Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BFF: Critique 6: Financial Services

Appeared in the March 2009 edition of the Bangladesh Brand Forum magazine.

The old adage proclaims, “Money makes the world go around.” Well at least it makes the advertising world go around. Like rest of the rat race, we are also obsessed with money. How much billing we have, who are the top spenders, what is the percentage of commission, how much outstanding an agency has, who gets what salary – the questions are never-ending. However it seems one area of money that so far we have not explored is the one that we instinctively should. And that is the advertising of money. Or at least, that of financial services.

Many advertising practitioners across the world have told me financial services and products are the most difficult item to brand and promote. It’s a no-brainer. Come on! I’m not willing to hand over my life savings to just about anybody. Even when it comes to taking money from a financial institution we are wary – read the fine print thrice, ask four friends, consult an adviser. We have an instinctive distrust of bankers. You know, those people who will give us an umbrella when it’s not raining and take it back when it does.

On the flip side central bank and regulator dictates make it difficult to have a uniquely distinctive product. Interest rates are usually within similar ranges. As are product features. I still haven’t figured out how the credit card I get from x bank is different from y bank given that both are Visa. Come to think of it, what is actually the difference between MasterCard and them? I mean I use both with equal ease (or sometimes unease!)

Bangladeshi financial sector has another spanner in mix. We have now 60 plus banks, not to mention all the NBFIs (non-banking financial institutions) and insurance companies that do both, take deposits and give out loans. It doesn’t matter if I want to hoard away my saving or borrow money for that new car; I am utterly perplexed when it comes to figuring out whom to trust.

Now it is a complete lie on my part to say that financial institutions in Bangladesh have not been advertising. One of my first jobs was to work on financial products of the then ANZ Grindlay’s Bank. I remember we marketed the loan scheme just like we had any other consumer product. We gave it a brand name – Planz! It had a logo and a product story. And I believe it was quite a triumph for the bank. We followed up with a few other products with varying levels of success. Few other banks followed suit.

It is also true that one of the prime advertising revenues for the print media come from banks. There is always some bank talking about a new branch opening or the other. On TV, banks usually sponsor most of the news programs. But do consumers actually know or appreciate the difference between Mutual Bank, Trust Bank or the Mutual Trust Bank? How about between Standard Bank and Standard Chartered Bank? Or Citibank N.A and The City Bank? UCB, UCCL, NBL, NCCL, XYZ – the list goes on and on.

Now I am sure there will be a reader who will pounce on me now to say that Sonali Bank was amongst the top 20 brands in the recently announced Bangladesh Brand Awards. Ok I don’t want to get into a controversy here but one needs to appreciate the methodology of that research. It did not judge top of mind recall, but rather the strength of the brand name and health. The latter is not necessarily a function of branding efforts but just the sheer geographical reach and length of presence in the market, amongst other factors. . Meaning, often there might not be direct investment behind the brand but external factors influence its consumer perceptions.

Banks in Bangladesh, it seems, do not appreciate the need to differentiate. We all know what Jack Trout said, “Differentiate or die!”

Again a bit of over exaggeration on my part, some banks have now started down this path. Some, with hesitant steps, and some, with a head on plunge. At the agency we get at least one RFP (request for proposal) a week from one of these banks. It is also promising to see some of the most talented marketers in the country – Masud Imam, Sarwat Ahmed, Aftab Khurshid to name a few, are now in banks. Hallelujah! There seems to be some movement at this front.

A point of clarification: as I usually only review TV commercials for this column I’ll not get into reviewing specific branding exercises. But I would request readers to have a look at the websites of banks in Bangladesh (http://www.bangladesh-bank.org/links/links.php?ltype=1) to get a feel of where we are at that end. By the way the first person to email me the name of the bank whose pay-off line is “a bank with a difference” wins a plate of Fakhruddin kachchi from me!

AB Bank Limited: the recent trend towards branding and advertising in the sector has been spearheaded by Arab Bangladesh Bank’s name shortening to AB Bank and the subsequent advertising blitz to popularise their new identity. AB Bank being one of the “first generation private banks” needed to weave their heritage along with the dynamism of the new technology and products that have infiltrated the industry. I believe the advertising agency Cogito got a very strong set of brand ambassadors for AB Bank. Using the generational gap of father and son duo of Ferdous Wahid and Habib, they captured the dichotomy of consumer’s various needs. They cannot seem to agree on anything in life but they agree on their bank. But look, for dissimilar reasons. “Service and reliability” says Wahid, while his son is looking for “smart and fast”. No it isn’t a message for split personality disorder, it’s just saying the bank is different strokes for different folks. AB Bank has, as they claim at the end for 25 years, been catering to diverse needs of consumers. Here is where I begin to tread cautiously with the approach. The bank is trying to own four points in consumers mind. My feeling is that overwhelmed with messages, consumers will not remember any. The “story” of AB Bank will be lost. Instead they should have focused on their pay-off more strongly. The message to be left behind is, "we alter our offerings to suit your needs." Without this, the ad leaves us only with the name recollection and not any product attributes. It will be very interesting to see how the brand custodians build on the foundation they have laid.

