Clever advertising... or reckless business?

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fnb ads 2 THE STAR Kelly Baloyi addresses the audience during the fliming of an FNB advertising campaign at Naledi High School in Soweto. Photo: Matthews Baloyi

If ever there was an opportunity for Steve to make hay while the sun of FNB criticism shines, it is now… because the bank deserves an Onion for its ill-advised foray into politics.

In anticipation of the storm of personal attacks I will suffer for being “an ANC groupie”, “communist”, or even “anti-white”, let me say at the outset that my Onion to FNB is based solely on marketing principles.

I am not for a moment denying that there are serious problems in this country – decaying education, appalling crime and corruption will suffice to start what is a very long list – but the furore over the bank’s latest campaign threatens to obscure a much-needed debate on whether its decisions were motivated by emotion or by sound marketing principles.

Whether FNB and its ad agency, and everyone who agrees with the sentiments, likes it or not – and the bank’s silly disclaimers notwithstanding – this campaign is simply an attack on the government. And the government is the ANC.

Why on earth anyone is surprised by the vehemence of the ANC’s reaction is beyond me.

Trying to hide behind “national concerns” is sophistry: the organisation in the sights of this campaign is the ANC.

And while that sort of attack makes perfect sense if you are a political party and your brand essence is the opposite of that of the ruling party, how does this help the brand of FNB, the bank?

There are those who argue that business has a right – no, a duty – to speak out on social injustice. That being the case, has the bank said anything on issues like the fact that farmworkers are expected to survive on R69 a day? Or about the bloated salaries of executives, even in non-performing companies? No in both cases.

Let’s look at the object of the attack. The ANC, rightly or wrongly (depending on where you sit in the political spectrum and whether the pool you look at is purified by HTH or is a pool of flowing excrement outside your shack) is the choice of the majority of South Africans.

That may be regarded as stupidity by some, but in most of the civilised world that process is recognised as democracy.

And that democracy has seen the ANC elected, time after time, since 1994, by two-thirds of all South Africans. They will do so again next year… would you like put money on that?

So, in marketing terms, what FNB and its ad agency have done is insult and attack two-thirds of their potential and actual customers.

Any brand which puts at risk such a huge proportion of actual and potential customers is acting in a reckless manner, not only with its own brand equity but, equally importantly, with shareholders’ funds.

Let’s put it another way.

Imagine Klipdrift (remember the iconic “Met Eish” campaign) putting out a campaign which decried the fact that Afrikaans speakers – major consumers of its product – are racist drunkards…

What is truly astounding in all this is that – by their own statements – FNB is stunned by the ANC reaction. Surely, people, someone could have foreseen this?

If not, then your appreciation of short- and medium-term strategy sucks to such an extent that I would be worried about leaving any significant amount of money with you.

And then, to compound the error (which is what it was), FNB suddenly agreed to pull some of the online work – and appeared to be cravenly bowing to intimidation by the ANC.

So any anti-government people the campaign may have won over (a reminder: that is fully one-third of all voting South Africans) would have been appalled. A quick look at letters pages and comments sections on the net will bear this out.

Also, could FNB not have foreseen that the racists and Afro-pessimists would have jumped in boots and all (as they have done)?

Are you not running the risk that by having such people support your campaign you might alienate people in the black middle class who are concerned about what’s happening in this country but are acutely sensitive to racism?

Perhaps the most stunning thing is why the bank believed it needed to do this at all.

In the past year, its highly successful campaigns – led by Steve (and love him or hate him, he is effective) – have seen it win more than a million new customers. That’s a huge marketing achievement.

And will this campaign win over more people who hate the ANC? Disregard all the pledges of support from people in letters columns, on news sites and social networks… people move because they get a better financial deal, and not because of your politics. And FNB, according to the Finweek annual survey of bank charges, has been doing pretty well in this area, implementing significant reductions.

They didn’t need this. They were already winning. Now, the possibility is that they will lose the business of ANC loyalists who regard an injury or insult to their party as an injury or insult to them personally.

So, why did it happen? The answer to that is, simply, what I call The Twitter Principle: where you and your like-minded tjommies think that what you discuss and hear on social networks is the real world.

But it isn’t.

And if you think it is, and act on it, you are violating Basic Rule Number One of Marketing: You are Not the Target Market.

Undoubtedly the people who comment on social networks and on websites – and at dinner tables and braai fires in the comfortable northern suburbs – believe this to be the real world.

But it isn’t.

And if marketing clevas switched off their iPhones and iPads more often and burned some shoe leather walking the streets of the real world, they would find this out.

And that’s a lesson for all those sophisticated urban creatives and strategists who live their dreams and beliefs through their client’s brand… and those brand managers who allow it.

The agency behind the campaign, Metropolitan Republic, is one of the hottest creative shops in the country. No arguing about that.

But they also brought you the recent controversial “fish and chips” TV ad which insulted President Jacob Zuma and his family personally with some cheap-shot humour.

While that had the effect of plenty of back-slapping for the ad agency, bru – and lots of publicity when the SABC refused to run the ad – how many extra fish and chips did it sell?

And please don’t tell me I am a Jacob Zuma groupie: those who say that would be horrified if I criticised one of their idols, like Princess Di…

This campaign offers very little in terms of positive brand building or in selling things.

On the contrary, it could quite possibly have damaged the brand itself.

Anything which does that will always get an Onion from me.

Saturday Star


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