With trust dashed against the rock, banking ads just whip up a storm

The self-interested tone of banks’ advertising is undermining an industry that should be working together to quell consumer fears of an economic crisis

Some things never change. Other things change slowly, and then accelerate until they vanish quite suddenly.

After 30 years in this industry it seems to me that, finally, one of the gradual trends of the British economy has reached a tipping point, while another is doggedly hanging on.

These trends are, firstly, the erosion of trust and brand values in the banking sector and, secondly, our island’s predisposition to turn hostile towards any person or entity that becomes too big or successful.

Currently we find ourselves in a situation where both these elements are in play and are having a direct impact on each other.

How has this happened? Setting the scene is the Northern Rock debacle, which represents the banking community’s worst fears.

Banking was founded on the principle that customers retain their accounts longer than their marriages and, for many years, customers were too apathetic to challenge this. So by the Eighties, banks had become very arrogant and worried about only one thing, their shareholders.

Competition and legislation have changed all that, but by and large, people still view financial institutions with suspicion. Despite customer whinges, we must have trust in banks as they provide the cash for the mortgages for our houses, are the trustees of our monthly pay-packets and guard our life savings.

And then Northern Rock happens.

In a climate of international crisis and declining house values, the banking system chose that moment to throw a corporate wobbly into the mix. In an effort to avoid a financial panic the Government resorted to the nationalisation of a bank as its only means of restoring confidence by underwriting the debt.

Now this is not our biggest bank, certainly not one that rolls off the tongue as spontaneously as HSBC, Barclays or Halifax, but the shock to the public is that we, as taxpayers, now have a potential liability of £110bn – for a not particularly famous brand.

What would a crash of Lloyds look like then? The doubt has therefore been seeded – if any more institutions were to find themselves in similar dire straits, we would clearly be left on our own, up the creek without a paddle, and panicking.

A measured response from the banking industry to this unprecedented drama is what is needed. Shame then that the current crop of advertising campaigns is doing little to reassure us or quell our fears of an impending crisis in the sector, for banks are undermining one another by portraying their fellow competitors as incompetent, stupid crooks.

NatWest’s “There is another way” and Nationwide’s “Proud to be different” are such examples of mis-timed self-interest. Most use the proposition that only they are clever and the rest are greedy wide-boy morons – and it is neither clever nor sensible.

Now for the habit that never changes: our hostility to the too big and successful. A couple of weeks ago, I watched a documentary about Tesco and its launch into the US with neighbourhood stores called Fresh and Easy.

Its research looked sound, and Tesco was at least trying to plug a gap in the market for smaller local outlets, which have all but disappeared over there.

But judging by the tone of the report, you would have thought that the devil incarnate had arrived in the US and that we, the good citizens of the UK, were dutybound to educate our American cousins about the evil invaders who were sure to seize their first-born and slaughter any dissenters.

Now I have worked with Sainsbury’s in the past, and our agency proudly boasts Waitrose among its clients. I am clearly no Tesco fan. However, when a company becomes so successful and powerful and dares to look globally, it’s as if we forget that we all made that happen by choosing to shop there.

“Every little helps” is a valiant endline that attempts to address this issue, but clearly it can only be stretched so far in the face of an instinctive cultural backlash.

Such a predisposition is a shame. It means we are condemned to create companies such as Northern Rock that exist only on our island, yet are open to world trends and so more vulnerable to change than more broadly based organisations.

I hope the 2012 Olympics makes us as a nation more comfortable with being in the global spotlight and that we then go forth and prosper.

As to banking, some co-operation might be in order. From a marketing perspective it is folly to perpetuate fear and mistrust in an already suspicious population when the damage is potentially so severe. Damaged by knocks to our confidence and not sure who to trust, who could blame us for hankering after a simpler life? Which could well explain the huge success of the BBC’s gentle Sunday evening period drama, Lark Rise to Candleford, celebrating an unspoiled age of innocence.

We all hope this period of volatility subsides as soon as possible, but it has highlighted just how fragile our little world can sometimes be and how being an island is no protection at all.

Jonathan Durden is a partner at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

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