Banks heisted by their own petard

The relationship between the slick, utopian self-image portrayed in financial sector advertising and the grim reality of curmudgeonly and inefficient service is a mysterious and tortuous one. Do high street banks, the main offenders, believe their customers are gullible enough to be sucked in by this kind of thing – or is there a less cynical rationale? Do they actually know what they are doing?

The latter question is given piquancy by a recent spate of what may be called ‘gangster’ advertising. Both Abbey National and Barclays have used, as their role models in recent campaigns, actors best known for ‘bad boy’ roles. Martin Kemp, for his starring role in The Krays and as the malevolent Steve Owen in EastEnders; Samuel L Jackson, for his portrayal of violent but charismatic characters in Quentin Tarantino films like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Sure, there are other reasons that made them attractive to the banks: their ‘cool’ appeal to a younger market, for instance; or the fact that Jackson is an outstanding screen actor who happens to be ‘good at monologues’. Yet the irony – and silliness – of making ‘counter-culture’ villains the brand custodians of institutions that supposedly stand for buttoned-down business rectitude has passed bank management by.

Or perhaps not, in the case of Abbey National, which has just sacked its ad agency of nine years – and presumably Kemp with it.

The pedestrian truth seems to be that banks are desperate to stand out from the crowd at almost any price. Yet they lack significant product differentiation and are rarely innovative, which makes the marketing department’s task very difficult. Marketers could try playing the leadership card – but look where that got Barclays with its insensitively timed (a swathe was being cut through branch employees) ‘Big’ campaign, featuring Anthony Hopkins. That leaves skilful presentation, which by its nature cannot be a substitute for real product appeal. One reason, perhaps, for the rapid turnover of agencies, and even swifter revolution of campaign ideas, within the sector.

That’s not to say financial services advertising need always be a failure. Even now, years after comedian Rowan Atkinson decided to throw in the towel, the Richard Latham bungling spy character developed for Barclaycard remains a big hit with the British public. A survey commissioned by Marketing Week proves the point: Latham is second only to PG Tips’ chimps in a popularity poll of favourite ad characters. And he’s about to achieve new levels of awareness (admittedly under the alias of Johnny English) as leading man in a film. It marks the first time, so far as is known, that an ad character has made the transition from small to silver screen.

But a caveat. Though the Atkinson character worked well for Barclaycard, the high-profile slapstick campaign formula was particularly appropriate to the situation facing Barclaycard in the early Nineties. The credit card company suddenly found itself surrounded by a host of me-too rivals, intent on undercutting it on price. The one big advantage Barclaycard had over them was high brand awareness, and this is what the ad campaign played on so successfully. If only more financial services brands could achieve even that degree of differentiation.

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