to make them vibrant, distinctive and innovative. Other Canadian banks are reaching out to customers – think of TD Canada Trust's green armchairs and Bank of Nova Scotia's Scene debit card that provides discounts on movies. Each bank is experimenting with different styles, but a common theme is modern, casual design, sometimes with whimsical additions.
Barclays Bank's London flagship has a screen that at night picks up images of people on Piccadilly Circus using face recognition technology and then turns them into moving silhouettes with word bubbles to entertain passersby. The interior of Rabobank Amsterdam playfully uses cardboard for furniture and architectural features – intentionally using temporary material to contrast with themes traditionally associated with a safe, secure bank.
Other design features in National's flagship include large screens to display information about the bank and its products, spaces for client meetings and customer information seminars on financial products, free WiFi, comfortable lounge seating, a free coffee and tea bar and greeters instead of security guards to guide visitors to their destination.
"If someone comes in to have a coffee and read a book for half an hour on a rainy day, it'll be a sign the design is working," Mr. Ruscio said. Plans even include a fireplace to take the chill off future winters.
"Not too long ago banks didn't want their customers loitering in the bank. Now we want to invite people in and provide the kind of place where customers will enjoy staying while they talk with someone about their financial needs," he said.
A few blocks away in a three-storey brick heritage building on Yonge Street across from the Eaton Centre shopping mall, ING Direct opened its Toronto Café last year, said Brenda Rideout, chief marketing and innovation officer in Canada. ING has operated a small café in a Toronto suburb since 1997 shortly after the Netherlands-based banking group debuted its solely online banking service in Canada. It now also has cafés in Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal.
"It's not a branch, it's not a selling destination" Ms. Rideout said. "But we have well-trained staff there who can answer questions, then let you use an iPad and show you how to go online to do your transactions."
There are garden walls, a café with Haitian coffee and other refreshments and a variety of seating options. The second floor houses Network Orange, which offers short-term open office space to small business operators for modest fees.
"We find entrepreneurs want to spend time with like-minded people to share ideas and technology," she said. Most days 20 to 25 budding business people can be found in the downtown office space. For modest fees ($120 for a month) they can access common office space, meeting rooms and teleconferencing.
To demonstrate ING's commitment to the neighbourhood, Ms. Rideout said proceeds from the café and office space are donated to community groups. ING estimates about 700 people come in every day and ING has donated more than $70,000 since it opened.
National will complement its new branches with a marketing campaign featuring red carpet service. It is counting on this effort to generate a significant increase in new accounts in the coming months. Call it growth by design.
Designer Robert Ruscio's tips for using design to create brand presence:
Although National Bank's brand colours are red and blue, the new flagship will feature red, using it strategically on the floor to give customers red-carpet treatment and set it apart from the more common conservative blues that banks favour.
To convey modernity and a lack of pretension, Mr. Ruscio used white Corian for counters rather than natural stone. "It's warmer and more understated than granite."
Large, dynamic screens, including a giant one on the exterior facing King Street, will cycle multiple messages. Screens display more information and keep floor space open and uncluttered. "Multimedia is powerful because motion attracts attention."
Don't be afraid to incorporate the unexpected. A fireplace lends an inviting welcome to National's current Toronto branch design. "This is Canada after all, we have a long winter. We need to warm it up."