Opinion

Change is coming for the big banks – and their advertising

In the wake of the Royal Commission, how do the banks re-stage their communications and advertising messages to begin to re-build confidence and trust? According to 303 MullenLowe's Nick Cleaver, giving up lofty promises is the first step.

The major banks are reeling from the revelations of the Hayne Royal Commission, which has ravaged their reputations by exposing illegal and unethical practises. From the Commonwealth Bank charging fees to dead people; Westpac admitting it paid bonuses to financial advisers it knew were churning clients into high-fee investments and NAB charging for advice it never provided. And so it’s gone on and on.

It’s been astonishing and shocking coming from an industry most thought was highly regulated, had high levels of governance and at the very least lived within the boundaries of the law. We may not have loved the banks, but there was a begrudging acknowledgment they were run efficiently, provided a reasonable service and as such there was a base level of trust.

The Hayne Interim report has painted a picture of an industry driven by greed, where profit has come before people and shareholder interests have trumped those of customers.

Not surprisingly, people’s trust levels in banks have plummeted. According to a recent Roy Morgan survey, banks have the lowest levels of net trust scores of any industry, by far.

And it may yet have farther to fall.

There will of course be regulatory changes, higher levels of scrutiny and more effective levels of enforcement to come. There will be significant structural changes in the industry which we’re already seeing, as super and advice businesses are separated from core banking services. The full spectrum of changes will become clearer over the coming months, but in the mean time banks have a job to do and millions of customers to service.

So how do banks re-engage with their customers and the community? How do they re-build their reputations and trust levels?

Of course, the first thing banks need to do is to correct the malpractices, introduce new governance processes and begin a significant journey of cultural change which will re-define their purpose, values and codes of behaviour.

It will also demand a level of transparency from them we haven’t seen before. As Oxford lecturer and author Rachel Botsman has said: “…there is a pressing need to crack open the ‘black boxes’, to lift the veil on the opaque systems with which we interact with daily.” Botsman says banks should also look at the opportunity to change products, services and the overall experience to make the customer feel the bank is always on their side.

Concurrently, as this is undertaken, there is a huge communication issue banks will need to wrestle with. How do they re-stage their advertising messages to begin to re-build confidence and trust?

Public apologies are of course a starting point, and these have been forthcoming from CEOs like Andrew Thorburn, Brian Hartzer and Matt Cormyn, but the bigger question then looms: what to do with their advertising?

The banks’ initial response in the first quarter of the year was to react to the Royal Commission by simply spending more money, but as the revelations have kept coming, spend has been pulled back and one suspects a more considered response is being framed.

It seems inevitable that the key advertising promises of the major banks have to change. How can NAB credibly carry on telling us: “We’re here for your more, NAB more than money” when they patently haven’t been?

How can Westpac continue with the thought they’re all about help with the line: “Help when it matters. It’s what Australians do”? The CBA may also find the level of consumer cynicism too great to continue with the thought you “Can” when clearly for many customers the answer was “you can’t”.

Surely, it’s time for the banks to move away from grandiose, lofty promises delivered through expensive brand campaigns. Seeing beautifully shot, sepia images of generations of Australians helping others and Westpac being part of all that simply won’t wash. Neither will NAB trying to convince us they really understand the life ambitions of everyday Australians.

The only big bank with a campaign that could evolve and survive appears to be ANZ’s, which leads with the very much more practical thought of “Get on top of your money.” Now that’s got a whole lot of potential to deliver some very grounded practical product and service messages which all align with that thought and demonstrate how ANZ help you do that. Look no further than ANZ a few months ago launching the app showing you six ways to help you manage your money on the go. I’m sure we’ll see more of this in the near future.

This seems to be the crux of how the banks will need to manage their reputations with customers: demonstrate practical proof points of how you are going to deliver useful utility to people. No lofty promises, just clear proof points of how you are providing better products and services.

CBA appears to be moving in this direction. Their recent TVC promotes the spend tracker, a useful app that promises “track what you spend so it’s easier to save”. Interestingly the voice over even cues: “Now that’s a welcome change!”.

I assume we are to subliminally understand this is the CBA beginning their journey of repentance. Also of note is there is no voice over of “You can with Com Bank”. This appears to have been dropped for a less bold proclamation. The end frame of “Can” is unvoiced. I sense we may be seeing something less chest beating on that end frame shortly.

Despite the shellacking the banks have received, there appears no great rush to the exit doors from their customers. I suppose there are limited places for them to go. The new tech banks offer an option, but it’s a marginal one at best and even the most bullish tech bank would be seeing themselves as an accompaniment to a big bank relationship rather than a total replacement.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity presents itself to the smaller banks, the credit unions, mutuals and regional banks who have been less embroiled in the exposures and who have charters that, in the case of mutuals, do align members financial wellbeing with that of the organisations.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity for this segment to raise its profile as a credible alternative to the big four. But if they’re going to do it, now’s the time as all the signs are the big four will be re-pitching their wares to the market in a more pragmatic, credible and humble way in the coming months. Watch this space.

Nick Cleaver is CEO Australia at 303 MullenLowe. Nick has led the development of numerous campaigns for banks and insurance brands, including most recently the Budget Direct and Magellan work.

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