OPINION: Cowen on ... Abbey National

You don't have to be a genius, or a cynic, to notice the obvious debt Abbey National's relaunch owes to a particular high-street rival.

In fact, the link between Halifax's singing bank clerks and the arrival of Abbey's performing customers is so retina-scorchingly obvious that it tends to obscure the equally significant differences between the two campaigns.

First among these is the attitude that each takes to the relationship between brand and product advertising. The real revelation in the Halifax ads wasn't that bankers could sing but that the details of financial services, with all their numbers and percentage signs, could be wrapped up in enthusiastic, FMCG-style branding. There was a finely judged payoff at work, with the detail giving traction to the friendly glitz and the general silliness allowing customers to look at the numbers long enough to digest them.

The Abbey approach takes a more traditional view of financial services branding - that putting your vision and personality out there is a separate exercise to telling customers about interest rates. Life's complicated enough without clouding your mission statement with such information.

So, for now, Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper has served up a series of vignettes in which the endline is the only real connection to Abbey. The product messages will be left to a second wave of ads, breaking in six weeks, and to the press work that traditionally triggers mortgage purchases or current account moves.

Within this gameplan, the current spots perform their task perfectly capably. They're cheeky and uplifting and there's something of the charm of amateur dramatics or school plays in the way that the gallant performers almost measure up to the production values around them.

After all, it's a far harder task to perform a script than it is to knock out a karaoke-style number with real gusto. And this isn't the only disadvantage that Euro RSCG's recruits have, compared with Howard and company. There isn't the post-production excess that Delaney Lund Knox Warren could use to turn up the charisma of the Halifax staff - and as a result the Abbey ads feel quite homespun in comparison.

In part this is a result of the role played by the "real life" stars.

Halifax's employees were pumped up salespeople. Abbey takes its customers and asks us to empathise with them, to identify with their imaginative designs for a life less complicated. In a month or so, I expect, we'll be invited to identify with their reasons for choosing Abbey National.

It's a softly, softly approach that looks to manufacture word of mouth appeal.

All of this is based on the assumption that consumers do not want to hear about financial services unless they're in the mood. To be fair, this assumption is probably more true of Abbey customers than most. It may be sensitive about journalists bringing it up, but Abbey National used to be a building society - and its down-to-earth roots have always shone through in its advertising. It's for those who don't want to get excited about or involved in their banking. They just want to be well looked after. The problem with Abbey's strategy is how difficult it is to inject urgency into it.

This is a bank that has been frustrating City investors with its inability to grow from sixth position for years. You'd expect its narrow escape from Lloyds' aggressive takeover bid - or the fact it boasts the most attractive interest rate in the high street - to put some aggression into its marketing. Instead, Abbey is adamant that customers can only be persuaded into bed when the mood is right - and that's what it has set out to ensure.

Once the ambience has been set, we'll see what Abbey has to offer in the way of a sell. It must hope potential customers haven't switched off by then.

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