Banks have been responding in interesting ways to their unpopularity. This of course was brought about by a series of largely self-inflicted wounds: the credit crunch, computer lapses, PPI and investments mis-selling, indefensible banker bonuses and so on. And the last couple of weeks we have the spectacle of HSBC money laundering in Switzerland.
Banks have tried lots of ways to deflect attention from all this. The main broad tactic is to position themselves not being vast corporate pirates, but as on our side. Barclays, typically tied themselves in knots to do this, adopted at one point a postmodern approach with their Barclays Squirrel of Postmodern Irony.
NatWest, meanwhile, began to provide ‘helpful banking’, and much of their marketing focused on how their helpful staff were ordinary people just like us, who nurtured the modest ambition to be helpful. Of marketing in the UK NatWest’s approach seemed to me to be the best way to sidestep unpopularity. They did so by re-positioning their offering in in what I call ‘real life’ territory. Their ambitions appear modest, but plays to an awareness of how difficult ordinary life is for us ordinary folks. And of course by saying they are ordinary just like us, we can almost have sympathy for them too. Very clever.
But the hair shirt is still there. Passing through Victoria Station yesterday I noticed a huge banner with its stale old hello/goodbye riff. But its implicit acknowledgement of the sector’s guilt made me grin. How did it all end up in such a marketing mess for the Banks?
To say Charlie Hebdo’s provocative satire is not always understood outside France, is an understatement. See this take on the magazine by Arthur Chu. And its satire was not to many people’s taste in France too, judging by its usual circulation — but of course everything’s different now.
This cultural incomprehension reminded me of a time a couple of years ago when I was simultaneously working for French clients and US ones. For in the grubby business of Marketing, such incomprehension not only causes mutual bafflement, but costs people money.
My French client had asked me to write English copy for several French companies hoping to infiltrate the UK market. I was juggling this with freelancing in a London agency, having been asked in to create concepts for a pharmaceutical product launch for a US-owned healthcare agency.
The French wanted what seems to me to be florid, overwrought copy. I found myself constantly pushing back, and explaining that in the UK if you seem to be trying too hard, the UK consumer smells a rat. For a UK reader, copy that’s forested with adjectives and adverbs can be tiresome to follow. I was assured by my French clients, however, that this was often seen as hard-working, persuasive and – what’s more – beautiful copy in France. Luckily, with lots of explaining and laughing at each other, we managed to reach a compromise – but the process took much longer than it should.
Meanwhile the afternoon teleconferences with the New York office were baffling. The US creative directors were unerringly drawn to what seemed, to my English eyes, crazy ideas. Anything psychological, or on a human scale was instantly rebuffed. One concept, however, that was particularly liked was an apocalyptic earthquake with hundreds of people tumbling into the gaping maw of the splitting earth. This was to suggest the dangers of a medical condition. I sat baffled as the US team earnestly discussed this absurd execution, which also dramatised the problem rather than the solution. It reminded me of the apocalyptic English romantic painter John Martin – but not in a good way.
It goes without saying that the US is full of talented, smart people in agencies, who care passionately about the product and doing the right thing by their clients. It was in the US I first understood that UK creative work can seem half-hearted, underwhelming and small-scale. The reasoning in this instance was that the disease area we were tackling was a big problem to the people who had it. So we should acknowledge and reflect the scale of the problem as felt by the people living with it.
Perhaps it is lazy to say this is about irony. But I honestly believe the UK sense of irony and understatement is at the root of mutual incomprehension of the concepts that ping across the pond in teleconferences Death by PowerPoint and PDFs. I believe that it is assumed in the UK that the audience knows the rules of the marketing game, and not to implicitly acknowledge that means the idea won’t be taken seriously. Some ideas bridge the gulf, of course, but it very optimistic to expect a concept to fly in every territory.
So if these gulfs are tricky in marketing a single product or brand, how much more so are they when entire cultures, countries, religions misapprehend each other. The clue was in working with my French clients, and ultimately with Charlie Hebdo: learn to laugh at them.
The Somersby Cider advert is funny, and quietly remarkable. For it relies on a knowledge of Apple stores, and the Apple brand.
It is no coincidence that Apple’s fanboys and fangirls are stuck to the flypaper of creative departments everywhere. It subverts the seriousness of Apple stores, replacing customers with drinkers examining pints of cider with intensity and fascination. At a stroke it makes other cider marketing appear creakily old-skool.
A win for Somersby?
Yes. It is getting Somersby talked about, and making people laugh. Then yes it is as great result.
But here’s the caveat
What we are doing is combining a streak of comedy – and this was one of the few ads that actually made me guffaw when I saw it – with Postmodern Irony. This is an advert that is busy nudging us in the ribs, and making us co-conspirators in the knowledge that we are watching an advert.
The danger in combining comedy with postmodern irony is that you can disappear up your own marketing fundament. For the Somersby ad is as much about advertising as medium, than it is an advert for cider.
The ultimate winner from this marketing spend is Apple. Hitching a ride on a global brand is an interesting strategy, but not without danger. I watch Somersby’s progress with interest.
Postmodern irony is one of those terms whose meaning depends on which academic discipline the Hogwarts sorting hat chose for you. For our purposes, however, Postmodern irony stands for ironic self-reference and absurdity, and it is a territory that advertising and marketing regularly dwell in.
The 2011 Barclays Tracker ads with Stephen Merchant’s voiceover. One example, started… ‘Ere we go. This one’s about Barclays Tracker Mortgages that’s why these people are on some kind of track. Cut to a laboriously symbolic hill of rail track with two people on a pump truck.
Now being on a tracker mortgage when the going’s good is good – there’s a squirrel – but if times get tougher… The random squirrel is glanced at for less than a second – and then we get back, um, on track with the information. Luckily the random squirrel has also jolted us out of a mortgage talk coma. Later in the ad the voiceover says: I don’t know if the squirrel’s relevant. Is the squirrel relevant? The squirrel’s not relevant. Ignore that.
Merchant’s voiceover is spoken as if he is viewing the execution for the first time and saying what he sees – in the way that people do when commenting on the TV at home. This marketing trickery puts the endorser of Barclays side by side with its customers on the sofa, watching the advert together.
Barclay’s self-depreciating positioning
Given a backdrop of unprecedented hostility to the banking sector, the choice Barclays made to situate their products in Postmodern Irony territory was calculated. This self-depreciating approach made it less vulnerable to attack from a public more disposed to taking offence.