Bank on imagination to lift sponsorship results

The British, it seems, still find it difficult to talk about the “m” word. We may wave around our gold or platinum credit card with pride, but only on pain of death would we ever disclose how much money the restaurant bill cost.

There have been massive improvements in consumer financial services over the past decade, but bank bashing remains a popular British sport. Despite the efforts of the world’s best interior designers and most creative advertising agencies, financial institutions continue to be seen as bland and characterless.

No wonder, then, that financial organisations are increasingly turning to sport and its heroes to promote their activities and capture the imagination of the money-shy UK consumer. Our customers passionately identify with sporting heroes, their exploits and lifestyles.

Taken as a whole, the financial sector dominates sports sponsorship in the UK. In the first half of last year, sports research body RSL Ipsos reported 99 sponsorships by banks and insurance companies. This compares with 85 by drinks and alcohol companies, and 60 by the car sector.

NatWest has been involved in cricket for nearly 20 years. Insurance giant CGU has just signed up with the game and is also rumoured to be considering athletics. Lloyds TSB is investing in rugby, Nationwide in football: and the list goes on.

Sports sponsorship delivers all of us with new ways to reach and communicate with our target audiences. It gives us a creative theme and vocabulary through which we can illustrate the effectiveness of our products and services.

But having taken the plunge into sport’s heady brew, the majority of sponsors from the consumer financial services arena compete head on in just a handful of activities.

We all know the reasons why companies get involved with sports such as golf or tennis: they deliver high spending ABC1 audiences. However, I suspect that what is really at work is a “people like us syndrome”. The danger is that this fights against the point of difference that modern financial institutions covet.

Increasingly, financial services companies will wake up to the fact that great sponsorship is not just about reminding people that they have heard of you, but about raising eyebrows among those who have dismissed you, and leveraging that image shift into sales.

NatWest’s Jordan F1 and Ducati superbike sponsorships may not yet have touched greatness, but they have raised the eyebrows of non-NatWest card holders, and led to a recruitment and use increase.

The popular Damon Hill, who drives for Jordan, and Carl Fogarty, who drives for Ducati, deliver the customer empathy we crave. It may not be cricket, rugby, football or golf, but in the multiproduct business of modern finance, it spells “money”. And that’s nothing to be ashamed about.

Jeremy Nicholds is head of personal cards at NatWest Card Services

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