Can advertising really help Bank of America?

Bank of America's San Francisco ATMs get a cosmetic makeoverThe bank we love to hate is looking for a new advertising agency. While still the second largest bank in America – JP Morgan recently snuck past BofA in assets, $2.289 trillion to $2.219 trillion – Bank of America’s stock – both on Wall Street and on Main Street has plummeted. It’s share price toppled by more than half in 2011 and its public opinion fell even more sharply.

In fact it’s hard to find much positive sentiment anywhere. The Occupy Wall Street movement targeted the financial giant at every opportunity. A  congressman from the bank’s home state of North Carolina went after them for greed and abuse. Consumers pummeled them with complaints after the bank announced an ill-advised $5.00 fee for debit card use, a decision from which they quickly backed down. And just this past Friday, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) turned Bank of America’s San Francisco ATMs into “truth machines,” covering them with non-adhesive stickers that offered customers a slightly different option menu. ATM visitors could invest in coal-fired power plants, foreclose on American homes, bankroll climate change, or fund executive bonuses. Pretty funny and clever stuff if you ask me.

Anyway, call me too modern in my thinking, but I’m not sure an ad campaign will solve much of this. No doubt we’ll see executions that pat the bank on its back for funding inner city growth, helping send kids to college, providing entrepreneurs with money to launch new businesses and practicing corporate philanthropy with efforts that include free admission to hundreds of museums.

Such messages might make management and employees feel better, but they’ll ring rather hollow to consumers. Ads will feel contrived, controlled and anything but transparent. Accomplishing the latter is likely to be particularly difficult, given the bank sought to achieve more openness with its last big campaign effort. And look where they are now.

Bank of America is trying to do away with this closed image of banking with its new, $40 million ad campaign that attempts to portray the Bank as more open and transparent. From MyBankTracker, 2009

A recent glance at Bank of America’s Twitter news feed shows an abundance of self-promotional updates, but not a single acknowledgement of recent image problems. I figured for sure there would have at least been a “touché,” tweet to RAN. Even a beleaguered bank needs a sense of humor once in a while.

The suits in Charlotte need more than a new ad agency and a $300 million ad campaign. They need a new mindset for how to solve their marketing and image problems. The “us and them” strategies that yield fee hikes rather than collaborative programs have to go. The bank should “design” its way toward good will and trust, starting with a new way to engage and a better connection with its detractors. I might even do something really radical and invite someone from RAN or Occupy to join the board. Or at least an advisory committee.

It will probably take years and multiple behavioral changes for BoA to prove themselves. You only have to read Bill Bernbach to know that peppering us with paid media to tell us how great they are, or even to celebrate the accomplishments and spirit of their customers, won’t change public opinion.

What do you think? Thoughts on what the banking giant should do? Should I make this an assignment for my class at Boston University? Is it possible to strategically and creatively  turn Bank of America into good guys?

 

24 comments
peterollson
peterollson

This is a very strange situation. Banks are usually interested in making their consumers pleased. May be it is better to turn to more responsible financial institution and here is great money service to apply to.

stevehaase
stevehaase

I agree with the overall sentiment here, that unless real action is taken in the direction away from BofA's currently perceived "evilness," any ad campaign, however well-produced, will not capture much attention, and certainly won't be discussed or shared in any meaningful ways. It just won't have a lasting impact, as the fundamental issues that people have with the bank will still be present.

However, if BofA actually did find ways to move away from the more problematic activities they're under fire for (e.g investing in dirty technology, aggressively foreclosing on homes, funding extravagant bonuses, etc), and let the public know that they want to work WITH them (us), and not against, then the campaign could have serious legs. That would provide an almost infinite field of opportunity for engagement across digital and traditional media, both one-way and multi-party. And it could spread like crazy, as people would speak about the change of heart undertaken by this behemoth, as such a move would have implications for society at large, and not just for current or prospective BofA customers.

dweingrod
dweingrod

They could do little worse than look at what Ally Bank has done. Formerly GMAC Bank, (and recipient of at least $3.5B of bailout money), they changed their name, produced some smart, cynical, ads about changing the customer service model. Not only that, they also appear to have changed their model as they are now listed as "One of the least evil banks" by CNN Money. Personally I still don't trust them, but they are showing that they walk it and talk it, changing both their message and their service structure. Agree with @Mollahasani that this is really the only way that BofA could accomplish this is through fundamental service and organizational changes that can then be communicated and supported with advertising.

