Grey’d is good

As a past master of reinvention, David Bernstein can
teach the banks a thing or two about survival. A little
dullness wouldn’t go amiss, but with distinction, please

This is the second worst financial crisis in my lifetime. (I got around in 1929, mostly by pram.)

Things must be bad when WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell says, ‘If all else fails, we go back to pots and pans’ – and, presumably, Wire and Plastic Products.

The message is clear/ adapt. Revise your offerings. Take on smaller projects. Handle accounts previously unconsidered. Re-analyse your skills offering against the needs of companies facing new challenges.

I set up a company during the 1971 power crisis, working in a Covent Garden basement by the light of a bicycle lamp. The following year came the three-day week. We decided our flexible, project-based consultancy service suited the times. Unlike advertising agencies which looked for long-term relationships, we positioned ourselves as a mistress.

A crisis demands new approaches which exploit the situation. Tesco now describes itself as the country’s biggest discounter. A Waitrose commercial features a dinner out for two at home: main course, dessert, a full bottle of wine for a tenner. My favourite 1970s recession approach was for a California food company: ‘Beat inflation with genuine goulash.’ Around that time we did a mailing consisting of our business card and a set of worry beads with the message: ‘Two things to help you through the crisis.’

I wonder how worry beads are doing in the Square Mile. I also wonder how banks will promote themselves in their new, partially nationalised environment. Will they capitalise on the changes, own up to mistakes or pretend that nothing much has happened?

Here is an opportunity to be really distinctive. Though distinctive bank advertising has never been easy to find – it’s a bit like looking for a haystack in Threadneedle Street.

There is little proof of it happening – just look at the bog-standard ‘tombstone’ ads announcing interest rate cuts, and the familiar appeals for savers’ cash.

Recent history warns me not to expect change. The credit crunch is more than a year old, yet only last spring Barclays advertised its expertise in financial planning, inviting the personal investor to join them and ‘head for calmer waters’. Maybe that was just bad timing. Last month, an ad in Time magazine showed an infinity sign with the headline, ‘Life is a curve. Where are you on it?’ The baseline read, ‘Here today. Where tomorrow?’ The advertiser? Fortis. Where indeed? But Barclays bags the main prize. Last week, my wife was given some leaflets in a biodegradable bag, with the legend, ‘Barclays. Use me wisely, in two years I’ll be gone’.

How will banks regain our trust and respect? Words and images won’t do it. Behaviour and deeds might. This will take time. Meanwhile, how banks present themselves will be scrutinised by the Government, we hope, and by customers, now that bonds of loyalty have been loosened in the search for safe havens.

Which provides an opportunity for old-fashioned, ‘safe and boring’, building societies (those that didn’t demutualise) such as Birmingham Midshires – ‘Serious about saving’ – and Alliance & Leicester – ‘Seriously good savings’.

As Gordon Brown has made clear, it’s time for serious. But that need not preclude distinctiveness. Banks and building societies should take heart from Dr Johnson’s remark on the poet Thomas Gray, ‘He was dull in a new way, and that made people think him great.’

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