Magazine Banque

Europe and anti-crisis communication

Publié le 02 juin 2009 par Sia Conseil

58% of French people believe that the banks bear the bulk of the responsibility for the crisis[1]. On the other side of the channel, the British Bankers’ Association bemoans record cash withdrawals[2] of £ 2.3 billion just in the month of January 2009. Suspicion, repudiation, panic… How can confidence be restored? A look around Europe at anti-crisis communication.

For a year now the banks have been under the media spotlight. Their every move is closely watched by a public tired of repeated scandals. The issue of reconstructing capitalism has gone beyond the political arena and is now subject to some searching questions from the person in the street. More demanding than ever before, customers want explanations from their banks. And restoring the relationship presents a huge challenge: how to move on from crisis communication —focusing on the bank itself and the negative impacts on the brand image— to anti-crisis communication which places the customer at the centre of a new value system. The most difficult thing will be keeping promises in the long term.

Number one priority: being heard. And among the flood of negative messages in the press it isn’t easy. In order to make themselves heard some players have no hesitation in spending more, which is what the major French banking groups have done with advertising investment up by 11% between October 2007 and October 2008. The same thing in Belgium, where the advertising budgets in banks and insurance companies are up 40% in a year.
But not all of them are able to do it. For some the political context makes it impossible. In Great Britain for example, those banking groups recently placed under state control —Lloyds TSB, HBOS, RBS etc— are restricted to very prudent marketing in order to avoid accusations of advertising at the taxpayer’s expense and suspicions of unfair competition to the detriment of banks that were not refinanced. For the time being, these institutions are keeping a low profile. Brian Giles, a Northern Rock spokesman says: “Budgets have been set to reflect the position of the company and its business objectives under temporary public ownership.” In other words move on, there’s nothing to see. But this situation is likely to be temporary if we are to believe Paul Gordon, managing director at the marketing agency Tangible Financial: “In my view, the government intervention is a short-term measure to stabilise the banks and the Treasury will want to make a return on its investments.” So be patient. The principle of profitability should, in the more or less long term, get the upper hand once more.
In Spain the situation is different again. There has been a significant fall in advertising budgets. This can be explained by the drastic slump in consumer credit advertising which until recently was considerable. It should be said that this type of banking product is now a favourite media target, accused of helping to cripple more modest households. But at a time when customers need reassurance, it is not only a question of budget. The crisis also means reestablishing the sector’s advertising conventions. This is what Anatole de la Brosse, associate director with Sia Conseil thinks: “The tone has changed. Now the substance is more important than the form. Advertising is more customer-focused. To re-establish trust, the investment bank image has to go and be replaced by one of proximity.”

Refocusing and reassuring. This is the preferred strategy in many European countries and it appears in various forms. In Italy for example, where advertising investment has remained unchanged, players have adapted the content of the messages. Some have turned to the past to offer reassurance. It is the strategic choice made by the Monte dei Paschi bank, which uses the Brunelleschi cupola as the backdrop to one of its advertising spots. The aim is to emphasis the age and solidity of the institution. A way of conveying the message in images that crises pass but monuments remain standing. More modern in its approach, the Italian bank Mediolanum wanted to break with the traditional distance between bankers and their customers. The director appears in the advertising messages in person, reporting back to his customers. This paternalistic approach has also been chosen by the British Nationwide Building Society, which highlights the family style management of its business. “Solid, stable and reliable” is the slogan chosen by the bank that refuses an untimely comparison with the major high finance multinationals. For these establishments there is no question of ducking out of it. On the contrary, bankers must be seen to assume their responsibilities.
During a crisis one of the first responsibilities of the banking sector is to keep the flow of credit going. Some banks have chosen to go on the record and reassert this role, opposing the prevailing anxiety. This is the case of the Banques Populaires in France, which offers a new take on Snow White. We see her refuse to take the apple from the old witch’s hands: “I don’t need it, I have everything I need. Look, I’ve started my own business.” And the television viewer discovers the seven dwarfs working away behind the scenes.
For the French bank, “Fairytales, with their universal and timeless image, convey close links and create consensus and complicity. The customer is at the heart of the story; customers make a success of what they do and are responsible for their own destiny. A resolutely positive and cheerful stance against the current background of anxiety.” Although many people agree that the media have added to the general atmosphere of anxiety, few banks dare go on the offensive against the press. A strategy unusual enough to be remarked on has been adopted by the Swiss UBS, which allows its customers to speak on its behalf in its poster campaign: “What amazes me is that the negative articles appearing in the press are rarely challenged. And that confidence can be shaken so quickly. Personally, I have had no negative experiences in my relationship with the UBS. That’s why I still put all my trust in them.”