If we are to discuss the particular TV spot, production quality wise the director has tried to add a lot. Being a fan of both these gentlemen, I liked the differences that were brought up. And I think it captured that generational divide so well. Brazil vs. Argentina, morning exercise vs. sleep, steaks vs. maach bhaat, black vs. white, they could be any father and son pair. Particularly touching was that the other one was their favourite singer. For different customers of the bank, there will be something they can identify with. On the negative side, I didn’t care much for the soundtrack. Also, some of the sets used could have been spruced up a bit. Overall I thought it was a very good effort.

On production value I’ll give it a 6 on 10. On originality and insight: 6. On translating the idea into a TVC: 5 and Overall: 6

The City Bank: a lost opportunity to change their name along with the re-branding effort. Why still be a victim of the brand name being party of the sentence, “kon City bank? T.Y na N.A?” (“Which City Bank? T.Y or N.A?). Many companies have successfully gone through transitions like this. Lucky Goldstar is now LG and British Petroleum has gone beyond to bp. The City Bank, in addition to adding the “the”, should have been bold enough to toy with the name itself. Remember how strong Grindlays name used to be? Standard Chartered very successfully handled the merger of not only the bank, but also the brand essence of the bigger rival. I don’t believe City’s name was so strong with such equity that consumers would have rejected a change.

Furthermore while the new kite logo is attractive, it fails to inspire. I am not too sure what it is supposed to represent. It does look modern but that’s all.

The campaign, on the other hand, was very strong. Unitrend, the agency, hit the nail bang on. They captured the heart of an insight – financial service boils down to money! Isn’t it so true that we spend most of our time pre-occupied with the pursuit of the same? Now of course I would at least listen to a bank that tells me that they know “money”. And The City Bank says just that. Throughout their campaign, be it on TV, print or billboard they have emphasised on their familiarity with the same. Bringing out the history of the stuff or thought provoking quotes, they set out to prove that they know their material well.

The TV spot itself highlighted the interaction of different people with money. From finding some on the street, or having loads of it, to taking some from someone’s wallet, or having none. It chronicles our obsession with it. The voice over not only gives us knowledgeable insights, but also confidently reassures us. It’s God’s honest truth that money is so many things to us and makes us do so many things. Each of the slice of life situations shown was so believable. The man buying a fish visual re-emphasised the loudness of money, while in contrast, the shyness of the man buying the condom its quietness. The boy smiling or the woman crying, getting some was absolutely true. Overall the TV spot matched campaign rational perfectly with the brand’s promise.

Production value I’ll give it a 5 on 10. On originality and insight: 8. On translating the idea into a TVC: 8 and Overall: 8

Nazim Farhan Choudhury is the Deputy Managing Director of Adcomm Limited. Over the last 14 years he has worked on many of the leading brands of the country including 8 of the top 20 winners of the Bangladesh Brand Award 2008. Having said that, he somehow believes that there should have been more of brands that he worked for in that list. Well let us hope that this columns criticism of advertising goes some distance in helping with the promotion of the art and science of branding. If you have comments, feel free to write at farhan@adcommad.com or visit his blogsite http://nazimfarhan.blogspot.com

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I tube, we tube, YouTube!

Those who read my blog regularly (yes all two of you!) will know that I have a thing about Freedom of Speech. It really ruffles my feathers when that particular right is trampled with. Last few days you might have confused me with Big Bird! Boy o boy were my feathers in a mess. Some one in their infinite wisdom banned YouTube and a few other websites.

Well we think it was banned. There was no official announcement. But after you hit enter after www.youtube.com nothing happened. Some ingenious (geeky?) bloggers dug up the dirt and reported that BTCL (Bangladesh Government owned telecommunications company) had blocked the site after instructions from BTRC (Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission). Before you start feeling bad about me for missing Top Gear and Sylheti serials on world’s favourite video site, you will be happy to learn that the site is back online!

So all is well and balance has returned to the force you might declare! But before we head back to trying to find the next viral craze, we should spend a couple of minutes and ask about what are the lessons learned.

