by Magnus Shaw
When a kitchen is infested with cockroaches, the little beasts do their unpalatable work quite happily while the room is dark.But turn on a light and they scatter chaotically in all directions, scared and confused. There are many reasons to see banks as cockroaches, but their current marketing campaigns give particular strength to the comparison.
In 2007, the major banks were thriving (or at least appeared to be) and their advertising was confident, assured and extravagant.
Then, the crash. Suddenly the harsh light of scrutiny changed the game - and the advertising. Like those cockroaches, the bank brands scattered to rethink their strategies and on the whole, make a right dog's dinner of it.
So here in July 2012, with events going from bad to worse, this might be a good time to examine the state of play in bank advertising.
Pre-crash, Halifax boasted one of the most recognisable ad campaigns on UK television - thanks to one Howard Brown. Howard was a genuine staff member, elevated from a branch to be the face of the company. At first, his appearances were quite charming and modest, but soon escalated to the point where we were treated to Mr. Brown riding a goose (something to do with golden eggs). As soon as the financial world went belly-up, Halifax escorted Howard back to his branch. Too flippant, too cheery.
After a smattering of very sedate stuff featuring human pyramids, the bank launched their absolutely baffling and quite dreadful "pretend radio station" concept. Frequently voted one of the least popular campaigns ever to make it to television, the idiot DJs eventually made way for the Halifax choir. Similarly terrible and presumably based on the modern trend for community singing, we now appear stuck with Halifax branch staff giving us acapella versions of "Walking On Sunshine". How this restores our faith in the brand is anybody's guess, but they are certainly walking on my patience.
Of course we still think of them as the Abbey National, but either way, this Spanish owned firm were largely untainted by the machinations of the credit crisis. Which left them in the unusual position of having something to crow about after 2008.
Not wishing to miss out on such an exciting opportunity, they weighed in with ... er ... some rabbits and squirrels doing some anthropomorphic stuff with nuts. Lest we found woodland creatures a bit, well, stupid - the bank then decided to bag themselves a slice of celebrity endorsement. Take That, Cheryl Cole, Bruce Forsyth and Ed The Duck were just a few of the famous names who didn't appear in Santander commercials. Instead, we were served Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button telling us they'll drive cash round to our houses at 200mph, whenever we call. Or something. Lewis' move to Switzerland for tax purposes hardly increases our faith in the integrity of the campaign, it has to be said.
This is one of the outfits we part own, isn't it? In which case, I hereby instruct the marketing department to abandon the expensive-looking, but enormously patronising, "For The Journey" campaign without delay. You see, grown men and women are quite capable of visualising their hopes, expectations and lives without the need of, frankly creepy, cartoon folk whose faces are too low on their heads.
What's more, we know life isn't a metaphorical trip on a quaint vintage train, with sweet little stops for babies and marriages. Actually, it's more akin to a faulty rollercoaster with life-threatening plummets and unexpected vomiting. Mostly caused by cowardly City types, happily taking our cash on a high-risk journey without an adequate map.
Oh. Oh dear. To be fair, NatWest responded to the fiscal farce with a re-brand which at least made sense. Prior to the account apocalypse, the bank had been countering an already disgruntled customer base by reassuring us they wouldn't turn our local branch into a fancy wine bar (I wonder what our grandparents would have made of such a promise). But serious times call for serious measures and, once we started to trust banks slightly less than than we trust the Nigerian lottery results, NatWest set about convincing us they were at the forefront of something called "helpful banking". They even attempted to prove their "helpfulness" by publishing the results of an independent audit. I say "independent", obviously the review was paid for by NatWest.
It doesn't much matter. The whole, carefully crafted, caring brand was suddenly sacrificed on the altar of technical meltdown and disastrous customer service last week. During some vague "software update" every NatWest, RBS and Ulster Bank account failed. No money in, no money out. Salaries vanished, ATMs froze, families went hungry. Typically, frantic customer calls went unanswered, promises were unfulfilled and information was both contradictory and very thin on the ground. The fiasco tumbled on for at least ten days. Somehow, I don't think "Helpful Banking" will be making its return as the NatWest strapline anytime soon.
Those ads voiced by Stephen Merchant being all ironic over some clumsy lifestyle metaphors (planting pound coins, jumping on bouncy castles) weren't especially good, were they? Although, to be honest, they could have been Martin Scorcese's finest work for all the difference they would make to Barclays' reputation now. Revelations of dark doings which we barely understand, but somehow know to be hideously damaging, have ensured we will associate the bank's brand with excess, greed, corruption and venality for decades. In truth, Barclay's need advertising like a carrot needs an iPhone. I'd be amazed if we saw a campaign from them inside of a year and, if we did, what would the proposition be? "Bank with Barclays. We're pretty conniving and wholly irresponsible but we do open on Saturdays'?
I've suggested it before, but with my tongue in my cheek. Now I can say without a hint sarcasm, running ads for these banks is counter-productive. There is little or no chance of viewers taking bank advertising seriously, because they can't take the banks seriously. And why would they?
At a time of unprecedented contempt for the institutions which handle our money, their marketing and advertising is a total, unreliable mess.
I think that's quite telling.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.
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