The big winner at this years advertising awards shows, in the world of banking at least, was the quirky campaign by Melbourne agency Clemenger BBDO for the National Australia Bank. For those who were perhaps slightly baffled by some of the ads (a guy being assaulted by tennis balls on the tennis court, another guy being locked as a prank in a sauna) the reason the advertising community liked the campaign so much was that the creatives at Clems had finally found a compelling insight with which to crack one of the most vexing advertising briefs of the last two decades: how to distinguish four virtually identical banks from each other. Their solution? The NAB had decided to “break up” with the other three.
Having opened (and closed) accounts with three of the big four over the last twelve months, I can confirm that the preconceptions that they are - save the odd genuinely supportive individual staff member - all exactly the same is true. Or to put it less kindly, they are all as bad as each other. This didn’t come as a surprise to me. Having made ads for several banks, I can confirm that their marketing briefs bear an uncanny similarity to each other.
In all the tens of millions of dollars worth of TV commercials, print ads, junk mail, online ads and radio campaigns that are thrust upon us each year, there is only one strategic message that the banks are attempting to convince you of; getting you to switch from your current bank to theirs. Indeed, the idea of "switching" is one that the Treasurer himself keeps banging on about, as if it were a dire threat, little understanding that switching banks- or churn, as it is called - is the sole goal of all bank advertising.
The reason? Virtually everybody in this country already has a bank account. The majority are neither particularly happy nor unhappy with their choice of bank. Banking is an annoying fact of life. Bank-bashing is fun, but it takes a lot of carrot and stick to actually provoke people to take the plunge and switch. When consumers contemplate doing so, all sorts of complex emotions come into play; anything from a reluctance to change for the sake of it to a subconscious tie to where your parents banked or to the mob who you opened your first account with. Which is why the NAB campaign, with its explicit recognition that switching is akin to breaking up, struck a chord. Cleverly, the campaign not only tapped into that emotional insight, but it allowed the NAB to point out it's perceived differences ("it's not you, it's me”) with the other three, all in the guise of writing a "Dear John" break-up note.
In doing so, the NAB campaign achieved what the Commonwealth have struggled to do with their ponderous and sometimes downright whacky "Determined to be different" campaign. (Unsurprisingly, the Commonwealth - who for some years have oddly had their advertising account with an American, not an Australian, ad agency - are putting their account up to pitch again.)
Differentiation is the only way banks can grow their customer base. Which is why we've seen, over the years, every slogan from "Which bank?" to "Happy banking" attempting to persuade us that, contrary to the evidence of our own eyes, there does exist out there a bank that is significantly different to the others, and therefore worth the agro of switching to.
But if the NAB have won the ad wars, it's the ANZ who have finished the year with an absolute strategic blindsider, pipping the rest of them at the post. The decision by ANZ chief Mike Smith and his right hand man Philip Chronican to set their own interest rates "every second Friday of the month" is one of those game changing ideas that is as breathtaking in it's audacity as it is inspirational. I can guarantee that in the marketing boardrooms of the three other banks their strategists and planners are literally kicking each other - and themselves - under the table. Those that still have a job, that is.
“We are not going to play this game of having an RBA rate move and then people asking 'who is going to move by what amount'," Mr Chronican announced, thereby proving that his bank – unlike all the others – really is determined to be different.
Whether or not the bank is bold enough to genuinely separate itself from the pack in terms of radically altering its interest rates – up or down - remains to be seen. But from a marketing point of view, it is the ideal vehicle with which to demonstrate that this bank practices what it preaches, and is prepared to go it alone. Even a tiny fraction of an interest rate cut will be enough to generate untold free publicity, word of mouth and consumer attention.
Like all great, simple marketing ideas, its genius lies in the fact that it is so bleeding obvious. Why wait for a bunch of fuddy duddy tea-leaf readers at the Reserve Bank to every month make their Delphic pronouncements while you've got your own highly paid entrail-readers who can grab those very same headlines for yourself? From now on, all eyes will be on the monthly ANZ pronouncement, giving them a unique platform of authority from which to spruik their wares.
Expect to see the other three banks forlornly scurrying to catch up.
Come the first "second Friday of the month", the gentle sound of clinking champagne glasses will emanate from ANZ HQ. When you’ve got an idea as good as this one, who needs to waste money on ad campaigns?