Banks branch out into modern world of branding in retail spaces

Financial giants are embracing the move to more efficient layouts and lighting to create comfortable spaces for clients and workers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 3:51am

Try to picture all the Bank of China (Hong Kong) branches in a 10-block radius from where you are sitting. Having trouble? That was the problem Greg Pearce and James Oliver of One Space encountered when they were hired to redesign a BOCHK branch two years ago.

"I could think of maybe one or two," says Pearce. The number of BOCHK branches tops 300. "For such an important part of the community, it could be much more visible. It should be a landmark, a part of the streetscape," says Pearce.

One Space was hired to revamp a three-storey branch on Hennessy Road in Causeway Bay to make it more efficient, customer-friendly and visible from the street. Completed in January, it is a project that could be the template for a city-wide overhaul of BOCHK branches.

Last year, The Economist noted that, as online banking becomes more popular, banks worldwide are revamping their branches to be airier and more comfortable spaces, with "more than [a] passing resemblance" to the layout of Apple stores. That is especially true for international players like Citibank, whose recent expansion in Hong Kong has raised the bar for local stalwarts like BOCHK and HSBC.

Having handled retail projects for HSBC, Fubon Bank and others, One Space was a natural choice for BOCHK.

Finance is part of the company's DNA. American-born Pearce moved to Hong Kong 20 years ago to work for Arup on the MTR Corp's Hong Kong station. Oliver arrived from Britain in 1996 as a financial technology specialist for Goldman Sachs.

They met at a party and realised they shared the same work philosophy - what Pearce calls "total architecture" and what Germans refer to as gesamtkunstwerk: the idea that a project should be approached holistically, with thought put into every aspect of its function.

One Space's redesign for BOCHK is based on not only aesthetics, but also how customers and employees use the space.

"Successful retail spaces are memorable, recognisable and accessible," says Pearce. A successful example, he says, is jewellers Tiffany & Co, with its distinctive robin's egg blue branding, which has been used since 1845.

The first change was to open up BOCHK's facade.

"There was not a lot of transparency in the frontages," says Pearce. At best, the cloistered appearance didn't catch anyone's eye; at worst, it seemed opaque or "confrontational".

Their solution was to line the street frontage with double-glazed, luminous windows with LED lights between the panes, marked by vertical stripes that vary in opacity, a nod to architect I.M. Pei's bamboo-inspired Bank of China Tower in Central.

At the Causeway Bay branch, customers are greeted by an "ambassador" who welcomes them into an open area that can be used for exhibitions, thanks to magnetic tracks.

Next to a graphic wall where customers can navigate the bank's services, an airy sculptural staircase leads to the main floor, where the usual nylon-roped queue is gone. Instead, subtle directional visual cues - lines on the floor and small pillars - act as guides.

Better lighting was also installed at the counters and inside the ATM hall. Luminous fins were placed next to each machine, which more effectively illuminate the keypads and also serve as privacy screens. A splash of aqua blue, says Pearce, provides contrast to BOCHK's classic red and white, softening the overall colour scheme.

The biggest changes were on the top floor, where wealth-management services are provided. Before, says Pearce, you would sit across the desk from the relationship manager and crane to see the screen as if it were something you shouldn't be seeing. One Space redesigned meeting rooms into glass-walled neutral spaces. U-shaped seats allow customers to choose between facing their banker across the desk or sitting next to them. Frosted glass protects customers' privacy, while electronic clutter - fax machines and printers - has been reduced.

"You can set up your own personal geography, so it's less bureaucratic," says Pearce.

Before the makeover, 50 per cent of its space was open to customers, now it is 70 per cent.

"Hong Kong bank users are a very broad demographic - you have locals, mainlanders, expats, tourists, young, old," says Pearce. "There's a very wide range of expectations."