Were I a conspiracy theorist, which, of course, I’m not, I might
conclude that last week’s Cruickshank report on banks’ services and
profits was yet another chapter in the Government’s efforts to root out
the evils of ’rip-off’ Britain.
Having failed to brand the supermarkets as nasty profiteers, the
Government has now turned to an easier target, thus aligning itself as
the people’s champion. The timing, too, lends itself to conspiracy
theories, distracting attention as it does from the NHS, schools and the
Both of these may well be true but as the old saying goes, ’just because
you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you’. In
other words, the banks may be a soft target, but they may also be guilty
as charged. Certainly, the fact that no-one has sprung forward to defend
the banks suggests that the public is quite happy to see them dangle, if
In marketing terms this must be almost unprecedented. Here we have a
sector that spends upwards of pounds 100 million a year on advertising -
and that’s just the stuff you can see, not all the direct marketing and
sponsorship that banks also do - to little discernible effect.
Moreover, just to rub it in, most of the advertising is designed to show
consumers just how friendly banks are. Yet the end result is that the
public is indifferent to their efforts. This signal failure to win a
place in our affections underlines just how bad most bank marketing has
Unlike the supermarkets, which were able to demonstrate quite easily
that they weren’t ripping us off, the banks won’t find it so simple.
Relatively speaking, supermarket pricing strategies are infinitely more
transparent than those of the banks, which are at best opaque and at
Whether it is a chimera or not, the supermarkets use advertising to
great effect to demonstrate that they compete with each other on price.
Collectively, they also proved themselves adept users of PR to take the
battle out of Whitehall to the public - better even than the Government,
which is itself no mean performer.
The banks, alas for them, show none of these attributes. Name me a
single bank advertising campaign that has focused on anything other than
an ultimately meaningless proposition. You can’t? Well, it’s inevitable
that if you price your services on a cartel-like basis then you have to
scramble around for specious and fuzzy points of differentiation. As for
their consumer PR, it’s inept to the point of disastrous. Witness the
farce over cash machine charges - at a time, moreover, when they knew
their prices and services were under investigation.
The question, of course, is the extent to which banks will be able to
market themselves out of this hole. In the meantime, there should be a
huge opportunity for the non-bank banks (eg Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Egg,
First Direct) which aren’t tarred with this brush to the same extent.
Maybe, just maybe, the banks will take the lessons of Cruickshank to
heart and begin to take marketing seriously.