Thursday, December 10, 2009

Those smoothie talking dudes from Westpac

Nailing financial services communications is not easy. I'm in a position to say that, 'cos that's my job. I remember in my early days being advised by a mentor that all mass communications should be pitched at Herald-Sun (a Melbourne tabloid) comprehension level. Either that 'mentor' was spot-on or had little regard for the general intellect of the community, or both.

Whether right or wrong, Westpac decided to test the waters with this theory in the last week or so. They emailed an animated video to customers after announcing a home loan interest rate rise of nearly double the lift in the central bank rate earlier in the day. It's folklore now that the bank has withdrawn the video after everyone from outraged consumers and government ministers bristled at the comparison drawn between the impact of a tropical storm on the price of banana smoothies and the GFC's impact on the pricing of interest rates.

I viewed the video. I don't think the banana smoothie metaphor was particularly bad. What jarred with me was the final 45 seconds or so which implied it was important to price rates to protect Westpac which was, in turn, ultimately beneficial to its customers and, implies the video, THE NATION! When are banks going to learn it's all about perception? If it is sound commercial practice to price for profit, even if they know it, customers don't want it in their face. Customers would be much happier to hear their bank had sacrificed some of its multi-billion dollar profit to alleviate their pain.

There's no doubt Westpac achieved lots of cut-through with this, albeit for the wrong reasons. But what are the ramifications for communicating complex financial information or, for that matter, any other technical information. On the one hand, we have a disclosure regime in Australia that everyone criticises because it dictates a brain dump of information and data that is too complex and obtuse for anyone to comprehend. On the other, we have a Federal Government and regulators telling us to devise ways of communicating in simple language.

Westpac had a crack at the latter, successfully alienating its more 'sophisticated' customers, who thought the whole thing was patronising. They simply created a modern version of a parable, a visualisation technique harking back to Biblical times.
While the Westpac message clearly had some flaws, I think it's a shame that an experiment in communicating a complex issue in a different way has copped such a caning. It will discourage others from having a crack at a new approach - perhaps not marketing communications types, who never give up trying, but those they have to convince of new approaches.

And let me say, I can't help having a parting shot at two categories of people who never fail to take full advantage. a) Government ministers, including Kevin07, whose motives are all too transparent. Nothing better after an interest rate rise than to be able to demonise a bank. Let off some hot air, then jet out to Copenhagen to work out how to cool it. b) Marcoms/PR cognizenti who seek to enhance their credentials by being wise after the event - the 'major PR blunder' commentators. There, but for the grace of God go they...

It's raining outside, so I'm off for a smoothie before the price hike! Thanks for the tip, Westpac.

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