Well for the first thing I get out of this incident is that despite all the talk of Digital Bangladesh, we haven’t figured out what that means. I mean wow so you figured out how to block a site! But did you? Well most believe the site was banned because of some audio files of a certain meeting between the PM and Army brass! I don’t want to get into the merits of the files, but YouTube isn’t the only place where you could get those. BTRC apparently only asked BTLC to block the sites but not private gateways like Mango or ISPs with direct VSAT hook up. Even then simple proxies could be used to by-pass the BTCL block. More over many who had listened to the files had downloaded them. So instead of trying to listen to it on YouTube it was being zipped back and forth on emails. Or come to think of it, say no one had downloaded the files nor had any idea of how to set up proxies or don’t have access to private ISPs - all you had to do is ask your khala in the US of A to go to YouTube and download the required file and email it to you. Want to ban emails now?

Only success this incident had was to point out the obvious weakness that we have in the desire to control the world wide web. And end of the day, do we even want to control it? Did we not declare Digital Bangladesh by 2021? Or are we waiting till 31st December 2020 to say we have achieved the goal?

Bangladesh’s reputation took a big hit. We joined the ranks of China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia on the list of countries who don’t trust their citizens. Ironic given that one of the founders of YouTube is after all a Bangladeshi!

We need to ask a few tough questions.

*Who was it who authorised the ban?
How far up the totem pole does one need to go to get a ban like this implemented. Does the Chairman of BTRC decide what gets on my screen? I know the man is just days into his job, but I’m sure he is aware that his job description doesn’t include this. So does it at least go up to the information secretary (who also is days into his new job courtesy the last secy who was busy writing poetry!)? Or maybe the Information Minister? (I am told he is a capable person but given that he is a first time minister he might have been a wee bit confused). Maybe the ICT Minister approved this. I don’t think the good Architect (no jokes, that is his name!) had anything to do with it. Does a decision of this magnitude need a nod from the all powerful PM? Maybe the author and horta korta of Digital Bangladesh Engineer Sajeeb Wajed Joy knew? Was this discussed at the cabinet meeting? For sure it wasn’t in Parliament. So who decided? Is some bean counter somewhere decide what we are to see or not see? Not only do we need to know, we need to ask the person our next question

Really? The audio files? There are worse (relatively speaking) things out there that you might want to ban. Should we all not know what the censorship guidelines are? I don’t want my blog to get blocked because I happened to like Alu bokhara! Seriously what is kosher and what isn’t? I believe Bangladeshi site Joubonjala was “taken over” for a while and the IP addresses of those who visited the site was recorded. (Don’t believe you when you say you have no idea what that site is about! According to Alexa that is the most popular site in the country!). But it isn’t now! (or so I’ve been told!) I remember CNBC was banned a few years back because of immoral content. Well given the current economic crisis, then Information Minister Tariqul Islam might not been off the mark. Apparently it still is. Along with FTV! Are we trying to be Morale Police? Maybe the Cultural Police? As citizens we need to know where we stand.

*Why was it reversed?
So if the ban was actually for “National security interest”, has that subsided now? What was the emergency that needed YouTube to become public enemy number one? Was it because the ban wasn’t important enough? That then leads to next question

*What safeguards do we have?
So if we are to believe that this didn’t have the approvals from the highest of levels, then how safe are we from some junior bureaucrat going postal on our civil liberties? Do we wake up one day to see Prothom Alo banned? Or New Age? Are they too big to be banned? Well then what is the latest on CSB? Is Islamic TV or Digonto safe? What about websites like Unheard Voices, Somewhereinblog or Shachol? Maybe Facebook or Google tomorrow?

Friends, I hope this incident shouldn’t become just a flash in the pan. Hope fully we will press for answers. We need it to become a catalyst to enshrine our rights pertaining to freedoms of expression.

Dispatches from the Frontline : Live blogging from Sylhet during the Elections 08

I just noticed that my writings during the Elections of 2008 have not been posted on my blog site. I was in Sylhet at that time and was live blogging on the Unheard Voice blog site and had not updated my own site. So here for the sake of having all my writing at the same place, I am archiving the material from that time. December 28-30th 2008

Dispatch from the Frontline (hopefully 1 of many)

I spent the evening of the 27th with the AL candidate from Sylhet 4, Mr. Imran Ahmed. Had the opportunity to see the race from up close. Actually from the stage itself. Though he hade closed his official campaign on the 26th with a large rally, we still attended two boktita session. Mostly comprising of party men and “supporters” (bdjobs.com take note, there is a career to be made in shouting slogans).

