HSBC started to ruffle a few feathers on 1 January when it went live with the latest iteration of its ‘Together We Thrive’ campaign, celebrating Britain’s “inescapably international” character.
While some praised the positive tone of the outdoor and print ads, and in particular the local editions for London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, others claimed the campaign was distinctly ‘anti-Brexit’ in tone. But if HSBC was indeed making a statement about Brexit – which the brand denies – does the campaign go far enough to support an open, internationally facing version of Britain in 2019?
Marketing Week debates the issue.
Charlotte Rogers: Yes, HSBC has totally nailed it
“With the vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal looming next week and speculation reaching fever pitch about a possible ‘no-deal’ scenario, few mainstream brands are going public with their views on Brexit.
“That was, however, the allegation being levelled at HSBC when a poster emerged on the London Underground and print ads circulated in newspapers proclaiming that the UK is ‘not an island’. Some observers took exception to the text heavy ad claiming Britain is in fact a nation of Colombian coffee drinkers who watch American movies, eat tikka masala and are “part of something far, far bigger”.
“Accusations began to swirl that HSBC was being ‘anti-Brexit’, prompting the bank to confirm the campaign is “not about Brexit”, but instead reflects the organisation’s “strong belief” that what makes us quintessentially British also makes us “inescapably international”.
This message is nothing new for HSBC. The bank first collaborated with JWT on the ‘Global Citizen’ advert featuring comedian Richard Ayoade back in December in 2017. The TV ad features exactly the same script – almost word for word – as appears on the ‘We are not an island’ poster. Interestingly, there was no similar outcry when the TV ad first aired.
“Two years later and while the generic ‘We are not an island’ outdoor ad has stirred up accusations of ‘anti-Brexit’ feeling, the four city specific versions celebrating the local characters of London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham have widely been positively received.
“From a business perspective, the initial ‘Global Citizen’ ad proved a big success for HSBC. Speaking at the Festival of Marketing in October 2018, HSBC head of insight and marketing performance UK, Sam Fletcher, credited the ad with doubling comms awareness from 6% to 12% and for the first time in a long time the bank experienced a sustained period of positive buzz.
“The campaign was intended to retell HSBC’s brand story after research revealed consumers felt the bank was only interested in “the international elite or the wealthy”. HSBC set out to reach a target audience who were “very open minded, optimistic and forward thinking” and who, despite the global uncertainty, still want to explore new opportunities.
“HSBC followed up ‘Global Citizen’ in May 2018 with a series of adverts fronted by Ayoade who, in his signature quirky style, addressed the importance of being open minded in business and optimistic in life. The ads referenced everything from global uncertainty and consumer pessimism to the tough times affecting the UK high street.
“As well as tapping into the public mood, the campaign’s ‘Together We Thrive’ tagline publicised the launch of HSBC’s Connected Money app. The app allows HSBC customers to see all their accounts from various banks in one place and provides a spend analysis feature in the style of digital rival Monzo.
“From the perspective of targeting a specific audience, tapping into the current mood and promoting a new product, HSBC has definitely achieved its objectives. But perhaps more importantly, the bank has actually shown it has some personality and is not afraid to take the odd risk to do so.”
Molly Fleming: HSBC’s dog whistle ad doesn’t go far enough
“HSBC’s latest ad campaign has been causing quite a stir this week. The fact its latest ad is a campaign that first appeared on TV in December 2017 – notably surrounded by far less controversy – doesn’t appear to matter. The Daily Express called out the “bizarre” notion that the UK is “not an island” while others heralded the bank for being “brave” for taking a stand.
“Many have decided that the ad is firmly about Brexit and therefore deserves some debate. Except it’s not. Well, not really. HSBC has denied such allegations, instead suggesting it is about celebrating local pride, as seen from the various city-specific iterations, and fits into the bank’s long history of celebrating global ties.
“It’s dog whistle advertising; the bank is just political enough to slightly annoy Brexiters and please some Remainers, while subtle enough that it can hope to avoid alienating the majority. HSBC told the BBC the campaign was “not about Brexit” and to an extent I believe it. However, I have no doubt the company foresaw the Brexit backlash when it was creating the campaign.
“In one way it’s clever as it provides oxygen to an older campaign. But if the underlying intention was the spark debate then it doesn’t go far enough. In 2019 dog whistling isn’t enough. If you are going to be political, then be political and take a real stand. In short – go Nike or go home.
HSBC could have used this opportunity to take a stand on an issue young people care about and grabbed the attention of a demographic that is slipping away.
Molly Fleming, Marketing Week
“Nike’s ad supporting American football player Colin Kaepernick, who sparked controversy by kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, caused genuine backlash. People filmed themselves burning Nike products vowing never to shop their again. It was bold, it was brave but it was also calculated. Nike knew that the stand would work well with its core younger more diverse audience and create loyalty that could last a lifetime.
“Admittedly HSBC is a trickier beast, with a less clear demographic to please. It has always positioned itself as a global bank but its core audience is older and therefore more likely to vote Brexit. However, I think it’s missed a trick in getting younger consumers invested.
“Millennials increasingly want brands with real purpose, and with startup banks like Monzo growing at an incredible rate, HSBC could have used this opportunity to take a stand on an issue young people care about and grabbed the attention of a demographic that is slipping away.
“Sitting on the fence won’t cut it with millennials. Some might think HSBC has taken a risk but in my opinion the brand hasn’t gone far enough.”