Opinion: Beale on ... HSBC

There's an interesting context to the latest HSBC ad by Lowe. First, HSBC has just announced a profit of £7.7 billion (the highest ever recorded by a UK-based bank, and 37 per cent up on last year) and five lucky staffers are sharing a £30 million bonus booty (including one over-achiever who has pocketed £12.6 million).

So quite a few people at HSBC are doing quite a few things right.

But quite a few of HSBC's agencies are unlikely to be sharing in the bounty by this time next year. For the whole HSBC bag of communications is currently the subject of a heated £600 million winner-takes-all global pitch.

Consequently it's by no means certain there's much life left in the Lowe campaign. On the basis of this latest (last?) execution, that would be a pity. This is an idea that's gotten better with age and familiarity, a truly campaignable idea - something few banks have managed to sustain. And in the generally dire world of international advertising, this is a highlight.

There's a lovely sense of place in this ad; you can taste the South American dust on your lips just from watching it. Like some of its successful early predecessors this one starts out like a classy tourist board ad, lots of local colour, vibrancy, a feel good soundtrack (Hendrix's Easy Rider) pulsing through it all. And it's lovingly shot: quick cut images of a biker's eye view of the world, all united by the finger/thumb OK sign delivered by happy locals (yeah, this is South America adland style).

The reveal comes when happy biker munching away in a Brazilian cantina gives the A-OK "o" sign to besmeared-vest-wearing local behind the counter.

In Brazil, see, the "o" sign has less to do with OK and more to do with orifice.

Silence and menacing stares fall simultaneously. Cue voiceover: "We never underestimate the importance of local knowledge."

If the OK sign is an international language, it's not one that's caught on in my neighbourhood. And the denouement could have been played a little harder, for a little longer; there really isn't enough sense of calamity when our biker makes his blunder.

And inevitably there will be a few Middle Englanders who don't get it, or who find the concluding suggestion offensive. But then Easy Rider will probably already have got them tuning out before the "rude" bit.

But these are little quibbles. The bigger one, if you really think about it, is the entire premise of "The World's Local Bank".

As a USP, The World's Local Bank is a pretty meaningless tag; where's the customer benefit? What's in it for me? Because it's international there is no hint of a practical local proposition (interest rates, account extras, credit terms). This has the advantage of unfettering the ad from the messiness of the financial sell, but means there's nothing to tempt me to switch my banking loyalties.

And globalisation - even with local sensitivity - has never been a more unfashionable proposition.

HSBC's global review is all about making its enormous budget work more efficiently, cost-effectively and, most importantly, cohesively across communications channels and across borders. It's an overdue move. So much of HSBC's marketing communications is about profile rather than persuasion.

No matter how great Lowe's TV work has been, it needs to be backed up by specific, competitive, local product benefits, all packaged with the same style and quality as the high-profile TV campaign.

Will HSBC get that from any of the holding companies pitching for the brief? Perhaps, but it may end up sacrificing a productive creative relationship to get there.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Stands a good chance in the International Financial category.

File under ... O for A-OK.

What would the chairman's wife say? "Can someone explain this to me please?"

Claire Beale, claire.beale@haynet.com.

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