DDB Australia
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Ritson on Westpac brand-building

Westpac’s new tack on brand-building

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Mark Ritson | The Australian

A young boy watches his mum struggle with the household finances. He crawls under the house, finds the Christmas lights and decorates the living room in an attempt to cheer her up. His father arrives from the city to take him back to his apartment for the weekend. The man and boy travel in silence on the train. That evening in bed the father watches as his son reads from a book, pride and sadness flashing across the man’s broad face.

The only clue that this is an ad comes in the final three seconds of the 60-second commercial. “If you’re separating, there’s help,” a message explains. “We can ease the financial uncertainty.” The familiar red logo of Westpac wipes into view.

If you’ve already seen the ad, which began airing yesterday, you’ll agree that this is not your normal banking ad. The dramatic cinematography and brooding emotion suggest the start of a major new Australian movie, not an ad. The lack of a jingle, any upbeat tone or clear commercial message single it out as very different from the typical advertising fare most Australians expect.

And this is not the kind of family we are used to seeing in advertising either. You know the traditional familial formula as well as I do. You’ve been living with them for decades: always different but somehow always the same. The clumsy dad who loves his car. His more attractive, long-suffering wife who works hard to get dinner ready. And the two kids — a girl and a boy — who laugh at each other across the kitchen table.

Westpac and its agency DDB present us with something very different and far more complex in this new ad: a family separated and still struggling with the situation. While this might be a new perspective for Australian advertising, it’s not for Australia itself. While about 120,000 couples will get married this year, about 50,000 couples will divorce.

When a family separates it must untangle everything, including personal finances. Most newly separated adults literally do not know where to start when this happens, and Westpac has built a whole suite of services for newly separated families to help them navigate this next stage in their lives.

Several years ago, Westpac identified that much of the customer data relating to financial services was inaccurate. A survey of Australians might reveal, for example, that 70 per cent would consider Westpac or any of the other big banks. In reality, very few of these consumers would actively shift their finances to a different banking provider. Inertia, switching costs and the challenges of everyday life all get in the way of changing banks.

But there are significant life moments when customers do consider switching or staying with their bank of choice. Marriage, having a child, getting that first job, divorce — key moments that occur to many of us and which very often open up a rare opportunity to change bank.

Westpac has mapped these life moments and has redesigned its products, services and communication around them. That’s why the previous ad in the campaign featured the funeral of mustachioed rugby player “Ari” and a church full of friends who arrived to support his widow. The death of a partner is another moment when consumers need exceptional financial support and when Westpac attempts to provide it.

In truth, however, this is more than simply an attempt to support customers going through the big moments in life. Westpac is building its brand around being there for its customers, whatever the life moment, and this is simply the next ad in a long-term series.

According to Jenny Melhuish who runs branding, advertising and media for the bank: “The Westpac brand position is about helping our customers in the moments that matter. Moments like separation and divorce, or buying a new home, through to the everyday moments like losing your wallet or opening a new bank account. We’ve been around for over 200 years and believe we understand what really matters to Australians.”

It’s a strategy that has proved successful for a growing number of brands in Europe. Rather than simply spend all the marketing budget on promoting products, the investment is split into two very different kinds of campaign. The shorter-term marketing continues to promote products and is targeted at particular market segments. But a bigger slice of the budget promotes the brand and what it stands for to everyone, often using the big mass reach media like TV, outdoor and news media.

These campaigns are less about specific products and services and more about an emotional message conveying what the brand stands for. Typically, these campaigns only begin to have an impact two to three years after their inception. It’s a fact Melhuish is well aware of. “I can assure you the hard part comes when you need to protect the strategy, hold the course and not be reactive or be persuaded to pivot when the results don’t come in the first few months. You need to balance the short-term needs of the business and the long-term growth of the brand.”

The challenge for Melhuish and her team is that much of the public now holds a very “unhelpful” perception of banks. Will this ad, and the ones that follow it, really convince Australians that Westpac is a bank that is there to help them?

The new ad will certainly divide audiences. But it will get Westpac noticed and the emotionally mature message and realistic portrayal of a family in distress are a welcome departure from the stereotypes that advertising so often resorts to.

I have rarely seen an ad that rewards repeat viewing like this one. For once repetition seems to advance the message, not undermine it. Whether it strengthens Westpac’s brand and ultimately builds its market share is another question. And one that will not be answered in the short term.

Read more from Mark Ritson in The Australian.