Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Nov-Dec 2015

Let’s cut the fluff

Brands, and banks in particular need to engage their customers with meaningful conversations, writes Zareen Rathor

It is two in the afternoon on a scorching Tuesday afternoon and 45 minutes after being stuck in a traffic jam, Ali Farooq reaches the parking lot of one of Pakistan’s leading banks. He makes his way through the impeccably glossy entrance doors and steps into an expansive marbled hall full of counters, desks, glass cubicles and a plethora of people mechanically going about their business.

Ali, a middle class man in his late 20s, has come to inquire about car financing. The thought of taking this big step is daunting. Although he is calm on the surface, stepping into the bank has intimidated him. As he stands at the entrance, gathering his thoughts and evaluating where to go, two bankers approach him.

The first one, crisply suited and full of energy says: “Hello, how can I help you? I am here to bring your dreams to life! I believe in you.”

Ali looks at him with slight hesitation, politely smiles and thinks: “Hmm, he’s enthusiastic… but he hardly knows me...”

The second banker, who has a more casual air about him, now approaches him with a warm smile and says: “You look tense. Banks are a bit confusing, aren’t they? Let’s talk and we will figure out what you need and make it happen.”

A smile of relief spreads across Ali’s face and he walks away with him thinking: “He seems understanding. He will definitely be able to help me.”

Ali’s interaction with these two bankers represents the way different brands personify themselves when they approach their customers. In today’s world, while some brands are aggressively vying to grab their attention through all means and media, the smarter ones have figured out that the need of the hour and the future is not to appear to be the strongest, the flashiest or the best. Rather, it is to engage people through conversations that are personal, meaningful and most importantly – honest and human.

In this era when the ‘currency of commerce has become trust’, successful brands are those which have evolved their communication to speak to people in a no fluff, no drama, ordinary person-to-person way.

One of the most successful campaigns to achieve this was the ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ by Dove. Ever since we can remember, beauty brands have been telling women how to be flawless, younger, fresh and more beautiful. Dove changed this conversation. The brand showed people that real beauty is natural. Instead of aspiring for perfection as defined by others, and which let’s face it, we will probably never achieve, we need to gain a higher acceptance of ourselves despite our flaws. Dove became the friend that reminded us to be comfortable in our skin because our individuality is what matters, sets us apart and makes us beautiful.

It takes courage to adopt such an honest, human, yet disruptive approach. Yet, when dealing with one of the most mistrusted and least understood service industries – banking – can such a conversation ensue with their customers?

Introduced as ‘The Caring Bank’, Bank Alfalah has now shifted to the more action driven tagline – ‘The Way Forward’. The brand’s new tone is aligned with a change to a more empowering positioning – ‘Go your way with Bank Alfalah’.

This change in narrative, which has moved from being passive support to active instigator and partner in people’s journey, is spot on. The communication imagery attempts to compliment this change in approach by demonstrating a deeper relationship between the bank and its customers through relatable stories. Yet, somewhere along the way, the brand loses out on its colloquial personality and the interaction between the bank and the customer seems similar to the one which took place between the first banker and Ali. Brands that are able to approach and connect with customers the way that the second banker did will benefit from stronger brand equity.

A bank that has managed to tap into this insight is UBS in Switzerland. In September 2015, the bank introduced its global rebranding campaign direction: ‘For some of life’s questions, our clients are not alone. Together we can find an answer’.

The launch commercial consisted of a white background with a series of questions appearing in black text, supported by an emotional soundtrack. Yes, seriously… that is it! The strength of the idea lies in the colloquial language and human touch behind the questions that appear on the screen and the way they are sequenced to match the chronology of our lives and the point where we ask them. These are the little questions, the big questions and the unimportant yet important questions that we think about. Some link to financial products and services, others don’t. “Where do I come from?” “Can I open my own bank account?” “What do we name the twins?” “Is it better to leave the kids everything?” “Will you be OK when I’m gone?”

Most significantly the bank did not overtly focus on our struggles, dreams and desires to make us feel connected. It did not pose as a know-it-all or pretend to have the answers. The only thing UBS did, was to show us that it thinks as humanly as we do.

In a Brandhouse Emotion100 Report, 2,000 consumers were asked to rank 100 leading brands on seven emotions: excitement, enjoyment, belonging, desire, compassion, pride and contentment. People ranked contentment, belonging and compassion in the top three. Yet, the majority of advertising focuses on the two emotions that were ranked lowest: excitement and desire.

Advertisers love to tap into dreams. We see this across brands in all categories – beauty, lifestyle, fashion, finance, etc. Dreams have become the easiest sell in this advertising era and some have done it successfully, yet isn’t it time to move to a more tangible and meaningful conversation?

HBL Pakistan has owned the dreams and empowerment platform since 2007. Over the years the bank has explored this direction in a number of ways and most importantly, it has been able to establish itself as the brand of Pakistan’s many faces. One of HBL’s most prominent campaigns in 2015 seamlessly weaved the story of Samina Baig with the brand. The communication was honest and beautifully executed.

As we move towards an increasingly digital era, with banks going branchless and mobile finance spreading in and across both urban and rural Pakistan, there will be less tangible visibility of the banks themselves. In situations like these, banks like UBS will benefit from the deep bonds they built with their customers. This increases the chances of loyalty towards the brand even without constant exposure to it.

The most effective brands are those which understand that long term and loyal customers are not looking for the promise of big dreams and larger-than-life possibilities. They just want someone (like the second banker in our story), to walk up to them and ask why they are looking stressed and what they can do to help.

Zareen Rathor is Creative Director, Red Communications.