Barclays banks on its past popularity

Barclays has consolidated its advertising, including Barclaycard, into BBH. Yet despite the move, recent bad press and criticisms of ‘Fluent in finance’, the bank claims it will not change its marketing strategy. By John Stones

Barclaycard’s decision to move its advertising account out of BMP DDB, the agency that created the famous Rowan Atkinson Richard Latham campaign of the early Nineties, marks the end of an era (MW last week).

The move, which finally consolidates all Barclays’ advertising with Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), comes only a few weeks after Barclays group chief executive Matt Barrett’s infamous comments to MPs, when he said that credit card borrowing was too expensive. Embarrassingly, he was also incapable of explaining Barclaycard’s zero per cent balance transfer offer to the Treasury Select Committee and had to witness a gleeful drubbing of the Barclaycard brand on the front pages of the national press.

Barclays has also recently transferred the sponsorship of the Premiership from Barclaycard to its own brand (MW September 4). And the future of Pulp Fiction actor Samuel L Jackson as Barclays’ advertising ambassador remains in doubt. The company’s official line is that no decisions have been made about the future direction of Barclays’ advertising beyond the next two executions of “Fluent in finance” at the beginning of 2004, with BBH suffering the ignominy of a public rebuke for suggesting that the Hollywood hard man would be rested.

The sense of turmoil within Barclays has been heightened by a stream of departures from the marketing team. In July marketer Belinda Furneaux-Harris left to join Rupert Murdoch-owned News Group Newspapers as marketing director, while earlier this month brand strategy director Caitlin Thomas left the bank after seven years to set up business on her own (MW October 2).

The questions being asked are whether Barclaycard will be integrated into the wider Barclays brand and what marketing strategies Barclays will pursue.

Barclays marketing and communication director Simon Gulliford says he had been planning the Barclaycard move for six months – but BMP appears to have been surprised by the decision.

Gulliford says it would be reasonable to suggest there is a role for television advertising for Barclaycard, but it would be wrong to expect a huge campaign. However, he rules out using Barclays’ “Fluent in finance” positioning for the credit card brand.

Barclaycard’s Richard Latham ads had the rare honour of spawning a feature film, Johnny English, but Gulliford is circumspect about what he describes as “the default option of TV”. He says that as Barclays, unlike Egg for instance, has “shops” (its high street branch network), the need to advertise is less emphatic. Also Gulliford, like Barrett, wants to be careful about the message the bank sends out about credit. “We don’t want to appear to be encouraging behaviour that we don’t want to see in our customers,” he says.

Steve Kershaw, who looks after the Barclays account at BBH, hints that the future direction of Barclaycard will leverage off its heritage as the first and biggest provider of credit cards in the UK. (It has 20 per cent of the market and 8.4 million customers.) He contrasts Barclays’ overall brand positioning with the fluffier, friendly approach of rivals and says: “You want your bank to be good with money, not to be your best mate.”

While privately some senior financial services marketers profess admiration for Barclays’ bold, macho brand positioning, many more are critical of its current strategy.

Paul Gordon, managing director of specialist agency CCHM, believes the messages coming from Barclays’ marketing communications are “schizophrenic”. He says: “I don’t see what Samuel L Jackson has to do with Barclays, or what ‘Fluent in finance’ has to do with Barclays either. It’s just a generic positioning that Barclays can’t own.”

In defence, Gulliford cites research by Millward Brown, which shows that consumer perceptions of the bank’s competence have leapt dramatically over the past year. It shows that 19 per cent of consumers think Barclays has more expertise than any other bank, ahead of the nearest competitor at 12 per cent. Perceptions of good value have, it claims, jumped to 66 per cent this year from just 18 per cent last year. Gulliford says these figures mean that “Fluent in finance” deserves to be seen as the most effective campaign of the past decade.

“He must be joking,” retorts Paul Troy, former brand director Lloyds TSB and now head of marketing services at the Royal Mail. He believes the “Fluent in finance” campaign elicits a “So what?” from consumers. “Customer perspectives don’t come easily to financial services companies, as I know from my experience at Lloyds TSB,” he says.

Having a positioning based on being a mean, big player, (Anthony Hopkins preceded Samuel L Jackson) only means something if consumers can see a personal return. “It only works if you can prove it’s to my advantage – show me the benefits,” says Troy.

He believes that Barclays would be wise to bring Barclaycard under the Barclays marketing and brand umbrella, pointing out the move to single branding that has taken place in other sectors, notably at Masterfoods and Cadbury Schweppes. “Barclaycard could act as a brand ambassador for the overall Barclays experience,” he says.

It’s the change in strategy, rather than the change of agency, that interests Colin Woodcock, who was head of brand marketing and strategy at Barclaycard until a year ago. He points out that there has been a lot of TV activity from rival credit card companies in recent years, as well as the recent negative PR for Barclaycard. While wary of moves to integrate Barclaycard, he is hopeful there will be a marketing resurgence. “Does this signal Barclaycard’s return to bold and committed TV advertising? It’s good news for the brand.”

Few believe that the Barclaycard brand has sustained serious long-term damage after Matt Barrett’s Ratner-esque clanger. Lauren Henderson, director of FutureBrand’s brand analytics department, says: “It will weather the storm. It’s a very strong brand and has been around a long time. All the banks take raps from time to time.” She does however believe Barrett’s comments have put “a ding in ‘Fluent in finance'”.

Barclays’ formal line is that Barrett was misreported and there is no issue to address. At the Treasury Select Committee meeting, MP George Mudie taunted Barrett with a Cahoot card and its eight per cent APR. Cahoot marketing director Deborah Cutler says: “We were delighted by the PR and sales have jumped since that comment – though others may have benefited too.” She decided against carrying out tactical advertising based on Barrett’s comments, an option that proved too tempting for

Whether or not there are long-term after-effects, the issue remains that Barclays and its venerable Barclaycard sub-brand now face stiff opposition from a raft of fledgling brands such as Egg and Cahoot, as well as recently reinvigorated competitors like Abbey. Its next move will have to demonstrate decisiveness and vision.

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