Few points that stuck out to me:
1. The older people in the crowd (the actual voters there) didn’t seem to react to the message of lower prices and no corruption.
2. In the two rally that I did attend there was no talk of din bodol or first time voters.
3. Zero female audience (but in Sylhet at night I think that was accepted. Though I’ve been told no one could bring out female supporters here)
4. A lot of children. And a lot of them wearing the BNP badge from the day before and shouting “nouka”.
5. The BNP-JI is playing the religious card again. Saying if AL is elected then there will be no more aajan in the masjid and such “truths”.
6. AL is worried that huge amounts of vote will be bought on the last day.

If this election were held in 2006, it would have been a easy ride for Mr. Ahmed. He has won three times before. (Including once when he beat Mr. Nazim Kamran Choudhury). His opponent Dildar Hossain Selim is the corrupt incumbent BNP candidate. But today it is difficult to call. Ahmed got about 25% less vote (approx 15000) the last elections. Despite what the PROBE survey predicts, I don’t see him narrowing the gap much.

Elsewhere in Sylhet seems that AL has locked up one (Sylhet 5 for Hafiz Muzamdar) and BNP one (Sylhet 2 for Ilyas Ali). Sylhet 6 is leaning AL’s way because of a rebel BNP candidate. Sylhet 3 is up for grabs but still leaning BNP way as there is both a JP and an AL candidate for that seat.

And the bellweather Sylhet 1 fight? MA Muhit seems to be inching towards victory. Delimitation has seen the BNP strong hold of Companyganj being taken out and internal feud between Saifur Rahman and Ilyas Ali has crippled BNP. But Saifur Rahman is drawing in some sympathy votes and there is a strong 8% “Islamic” vote there that could be a decider.

I am heading out to another area of the constituency in an hour or so. I’ll be stationed there for the next 2 days. Hopefully will be able to give you regular updates. That is if the cell phone network isn’t cut off.

Dispatch from the Frontline 2

Spent the day crisscrossing Sylhet 4 seats Goinghat area. This time with a neutral union parishad chairman. Well as neutral as one can get. He is a BNP man but isn’t in favour with the party’s candidate. Hence he has taken a back seat this election. I’m spending the night at his place.

I did manage to meet the BNP candidate Dildar Hossain Selim today. That was at about 3 pm. When I reached, he was in his house and still in his pyjamas (night dress as opposed to Aarong one!) He went to sleep late and was meeting people since the morning. When I asked him how he thought his position was, he said he would not say anything because he can’t campaign. Then promptly his aides handed me his introduction pamphlet. He was fuming at the time we met. According to him, his opponents were busy buying votes as we spoke. He called the DC and lodged a complain. He told me how low AL was. He said that the best strategy to win would be to spend 5 years deep in corruption and then spreading the money days before the election. As I was thinking “wasn’t that exactly what you did?” he proved himself (and me) correct! He handed over Tk 30 to a man who had come to see him. First I thought it was for a pack of cigarette but then Tk 500 was given to a union parishad “member” that had just entered. To top it all he had the audacity to ask the abovementioned Chairman who was my host/guide, how much money was needed in the latter’s union. So much for the aggrieved honest candidate.

Rest of the place the opinion was about equally divided. Having just returned to the base, I am confused. I called the seat for BNP (and still stand behind it). But to give the AL candidate his due, this election is far from decided.

There has been a lot written about the first time voters. So I asked a few on how they are voting. The new voters want a new face. But in absence of this it seems their vote is breaking on party lines. In this constituency they actually do not have much of a new choice. The AL candidate has been contesting since mid 80s. The BNP man has contested the last 4 elections (including a by-election because of Saifur Rahman giving up this seat in 1996). So while they, like counterparts in rest of the nation, have a huge potential to make a difference, doesn’t look as if anything much will come of it. Voting will be mostly on family / village lines. Interestingly most didn’t know about the “No” vote option. And when explained the concept (and those who knew) thought that it would not amount to much and would not “waste” their votes.

I tested out a theory that Zafar Sobhan had presented in one of our nightly political adda. Basically that as the youth have no negative opinion (if any at all) on Ershad. He is bang on. One people believe all politicians are corrupt. At least he served his time and made amends. And like the British Raj, the Ershad days are seen through a coloured glass. Those were the days my friend! No one knows what Ershad did or stood for. I think if he stood from Sylhet 4 he would have won hands down. That is scary! Neither AL or BNP has managed to find a place in the youth’s hearts or mind. The stage is open for the party to go beyond the rhetoric aimed at the youth and actually come up with constructive programs aimed at them. That alone will change the dynamics in the next elections.

Well now that Naeem Mohaimeen’s plea of not switching off the mobile phone networks has worked, I’ll hopefully try to keep updating through out the day. Friends, all the best. Go out, vote, make a difference (or not!)

