Sunday, 19 April 2015

Branding Bungles of the Piggy Banks

This piece first appeared as one of my Palm Oil columns for Coconuts. The column became a casualty of my day job workload but I've been missing the chance to sound off in print and illustration on various topics that annoy or intrigue me lately, and I've been toying with the idea of resurrecting the column, perhaps just as an occasional feature on the blog. This was the final column for Coconuts, and one of my better 'Insta-art' pieces, illustrating the porcine aviation properties of banks and their promises.

LoadsaBank: Bish Bosh, look at all our dosh.
This little piggy goes to market! Insta-Art by Jason Gagliardi 

After the subprime-fueled global economic meltdown, when HSBC high-tailed it out of Thailand in 2012 and left behind only its corporate banking operation, I was amazed the press didn't make more of “The World's Local Bank” becoming rather less local. (It also flogged off its Japanese private banking business, a chunk of its Russian consumer banking business and about half of its US branches, along with great swaths of its Central American operations.)

There was a predictable flurry of perfunctory business stories, but what about the body blow this represented to the brand and its much-vaunted, oh-so-clever tagline? I was tempted to write something snide then, but figured that as I had taken local bank Krungsri's baht to pen about 20 letters to various classes of cardholders about the sale (Krungsri paid about US$115 million to acquire HSBC's Thailand retail banking business, including an array of credit card products) I was a bit close to the proceedings at the time.

For many years, boarding a plane at Suvarnabhumi Airport meant running the gamut of HSBC's “Different Points of View” campaign. This long-running campaign cleverly juxtaposed images to show cultural differences – right up until you got onto the plane via “owning” the skybridge ad spaces – leaving the viewer to conclude that in such a mixed-up world, The World's Local Bank was best trusted with your moolah.

The campaign became diluted and tired as successive creatives put their spin on it. Later it shifted to words more than pictures, proffering gee-whiz factoids like 'Did you know Colombia provides 60 percent of America's fresh flowers?' and 'Pakistan is the world's second largest exporter of clothing'.”

Here's one you didn't read getting onto a plane: “Did you know HSBC was the first commercial bank established in Thailand, in 1888, when it printed the country's first banknotes?”

Pulling its retail operations out of Thailand might have made sense on the brutal bottom line when the bean-counting boffins wielded their red pens, but in terms of the brand's heritage and positioning, it was sheer branding buffoonery and left a sour taste in the mouths of many (involuntarily) former HSBC customers.

Which segues nicely into the latest local bank branding bungle, and possibly the most piquant since HSBC slammed down the shutters on its Bangkok shopfront: I refer to Siam Commercial Bank's widely reported and vociferously condemned refusal at a Chiang Mai branch to accept the bags of long-hoarded coins from a little girl brought by her mother to open her first account.

Frequent travellers to and from Thailand will have noticed the almost unseemly haste with which SCB rushed in to fill the white spaces at Suvarnabhumi with a campaign eerily reminiscent of HSBC's, at least in terms of layout and overall look. SCB is actually 'second' in term of total assets, some way behind the leader, Bangkok Bank. It was, however, the first Thai bank on the scene, opening its doors in 1906, almost two decades after HSBC got its license to print money.

The rubric “First is Endless” underpinned a series of saccharine visuals of happy customers and their warm, fuzzy bankers. “First job,” “First car,” “First love,” “First kiss,” “First million” and, perhaps appropriately, “First sorrow” were among the sentiments shouted from the skybridges.

Strangely absent was “First bank account” – something of an oversight at the time, given the bank's PR push for its SCB Smart Kids' Savings account, for children 7 years and up. Surely it should have been one of the first ideas off the rank, with an ad showing a bright-eyed, impossibly cute tot reaching up to the counter with her piggy bank full of coins as an improbably friendly teller stretches out a helping hand.

The opprobrium the bank has faced in the court of public opinion via social media would have doubtlessly increased in viral intensity had such an ad come back to haunt it. As it is, we only have the account from the oddly-named Facebook user “Lovemom Love Crochet” to clue us in to the identity of the little girl who, according to the original story in Coconuts, had her “soul crushed” by the uncaring bank.

“Facebook user 'Lovemom Love Crochet' shared a photo of seven large bags filled with coins she said were saved by her 5-year-old daughter and rejected by the oldest bank in Thailand, which wouldn't take her deposit,” according to the Coconuts story which appeared earlier this month.

“After mom and dad helped the little girl count the coins from several piggy banks, they drove to Siam Commercial Bank at a Big C shopping mall in Chiang Mai, but the employees insisted they could not accept coins. According to the user, the bank's excuse was that 'the safe is full' and they were told to deposit the coins at a nearby Bangkok Bank.”

Notwithstanding the shaky ground SCB would be on for allegedly refusing to accept legal tender, the geniuses overseeing the debacle also did the bank out of some loot – Thai banks charge a fee for coin counting, which will come as no surprise to those used to being stung up to 180 baht for an ATM transaction.

Even more ironically, SCB publicly encourages coin deposits by children, giving out piggy banks to SCB Smart Kids' Savings account holders and waiving coin deposit fees.

“You can't teach common sense” one senior Thai banking figure said, when I asked for his take on the scandal last week. Is it unfair to take an entire bank to task for the actions of one or two staff in a far flung branch? I would argue that it is, for it is the bank's responsibility to inculcate those at the coalface with the values of its brand, not to mention the basic precepts of customer service, and to hire people capable of understanding such concepts.

For a bank, at any branch, no matter how peripheral, to fail so miserably in something so fundamental to its positioning and products, not to mention Lovemom’s account of how it lost the chance to win some early and probably lifelong brand loyalty from a 5-year-old girl is pure branding muppetry on an epic scale, and SCB deserves whatever fallout the consumer shitstorm deposits on its purple portals.

The day after reading about 'Coingate', I stumbled across an article supplied by the Financial Times as a special service to HSBC's fortunate and privileged private banking customers. “The endless bustle of the tropical, sprawling south-east Asian metropolis makes it a career stopover rather than a lifelong destination for many expats,” began the story, which of course was about Bangkok.

The headline: “Steamy city beguiles for a limited time.”

Indeed. Bankers.

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