Redefining priorities. Apart from the content of the message, the context means redefining priorities. Will the crisis provide an opportunity?
While morale in Europe is at its lowest ebb, this vision still has difficulty in asserting itself in minds that are preoccupied with the present. However, it is the strategic play made by some banks that are taking advantage of the loss of traditional points of reference and making a long term investment in ethical commitments.
And charity begins at home. Accused of participating in the debt spiral, consumer credit specialists are in the front line. In order to extricate themselves, some have decided to set an example. Which is what Cetelem, the N° 1 in consumer credit in continental Europe, is doing: “Because being a leader also means having duties, Cetelem is fighting to develop responsible credit.” And to promote access to healthy credit for as many people as possible, Cetelem has promised to monitor and regularly publish three business indicators: “the rate of refusal, which reflects Cetelem’s determination not to endanger the financial equilibrium of its customers; the payment incident percentage, which reflects the quality of Cetelem’s acceptance and advice policy; the risk rate, combining the amount of credit advanced, the risk run and the margins, which reflects Cetelem’s responsible approach.” Developing a new professional code of ethics is one of the sector’s priorities. But transparency and commitment cannot be limited to a mirror effect.
Today the notion of ethics has invaded all areas of consumption. Cars are a good example. The sales arguments have evolved to meet customers’ new expectations: advertising no longer lauds engine power but lower CO2 emissions. Transposed into the banking sector, this green consciousness “presupposes consideration of a sustainable development approach in the way credit is offered, money is invested and customers are advised. The objective consists of not focusing on just the short term financial performance but also on long term economic stability, social responsibility and respect for the environment,” as Anatole de la Brosse of Sia Conseil explains it.
Just the very beginnings of green can be seen in banking, but it will eventually be one of the virtuous consequences of the crisis. Already, ecological campaigns are gaining ground. “Pioneros en banca civica”, the Spanish bank Caja Navarra focuses its communication on its VSE and SME investment assistance policy and on its actions in relation to the environment, in particular through its CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) policy and investment in ethical funds. In Germany, Deutsche Bank is making the most of the reconstruction of its head offices as an eco-friendly building, renamed “Greentowers”, setting it up as a showcase for the Group’s commitment to ecology.
But if it is not to disappoint, it will have to go beyond the façade of ecology and fully incorporate environmental aspects into the economic equations. There are numerous questions: how far is it possible to finance polluting industries without imposing conditions? How do we encourage someone to buy a cleaner vehicle when it is being funded by a personal loan? Green growth is tomorrow’s challenge. The banks understand that.

An interview with Anatole de la Brosse
Sia Conseil, Banking and insurance expert  


What influence has the crisis had on the advertising strategy of insurance companies in Europe?
Over the last few years in Europe, insurance companies have followed the underlying trend by investing massively in advertising. In five years, the advertising budgets of the major insurance companies doubled. The investment frenzy has more to do with a structural factor related to the intense competition in the sector rather than with an economic factor related to the crisis. It should be said that insurance companies are still relatively unaffected by the crisis: they are less severely affected than the banks, with an after effect. And unlike in banking, the crisis has not called the insurance model into question. Only the American AIG on the other side of the Atlantic has had the finger pointed at it. What’s more the insurance companies are trying to make the most of the situation in order to deploy offensive strategies. The position of the banks, weakened by the crisis, gives them an opportunity to win back market share in the battle between bank insurance companies and insurance company banks - a battle in which until now the bank insurance companies have had the advantage.

In concrete terms, what are the differences between the banking players in terms of their advertising strategies?
The current strategy of the insurance companies is similar to that of the banks before the crisis. They have borrowed formulas that worked, such as advertising stories and humorous messages. I’m thinking for example of Matmut in France and MAPFRE in Spain. Some have gone as far as adopting a provocative tone, as the British insurance company Swiftcover has done in choosing the controversial figure of Iggy Pop —an American singer and actor known for his excesses— to front the brand.
In France, a study carried out by TNS Media Intelligence’s bank and insurance monitoring unit identified four types of strategic behaviour in response to the crisis. 16,000 advertising messages that appeared in the French media between September 2007 and September 2008 were examined.

Driving away the crisis with a strategy of reassurance
The protectionist brands are putting their money on security. Giving reminders about the solidarity and reliability of the brand in an anxiety-provoking world is essential. GAN insurance has chosen this position, promising to “make your savings secure”. The advertising spot shows a safe and sings the praises of the security offered by the Group’s euro investment fund. It is also about playing down the importance of the crisis in order to reassure the customer. “When everything is black, move to orange,” as the online brand ING Direct tells us, referring to its company colours.

Exploiting the crisis with a strategy aimed at winning customers back
The pragmatic brands choose to go on the offensive to channel consumers’ discontent. The counter attack comes in a combative message as illustrated by the online bank Boursorama which exhorts the customer to “take your bank in hand”. The great winner in this strategy is the figure of the penny pincher who skilfully manages to maintain buying power. “Consume smartly” is thus the watchword for the low cost online insurance company Amaguiz.

Hiding the crisis with a strategy aimed at making consumption attractive again

The hedonist brands are trying to make consumption attractive again. What better refuge in a crisis than optimism and values relating to collective happiness and individual well-being? That is where Crédit Agricole is putting its money: “Smile. Everything you need to know about owning your own home is on www.heureuxproprié” Mutuelle Générale made the same strategic choice, highlighting the beneficial effects of its action on its members: “With the Mutuelle Générale, things are already better.”

Outstripping the crisis with a rehabilitation strategy
Progressive brands want to make the most of the crisis to redeem the profession. Moralising about transforming difficulties into opportunities is the position taken by Crédit Mutuel: “Put an end to selfish saving… If I were a banker I would invent solidarity savings”. An offer that allows all or some of the interest on savings to be paid to humanitarian associations. And green is the newest fashionable colour. The insurance company Générali published a manifesto in favour of a “responsible generation”, offering for example car insurance at reduced rates for clean vehicles.

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