Dispatch 3

Seems like we are looking at record turnout. Well at least from the two centres that I’ve visited so far. By mid day in Mahturtol Bazaar centre 50% of the voters had already cast their votes. And more people were pouring in. However the ban (or the confusion regarding it) on vechicalur traffic and specially motorcycles have meant difficulties in reaching the centre. Particularly problematic for women voters.

Matter of fact the female turn out at Monikandhi the second centre I visited was really low. They had turned the female lines into male lines there. Females only trickling in. Distance being a major issue sited. Another theory was that they will only come in the afternoon after finishing lunch and the day’s chores. A females job is never done.

While a lot has been said about the first time voter / youth votes. The major parties have failed to activate them and win them over. Similarly close to nothing has been done to court the female votes. Ironic given regardless who wins, our next PM will be from that gender.

Sylhet 4 political equationwise I am currently in the BNP heartland. It seems that AL is gaining grounds here. But that means that while last election in Monikandhi AL got only 200 of the 3000+ votes this time they will get 4 times that number. In actuality 800!

After lunch I’ll be moving to another centre. More balanced view of the outcome hopefully.

As a side, discussions with friends in Comilla, Mymensingh and Sylhet 1 indicates an AL victory.

Dispatch from the Frontline (I forget which number)

By the time polls closed at 4 pm it was clear, Sylhet 4 had seen record turnouts. 90% at places. I was curious why. Was it an endorsement against the CTG / Military backed government? Most people didn’t seem to say so. I don’t think they would be against a longer tenure of the present government. Was it huge support for one of the candidates? No evidence of it. Was it great organisational “get-out-the-vote” efforts? No. Matter of fact that was one bottleneck according to organisers of both the parties. Was it a confidence that a change will come and lives will improve? Most voters I met were not hopeful of that. Was it a desire to elect a government for themselves? Well yes mostly. Somehow they were infused with belief that voting was their right AND requirement as a citizen. Regardless of polling centre or the background of the person talking to me, I was summarily castigated for being there and “wasting” my vote in Dhaka. It were the forceful drives to get voter enlisted and photo id cards issued that showed to the person in a remote village that their vote was important and it did matter. If the CTG should take credit for something it would be this.

Another reason for high turnout in Sylhet 4 was the improvement of the road network. People did not have to put in a lot of effort to get to places. And electricity and media proliferation meant that more people got to know about their duties as a citizen.

Ok back to the Election result in hand. Sylhet 4 polling centre results started trickling in at about 5 pm (an hour after close). I was at the AL candidate Imran Ahmed’s house at that time. He was a happy man. Smiles were seen. Things are looking good for him. On the 40-minute drive back to my place we started getting more results over the phone. Things are looking real good for him. Mobile communication will ensure that the parties will know the results much before the Election Commission has the chance to collate it.

It is 7 pm now. I am seated in the fringe of bell-weather Sylhet 1 constituency. I am hearing “Nouka! Nouka!” chants outside. Things are looking good for Mr. MA Muhit as well. Matter of fact it might be a huge victory for him and the AL. He has to close a gap of 40,000 votes if the last election results are a guide. He lost to Saifur Rahman then. This time in the battle of the finance ministers he seems winning. Might be still close but then he would have swung around a big seat. I hope to be in his place in about an hour. Hope to have a better feel of thing by then.

I’m getting sms/ calls from mostly AL friends. They are talking a landslide AL victory. I am not sure. Probe magazine a few days ago did give the two abovementioned seats to AL but the government to BNP. Nothing indicates that they are wrong. BNP might still be the largest party in parliament (albeit without a majority). We will know in about 12 hours.

Dispatch from the Frontline 5

Boy was I wrong. I didn’t see it coming. As reports come pouring in AL is headed to about 220 seats. And each seat by huge margins. Big heads have (are) falling. Nizami, Amir Khusru, Delwar are few of them. Here in Sylhet MA Muhit has turned his 40000 deficit to a lead of that much. AL will win all 6 seats here and likely all 19 in the division. Saifur Rahman has also lost his Moulvibazaar seat. Even the mighty Illyas Ali’s Sylhet BNP jaugernaut has lost its wheel. I am now at MA Muhit’s residence cum HQ. The atmosphere electric. Huge crowd. It was difficult coming in. Specially through the personal security. Cheers going up every few seconds as another centre or seat is announced. Some have even gotten tired shouting. No one here believes what is unfolding. I am sure this was the atmosphere at the Obama camp two months ago. Ok boys and girls take out the the pens and calculators. New mathematics in play.