Banking: A relationship building account

By Biprorshee Das , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising
Last updated : June 01, 2010
Increasingly, bank advertisements have been talking about building not just business, but emotional, even familial relationships with customers. afaqs! discusses this strategy and its effectiveness with experts

'Bank with us because we understand your personal needs better than the rest,' seems to be the brief that many banks have given their respective creative partners. Going by the recent spate of bank advertisements harping on building personal relationships with customers, it's clear that trust has become the USP for several of these institutions.

One that comes to mind is ICICI Bank's recent 'Khayal Aapka' campaign, done by Ogilvy India. The campaign, comprising three thematic films, showcases the bank's claim of taking care of the smallest needs of the customer. The commercials show small moments of customer interactions with the bank's employees, which create customer delight and nurture bonding.

Another campaign that can be cited is State Bank of India's claim to be the banker to every Indian, which also attempts an emotional tug.

Hence, one wonders if appealing to the customer's emotions and building a personal relationship remain the only options available for a bank to reach out to more prospective customers.

The need for better relationships

The emphasis on relationship building probably stems from the financial turmoil the world recently witnessed. After large global banks collapsed, the consumer's trust on financial institutions hit an all-time low.

To reassure customers, it is but obvious for banks to try and build confidence; and hence, the emphasis on better relationship building.

Also, with banking getting more electronic than ever, one does not need to visit a bank branch too often. For example, not long ago, long queues in banks, with tokens handed out to customers wanting to withdraw money, was de rigueur. Now, the increasing number of Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) has anything but killed the need for such a visit to a branch.

To fill that gap, some experts think that banks need to once more build one-on-one interactions with the customer.

"ATMs have killed relationships. Today, a customer does not meet a bank representative for his needs; he meets machines. To fill this gap, advertising is sought after," says Harish Bijoor, brand strategy specialist and chief executive officer, Harish Bijoor Consults.

Moreover, it is probably inevitable for a bank to choose the emotional communication route, since products and services are essentially the same across banks.

"We have to show the fact that we are emotionally attached to our customers. Banks, as a brand, are associated with the traditions of the people. Unlike other products, we cannot show anything controversial or unrelated in our advertising," says a senior official from State Bank of India.

Undoubtedly, when a brand connect is being built, the emotional route works well. This is often true for many categories, and not just financial services alone, as can be seen in the many commercials that are churned out.

It could also be seen as a healthy phenomenon, with communication moving from just conveying facts to empathising with the consumer.

Herd mentality?

It could also be argued that bank advertising exhibits patterned behaviour, with various buzzwords becoming popular in different phases.

Not long ago, 'dreams' was a platform many banks utilised while selling loans; where the communications spoke of specially designed loans that would help consumers realise their dreams. Similarly, there was a phase when credit cards were being sold; and one when banks boasted of their network strength.

'Relationships' seems to be the current buzzword. But with more players saying the same thing, it does become a sort of cliché. And unless a particular institution manages a certain differential, it becomes easy to get confused between brands.

"While it is true there is a lot that can be talked about on a pure functionality basis, banks understand that relationships have to be built. The thing to be remembered is that everything cannot be all sap and warm. There must be rationality to support a claim. What positioning a bank chooses, of course, depends on the bank itself," says Abhijit Avasthi, national creative director, Ogilvy India.

Personalities of banks would differ, although they might be saying the same things. The risk, however, arises, when one agency handles the duties for a number of banks; and the same tone appears in the communication especially in the style of copy, observes Cajetan Vaz, an ex-advertising professional and now a brand consultant.

Build to deliver

Like it or not, a healthy relationship with a customer goes a long way in building faith, and could often prove to be a great marketing strategy. However, delivering on promises made is important to emerge a winner.

"Advertising is meant to translate into business. The biggest number of accounts would come from better relationships handled by the bank. Hence, I would not fault a bank for choosing the strategy. The basis has to be good relationships," says Bijoor.

In order to retain customers - which is becoming critical today, when it doesn't take much to switch bank accounts - the bank needs to understand what customers want and the cultural momentum.

"I am not against relationship building. To retain customers, it is critical to have and maintain a relationship. I expect my bank to know me," says Ankur Khurana, brand partner, planning, Orchard Advertising.

According to Khurana, what is further expected of a bank is to not be superficial and have a short-sighted perspective; but embed relationships into better understanding of the customers' needs.

The alternative route ahead

While there are those who see no harm in a bank striving to build trust, there are many who consider it regressive and lazy thinking.

The strategy fails to cut ice with senior professionals such as Bobby Pawar, chief creative officer, Mudra Group, who thinks it is vital for a brand to zero in on its DNA with relevant insights. "Relationships cannot be owned by everybody. You must be true and more authentic to the brand," he says.

Suman Srivastava, chief executive officer, Euro RSCG India too thinks it is a colossal waste of money, when the strategy fails to differentiate one bank from the other. He sees relationships being an experiential benefit, which a customer will experience if a bank is good. He adds that this is an age when consumers are looking for more substantive benefits.

Indeed, it would serve a bank well to emphasise on its various offerings and unique services. An example is the HDFC Bank campaign that spoke of faster cash withdrawals at its ATMs.

Similarly, while ICICI Bank's emphasis on its relationship with customers is a continuous one; it has also communicated about its products and services through one-on-one interactions, as well as mass media platforms.

ING Vysya Bank is another case in point, where the bank talked about mobile transfer, instant debit card replacement and automatic cheque book request in its communications.

IndusInd Bank, too, in its recent campaign talked about three of its service propositions - Ready2Use Savings Account Kit, mobile alerts and online payments. These commercials were not set in a banking context, but built on consumer insights, points out Mohit Ganju, marketing head, IndusInd Bank.

"Banks have looked at directly communicating the product/service benefit, without stressing too much on the relationship with the customer. Depending on the positioning strategy, banks experiment and develop advertising that best suits the messaging and desired image. Banks have experimented with both thematic as well as product/service based advertising," Ganju says.

Technology is another feature a bank could highlight. Bank of Baroda, in a recent television commercial, talks of how the 'power of technology' helps the customer handle most of his financial needs with much ease.

Apparently, banks see the need to break the clutter; and some are doing that by positioning themselves very differently.

Axis Bank recently adopted a new brand positioning - that of being a 'solutions provider'. A new campaign, created by Lowe Lintas, pitches the bank's range of products as a means to address every conceivable customer need. The campaign thought is summed up in the slug, 'There's always a solution'.

The agency deliberately did away with the relationship building route in favour of the solutions provider idea, saying that relationships are eventually built by offering innovative solutions.

However, with relationship management being rather inevitable for banks, one probably needs to change by looking at the customers' interaction with money, some suggest.

Banks could take on the advisory role that other financial instruments have adopted, but restricted to high net worth individuals. In times when the Indian populace is thinking seriously about wiser investments and better use of money, it is a need a bank would do well to cater to.

"Banks need to look at how to make wealth useful, not just by looking at the present; but what would be the pleasurable moments of tomorrow, when wealth begets prosperity," says Sandhya Srinivasan, managing partner and chief strategy officer, Law & Kenneth.

What could be a clutter-breaking strategy, she says, is for banks to move on from 'How I will give you the best service' to 'How you will grow your money'.

Customers' needs, in every category, vary and evolve constantly. While the thought that a bank is as personal to you as your money is welcome; it's also true that there are avenues for banks to interact on alternative and larger levels. Some understand this; some probably would follow. It remains to be seen what the next trend wave would possibly bring ashore.

First Published : June 01, 2010

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