Pride or just simply bog standard corporate realism insufficiency?

When the bank UBS launched its 2011 corporate campaign – “We will not rest” after a government bail-out, it seemed pretty obvious that that reality would slap them in the face before too long.

Not so, according to consulting colleagues who had worked with the CEO Oswald Grubel to develop this brand promise.

They said the former Credit Suisse chief – who came out of retirement in 2009 to help rescue Zurich cross-town rival UBS – was determined to drive deep culture change. The ad campaign reflected his determination.

Controls would be improved. Undue risk taking and greed-driven behavior would be eliminated. Customers would come first. It was client relationships that mattered. Huge internal efforts had been unleashed to drive change at UBS.

In the past couple of weeks, this was all shattered. The campaign was put on hold over news that a UBS trader in London had gambled on complicated instruments and lost the bank US$ 2.3 billion.

And last weekend, Grubel resigned, taking personal responsibility for the loss and for the lack of proper controls.

I hate being right in cases like this, but it is almost tragic to see how the bombastic brand promise just seemed to signal a deep and sudden fall. Murphy’s Law exists for a reason.

The campaign was controversial from the get-go, but that is a matter of taste. I thought from the outset it was a stretch, but accepted it as a deliberate part of a deep change process.

The real problem turned out to be the unbridgeable gap between the brand promise and the prevailing behavior and culture. Reality rears its ugly head, sooner or later. Always does.

There is a simple and very important lesson here for the bank, and for any corporation contemplating a brand overhaul. Keep it real. And if it ain’t real today, change it before Murphy comes around to your place.

How does this sort of thing happen?

UBS didn’t stumble into their promise “We will not rest”. It accurately reflected the CEO’s intention. He worked with some of the best brains in the communications business to develop it – and the creative work executed the thinking effectively.

Someone, somewhere along the way should have signaled the gap. Was Grubel too domineering? Didn’t his leadership think this was important enough to worry about properly?

We may never know.

The tragedy for the tens of thousands of people working in the bank is that the brand promise sat at the core of internal work streams to change the culture, which was and remains a real priority. The credibility of those efforts is diminished, and the pride UBS people have in their bank has shrunk, too.

Human nature intervened. Grubel took responsibility. The damage is great. It would have been considerable even with a more realistic brand promise as a backdrop.

But the hurt, especially internally, would have been less acute and the situation now less troubling if the leadership of UBS had not created this chasm between promise and reality.

It was not as if this was a phenomenon that the bank had never encountered before. In 2009, its penultimate brand promise “You and Us” was dropped. It was deemed be made hollow by the bank’s financial troubles.

Perhaps the problem at heart at UBS is once again that corporate branding is basically seen as corporate marketing – and that marketing isn’t really expected to be realistic.

In the words of Pete Seeger’s beautiful refrain, you have to ask yourself: “When will they ever learn?”