So: we’ve got two new bank brands in the UK. Have you noticed how fascinating they are? How revolutionary? How completely tuned to the zeitgeist? How brilliant their launch campaigns are? No, me neither.

front page (2) Even the dog isn’t excited by the messaging.   

Clearly, neither Lloyds Bank or TSB have anything fresh or interesting to say. So what have they done? In the case of TSB, they gone for a ‘heritage’ message – harking back to the original philanthropic ideals of their founder and, in the case of Lloyds Bank, they’ve trotted out some platitudes IN VERY BIG LETTERS to make it seem like they’re saying something worthwhile and important.

Yes, apparently having a home is an important thing in people’s lives. And so is borrowing money to start a business. And so is ‘protecting’ one’s family with insurance. Apparently we need Lloyds Bank to remind us of these things. IN UPPER CASE with the help of full-bleed colour photography of dogs and toddlers.

You may be aware that having somewhere to call home and loving your family are important but for Lloyds Bank, these things are —  quite literally — front page news.  And on The  Daily Telegraph at least, Lloyds has made them back page news too:

back page

I’ve got a young daughter and funnily enough, I don’t really need a bank to remind me that she matters to me. My mum is pretty important too. And my dad and brother and the rest of my family. I knew this without a helpful, full-page, full colour ad from a retail bank. But anyway — those nice people at the bank think family is an important thing. Wow.

What’s more, I also know that banks lend money and provide insurance. But as we’re using upper case to state the headbangingly obvious, here goes: BANKS LEND MONEY AND PROVIDE INSURANCE. IT’S WHAT BANKS DO. ALL BANKS.

My question is: where is the news here? Home matters. Family matters. Business matters. Banks lend money and insure. With a very simple journalistic approach to this: where’s the story? This is very much in ‘dog bites man’ or ‘woman has baby’ territory. Tell me something that will surprise me and preferably delight me too. We call that advertising.

Lloyds seems to have forgotten the difference between the indefinite article and the definite article – ie. ‘a’ and ‘the’ — the general and the specific. When you’re spending millions of pounds on advertising, surely the point is to advertise THE bank – ie. yours. The things that make your bank like no other. The things that make it exceptional, remarkable, distinctive. Unique, even. You know – the kind of words that suggest you offer something different from and better than your competitors.

My advice would be: don’t advertise the things that make a bank a bank. Why advertise the most fundamental aspects of your sector? Not even of your brand — but of the sector as a whole. In the retail banking sector, this seems like such a wasted opportunity – where people are crying out for something genuinely new, customer-focussed and challenging of the status-quo.

It shouldn’t be surprising that UK banks are so relentlessly unsurprising. Despite calling their sector ‘retail banking’, it took them many, many years to realise that it might be a good idea to open on Saturdays. They still think it’s something worth advertising. Can you imagine any other major retailer doing that? “Marks & Spencer. Now open on Saturdays throughout the UK.” And here we are in the 21st century, no UK bank opens on Sundays and hardly any open in the evening.

One of our beloved retail banks styles its services as ‘Helpful Banking’. Perhaps we should be thrilled. It’s as if we’re so inured to rubbish banking, to crooked, money-laundering banking, to ‘computer says no’ banking, dishonest banking, to ‘big fat bonuses’ banking and ‘dreadful customer service’ banking that anything that gets close to ‘quite good’ or ‘not entirely lamentable’ banking will have us all whooping for joy. Perhaps this is why Lloyds and TSB think rolling out some dull platitudes will do the trick.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that First Direct, the UK retail bank with the most interesting things to say also has customer advocacy rates that are off the scale. They also have metaphorical shelves sagging under the weight of awards.  First Direct is the envy of retail banks around the world. Perhaps it’s also no coincidence that First Direct has the most distinctive advertising:

So, let’s be constructive. Here’s a three-point plan for anyone who fancies a foray into the UK retail banking market:

1) In your communications, don’t just reinforce what a bank is and why people care about personal finance in general. (People aren’t completely stupid, so they know both of those things already).

2) Do some stuff that is newsworthy, innovative and genuinely of value to people.

3) Talk about that stuff.

If it’s a choice between platitudes and a platypus, choose the platypus. It seems to work for First Direct.

  • Jodie Clark

    Great piece but the First Direct comparison only tells half the story.  If their advertising is so much better why are they having to bribe people to switch and why aren’t more people switching?  First Direct’s market share is still miniscule.  Lloyds may be doing a better job of retaining customers by communicating warmth and trust – great advertising isn’t always about what’s interesting and different.  Just a thought.   

    • Jonathan Staines

      Hi Lucy,

      First Direct’s market share is small because, as a branchless bank (that perhaps doesn’t have mass appeal just yet), they have only a relatively small number of customers — about 1.2 million, I think? However, they have advocacy rates of something like 70 – 80% — which is extraordinary in the sector. Year after year, First Direct wins major awards for customer satisfaction and service. Their customers love them. It’s the most recommended bank in the world. 

      I think their offer of ‘£100 if you like us £200 if you don’t’ is great. It’s not so much a bribe as a guarantee.

      Agreed that advertising doesn’t always have to be about what’s interesting and different but personally I think it’s so much more compelling when it is.

      I suppose I just want a retail bank to do something new and challenge the sector, rather than just present boring platitudes to me. Those things don’t really give me any reason to choose Lloyds over another bank.

      You may call First Direct’s guarantee a ‘bribe’ but at least it’s a compelling offer and, when it was launched many years ago, there was nothing else like it. They’re doing something, rather than just saying ‘Your time matters'; ‘Your family matters’ or ‘Your home matters’.

      All very true, of course but any brand anywhere in the world could say those things. For me, a campaign along those lines just doesn’t pass the ‘So what?’ test or the ‘Yes, but what can you do for me?’ test.

  • Kristy Lewis

    Do you bank with First Direct? Out of interest what bank are you with and why and when did you chose them? Have you ever switched bank and if so what made you do that?
    Also you idea of interesting is totally subjective because frankly i think the platypus ad isn’t very good and they fail to mention in the ad the platypus is a venomous mammal capable of causing excruciating pain to humans so perhaps not the best comparison to a retail bank. 

    • Jonathan Staines

      Hi Kristy,

      I have switched bank and I’m so glad I did. The one I’m with now is brilliant. It’s even open on Christmas Day.

      Yes, what is interesting and what isn’t is subjective. Like most things.  

      However, I think it’s fair to say that ‘Family is important'; ‘Home is important’, ‘Your time is important’ aren’t very interesting things to announce. They’re just simple, universal truths.  

      I think you may have interpreted the First Direct ad a bit too literally. I didn’t say that I thought the ad was good. I just implied that it was more interesting and imaginative than the Lloyds campaign — for the reasons I’ve explained.

Campaign Jobs