Ayla85
Ayla85

Bank of America should fix first the issues with their existing costumers. They need to be understood by the public before Ad Campaign to work-out. That is my point of view.

Latest blog post: Tignes

benkunz
benkunz

Edward, of course advertising can turn public opinion. That is what it does.

Bank of America has an image problem because consumers misunderstand it, hyperventilate over fee increases, and are scapegoating it (and all banks) for a recession that they themselves caused (who took out all the crazy home loans that triggered the financial panic? um, that would be we Americans). Of course, BofA can't run a "we all take the blame together" campaign, but it can point to many positive things:

1. BofA is the bank for 1 of 2 homes in the United States. It is an institution of the people.

2. BofA gives out nearly $100 billion in loans annually to small businesses. It is a job creator.

3. BofA has some of the most advanced technology in the world. You can deposit checks with no envelope. You can do everything on a mobile app...

The list goes on.

Bank of America suffers an image problem because it is so big, it is the lightning rod for consumers misdirected anger over a lousy recession. But that very scale can tip it the other way. If I ran the campaign, I'd suggest BofA use its mass leverage to launch a new, clear service that accelerates job growth -- say, $100 billion in loans at slightly lower interest rates, if borrowers can prove their business hires based on the credit. The new product puts meat on the bone; the communication would tell the stories of Americans getting back to work. Bank of America could become the bank that rebuilds our nation. It's not hard to do. It's simply leveraging the power of its existing massive assets into an advertising campaign.

Engagement? A protestor on the board? Who cares. Consumers don't engage with financial institutions any more than they want to chat with brick walls. So tell the story people want to hear, offer some proof the story is true, and they'll change their minds. The script writes itself:

"No, but you . . . you . . . you're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money's not here. Your money's in Joe's house . . . right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others..."

bradnoble
bradnoble

Sure. They should commit to the average people who use their ATMs and push legislation via their enormous lobby to overhaul the investment banking side of the industry. These guys are actually supposed to have the back of the 99%; they have our cash money. The money we save and spend.

That would feel substantive to me.

Clever messages and new, complicated products and product features? Not so much.

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

Any company that believes advertising can help with fundamental business problems is run by someone who is delusional, UNLESS the agency and company truly work together and with active participation from the C-Suite. And even then, it's a crap shoot, because most ad agency folks -- at least the ones I've come across -- do not know anything about business, much less a business like banking, which is mired in conflicts of interest.

Here's what BofA should do: run cheap ads like Oracle's that simply announce new/improved services and put the other $250 million toward lobbying Congress to reinstate Glass-Steagall and break itself up, no holding company, a true splintering. The lines are simple: banking, brokerage/investment banking, S&L. Follow the laws of 30 years ago, within reason. And go private for God's sake.

One last thought: "too big to fail" is the wrong expression, "too big to succeed (without government help)" is more like it. And would some tell Obama that Goldman Sachs is NOT a bank and should be classified as a bank holding company, a legal status that gives it access to the Fed discount window and FDIC. Insane. And stoopid.

Mollahasani
Mollahasani

First BoA needs to read "Baked In" by @bogusky and @jtwinsor and then they need to look at completely overhauling their services and organizational structure. Advertising alone will not help in today's Occupy Wall St climate, it's one thing when you are trying to grab attention, it's a whole 'nother thing when you have been targeted by the masses for causing the global economic crisis. This would definitely be a great assignment, probably needs a good portion of the semester to tackle this challenging problem.

toddschnick
toddschnick

one ad campaign wouldn't turn it around. caring about customers one at a time though, with a hand-to-hand combat mentality of serving each customer as best as they can, can slowly have an impact. i am a recent BofA customer that left. and sad to say, my closing the account was the easiest transaction i conducted in ten years of working with them...

ernieschenck2
ernieschenck2

@edwardboches The assumption is that HH or BBDO will revert to conventional approaches with BofA. Wouldn't assume that for a moment.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@benkunz I like the idea of lower rate loans. But as I said, that is an action, not an ad campaign. If they did 10 things like that and then "communicated" them without the self congratulatory approach typical of banks, it would be "invention" rather than advertising. So in that regard we are saying the same thing. My argument is for more "doing" and less saying. Take action, do something, prove yourself. Then, perhaps, advertise it.

