Can Barclays strike a balance?

No doubt about it, Barclays group chief executive Matt Barrett is a widely misunderstood man. When grilled by a Treasury Select Committee, he didn’t actually say you should never borrow on a credit card (though he doesn’t). He merely suggested ‘chronic’ borrowing was a bad idea; and, given the usurious rates of interest involved, and the many cheaper alternatives available, who can deny he was acting responsibly in doing so?

All the same, it was a woeful performance from the figurehead of a major bank. His fumbling and unsuccessful attempt to explain the devious complexity of the Barclaycard zero per cent balance transfer offer marked a particularly low point. But it was one that is symptomatic of the marketing communications problems besetting a bank like Barclays.

Despite wielding budgets that rival those of many major packaged goods companies, the marketing chiefs of major banks suffer from a major disadvantage compared with their fmcg counterparts. The organisations they serve may be marketing literate, but they are not – at base – terribly consumer-focused, or indeed consumer-friendly. Historically, there has been little need to be so, the real determinant being not so much the famously inert (or cynical) customer acquired for life, as the demands of the competition. Hence the relatively poor record of innovation and the raft of me-too products differentiated by the minutest packaging details – usually interest rates. While the coming of telephone and internet banking has leavened the sector, inertia – encouraged by the mind-numbing difficulty of changing bank – remains a major obstacle to change and innovation.

Barclays’ solution to this problem has been to ignore it, by using audacious umbrella branding which peddles reassurance. At its extreme – for instance, the Big campaign fronted by Sir Anthony Hopkins – the campaign strategy has invited public ridicule; what, after all, do UK consumers care about the strength of Barclays’ international banking operations when the Big Bank is visibly shrinking the number of high street branches they frequent? The current campaign, starring Hollywood mega-star Samuel L Jackson, is no less controversial, though certainly more enigmatic. An actor best known for his gangster roles telling us the difference between a pen that signed President Grover Cleveland into office and a worthless dud? It’s entertaining stuff, made more so by Barrett’s unintentional parody of Barclays’ ‘Fluent in finance’ line when garbling the aforementioned Barclaycard promotion. Can consumers believe it, however? Barclays claims they do; and produces Millward Brown research to prove the point. But there’s room for doubt, shared by at least one prominent member of the advertising agency that produced the campaign.

Whether or not Barclays dispenses with Jackson’s services next year, it will remain wedded to the long-term benefits of an umbrella strategy. The most transparent recent clues can be detected in its subordination of Barclaycard to the main brand in both the renewal of the Premiership sponsorship under the Barclays name, and the transference of the Barclaycard account to the main Barclays advertising agency. This makes sense. Potentially it saves money, while at the same time implicitly recognising that Barclaycard is not the independent branded property it used to be in today’s price- driven credit card sector.

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