Bank Brands in Search of an Identity

Does Jim Hytners imminent exit from Barclays – where he has been marketing director for three years – spell the end of the banks current Now theres a thought advertising?

Does Jim Hytner’s imminent exit from Barclays – where he has been marketing director for three years – spell the end of the bank’s current “Now there’s a thought” advertising?

Even supporters of the campaign masterminded by Hytner believe it has run out of steam. Critics claim it is offensive to the bank’s staff, portraying them as bumbling incompetents.

Hytner, whose surprise appointment at the bank in 2004 followed roles at TV stations ITV, BSkyB and Five, will take a considerable step down in his next role as commercial director at the tiny Top Up TV.

He says that after three years at the bank, it is time to move on and he longs to return to the world of media. Some believe he lacked the ability to take strategic business decisions at Barclays, having previously specialised in creating on-screen promotional branding for TV stations. Barclays is non-commital about the advertising he created, only saying that it has no plans to reposition the brand.

Marketing responsibilities will be taken on by Deanna Oppenheimer, Barclays’ American retail chief who previously worked at Washington Mutual. Whether she makes a better fist of marketing the Barclays brand than her predecessors remains to be seen.

Barclays is the typical high street bank flailing about in search of an identity. It is on its third marketing drive in five years, having flipped and flopped from one approach to another. Each new direction has aimed to mitigate the damage done by the previous advertising debacle.

Remember Big World, the bank’s campaign boasting about the benefits of its huge size using stars such as Anthony Hopkins and Robbie Coltrane? Created by Leagas Delaney, it made much of Barclays being the UK’s biggest bank, though ended up making its customers feel insignificant in comparison.

Disaster struck when it closed down 170 branches and axed many jobs, flatly contradicting the advertising’s “big world” message.

Barclays’ marketing chief at the time Simon Gulliford sought to repair the damage by hiring Bartle Bogle Hegarty (without a pitch – he’d worked with the agency at Emap) to launch the dark, brooding “Fluent in Finance” campaign.

This featured Hollywood stars such as Samuel L Jackson and Donald Sutherland talking poetically about financial matters against a gloomy post-industrial landscape. It was intended to emphasise Barclays’ expertise in finance and was aimed at upmarket Business and Barclays Capital customers.

It was an award-winning and beautifully crafted campaign. Unfortunately, it backfired. It sparked a rush of interest from ordinary customers who flooded into bank branches demanding financial advice from staff who were unqualified to give it. This infuriated customers and staff alike and the campaign which claimed so much and delivered too little was axed.

Gulliford was replaced by Hytner, who tried to fix the damage done to staff relations by focusing on the inventiveness of the bank’s staff with the “Now there’s a thought” campaign.

The ads have breathed a bit of humanity back into the brand but its humorous approach makes the staff look like buffoons who spend the whole day losing and breaking things and arguing amongst themselves.

To be fair, it is no easy task building bank brands. People are automatically suspicious of banks, which deal in the terrifying netherworld of our finances. On a rational level, we may recognise that banks are necessary. But scratch below the surface and they are associated with fear of poverty, powerlessness and guilt.

Banks have tried to counter these feelings with a variety of strategies. Abbey uses cuddly rabbits, Halifax portrays its staff as singing, dancing clowns. All the banks are trying to move away from their previously stern approach to money. Lloyds TSB is the latest to put its stern past behind it with its journey campaign.

Many try to show their staff in the best possible light, or in the cases of Nationwide and NatWest, raise fears about staff in rival banks.

This is based on the realisation that people think banks are trying to rip them off. The ads either play on that fear or show the warmth and humanity of their staff. Surely that sweet Howard Brown at Halifax could never levy excessive bank charges?

However, a lack of product differentiation among banks and an insatiable desire to get that extra sliver of profit out of customers makes it hard to create an identity that sticks. Banks are very good at making money. But they are not so good at building brands.

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