Make sure you check out Ad Contrarian this week. He is planning to dedicate the entire week to the topic of recession. As he says in his Friday Filler preview, "Five days of advice and opinions about advertising and marketing while the world comes crashing down around us". Good stuff.
Now talking of all things global-financial-doom-related, I came across something in Sydney's free paper, MX, on Friday that was both irritating and (arguably) irresponsible.
NAB (National Australia Bank) had taken over pages 2-7 of MX with a media-specific execution of their 'Can-Do' campaign. The standard ad (featuring a cartoonish silhouette of a flying kung-fu-kicking woman) ran on page seven and was preceded by five pages of scattered letters and pointing people, suggesting the kung-fu (Can-Do) kicker had flown through the newspaper leaving devastation in her wake.
The execution of the media 'stunt' was disjointed and probably quite annoying for people who actually wanted to read the paper. It felt driven more by media cleverness than by creative communications thinking. So this was the irritating bit. But it's not the point I want to focus on here.
Instead, I want to jump from the irritating aspects to the irresponsible. And that begins by thinking about the brand of banking.
The brand of banking (the idea we all share about banks) is not in great shape right now. And that's a worldwide, industry-wide point. Locally, here in Australia, the banking brand has its strong and weak points. Compared to the fears about basic bank security and solvency in many countries, the local banking brand seems reasonably strong. Still, the Federal Government has felt the need to offer exception guarantees on banking deposits in the light of the current global crisis. So banks here should be focused collectively on how to reinforce public confidence in their levels of responsibility and solidity.
On the flip side, the brand of banking in Australia has other negatives surrounding it. There has been a long-held suspicion that Australian banks make a lot of money off people and don't do much in return (Australian banks have traditionally had the some of the highest bank charges in the developed world).
So that's the brand of banking in a nutshell...a seriously-damaged sense of security, a suspicion of profiteering, and the all-too-real aftertaste of some very irresponsible lending (the root cause of the sub-prime crisis).
How does NAB's latest ad campaign respond to people's feelings of insecurity (about their jobs, incomes, mortgages, food and fuel prices, and so on)? By asking them to "master the art of Can-Do". And what is NAB's "art of Can-Do" based on? Cheap debt.
To be precise, NAB' s definition of Can-Do appears to be a low rate of interest on new credit card purchases for six months. In other words, NAB's campaign is encouraging people to build up new debt for six months at an artificially low rate of interest while the global economic crisis sorts itself out. And, in six months, if you don't have a job and your rate has returned to normal, then what? From Can-Do to I-Wish-I-Hadn't-Done-That?
When will banks (or their ad agencies) learn? 'Can-Do' was the thinking behind the sub-prime lending crisis. People who couldn't afford houses were told they could. People who knew they couldn't service mortgages were told they could. Can-Do went hand-in-hand with the belief that house and share prices would always go up. Can-Do has nearly buried the entire Icelandic banking system and economy. The unrealistic and greedy embracing of Can-Do thinking is part of the problem...the irrational belief that if you want it you can have it. When, let's be honest, you probably can't.
That should be part of the message from a smart bank...responsible banking, realism, and stability. And, from a bank like NAB with a good track record of corporate social responsibility and of supporting low-income communities through microfinance (the right kind of "Can-Do") it's really disappointing to see.
It's a tonal think, of course, driven by advertising agencies not banking professionals (I don't believe for a second that NAB employees would use this kind of language when talking to people worried about their Christmas spending and their financial well-being in the light of the uncertainties of 2009). But right now tone matters. Because the brand of banking is in bad shape.