However, their track record at even showing legitimate concern is questionable. They took bailout money and didn't lend it out. They used to to grant huge Merrill Lynch bonuses. They probably don't emphasize facts like that in whatever annual report you used to cull the facts you share in your comment.

Their digital apps are good, as is their bill pay. (All systems they inherited from acquisitions, many of which I worked on and helped launch for BayBank and Bank Boston.) But I still can't scan a check from my iPhone as I would be able to do with Citi.

Anyway, I am actually a customer. But despite having a fair amount of assets deposited there, I can't say much for the service beyond the technology and self serve systems. It's difficult to exit if you have entered hundreds of recipients into the electronic bill pay system. Or if you need access to the ATM network.

You are, of course, right that advertising can turn public opinion. But it needs something good to advertise.

Always flattered when you show up and disagree. Thanks so much,

Edward

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

@benkunz I have to disagree with most of this.

First, the notion that advertising can turn public opinion. It can temporarily, but over time the truth will out and if you're not walking your talk, all the ad money in the world won't help much.

Second, yes, we the people caused the recession, bbut not for the reasons you say. We elected people who wrote idiotic legislation. BofA took advantage of the legislation until the Ponzi scheme blew up. Was BofA smart to do so? No. Did they have a choice? Yes, but it's tough to plan the long term when your shareholders want their returns now.

Third, BofA creates jobs? I need more data, but this notion that if people could just get money jobs would appear is wrong, I think. I mean, the US borrowed 1.5 trillion dollars last year.

Fourth, I doubt BofA gives away anything, nor should they. And $100 billion in an economy of 14 trillion? I'm an English major but even I can spot a weak ratio.

Fifth, BofA's technology is from Intel, IBM, Oracle and others. Not sure what your point is here.

Sixth, the list does not go on.

Seventh, BofA suffers an image problem because it is a muddled mess operating in such a way that conflict of interest is the rule not the exception. Further, the legislation it jas to operate under is most likely impenetrable.

Eighth, mass leverage beyond the 12-20 to one loan ratio? Look up fractional reserve banking, leverage of assets is not the problem.

Ninth, lower than today's rates? Good luck with that. Not only are today's rates near 0 (you have to look the Fed rate), but any lower and BofA's shareholders would be seriously annoyed.

My money's in Joe's house? No, it's in index funds that don't screw around with CDOs.

Sorry to sound like such an ass (just looked over my words) but I stand by my opinion, however inelegantly delivered.

Mollahasani
Mollahasani

@benkunz If BoA gave away $100 billion in loans just like that, I don't think they would be sitting on $2.2 trillion today. Even if what you say about BoA was true, their public image is the complete opposite. More importantly, consumers are smarter than what you think of them. Ogilvy said it the best "The consumer isn`t a moron, she is your wife!" this is even more true today. Any organization/business that doesn't engage with its customers will not survive, unless they are a dictator or have a monopoly over the market. But even in that case, take a look at North Africa.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@JeffShattuck Fundamental change in product, service, engagement and inclusion are necessary. Genuine action. Might mean short term margin sacrifice, but take a chapter from Simon Mainwaring. Time for more "We" and less "us and them."

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@Mollahasani@bogusky@jtwinsor Well, not sure I want to burden a bunch of students with a full semester working on a bank. Pretty dreary category. :-) But you are right. It needs a full design thinking overhaul on all fronts. From customer relations and community, to the elimination of barriers and an tenor of distrust. Ironically, their digital services and apps are pretty good. But they inherited all of that from BayBank and then Bank of Boston.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@toddschnick Ouch. That is condemnation. Hope you told them that. Would make a pretty good bill board. "Easiest transaction I ever had at Bank of America? Closing my account."

edwardboches
edwardboches

@ernieschenck2 a killer assignment as it is the chance to transform a company's behavior, it it is willing to change. #BUSCD

edwardboches
edwardboches

@ernieschenck2 I would hope not. But the bank needs to change its own behavior first. I would return to IDEO as well.

ernieschenck2
ernieschenck2

@edwardboches No question about it. But a lot has happened. Inertia can be overcome if you're pushed hard enough.

edwardboches
edwardboches

@ernieschenck2 Ripe for a "strain of marketing in which the brand, agency and consumer work together to reach a tangible, meaningful goal."