Special Report: Brand Building Through TV: Bank of Montreal shows ‘It is possible’

Of all mass media advertising, television is arguably the most intrusive, the most memorable, and the most responsible for helping build a brand's personality. Yet many marketers have been moving money to below-the-line activities at the expense of tv. In this...

Of all mass media advertising, television is arguably the most intrusive, the most memorable, and the most responsible for helping build a brand’s personality. Yet many marketers have been moving money to below-the-line activities at the expense of tv. In this special report, we review three campaigns in which television has played a crucial role in establishing or improving the image of a bank, a beer and a car.

Marketers who question whether tv advertising, in an era of unprecedented media fragmentation, can still be used effectively to build brands, need look no further than the Bank of Montreal.

Kathie Macmillan, Bank of Montreal’s vice-president of corporate marketing, says consumer research in the wake of a provocative advertising campaign with the tagline, ‘It is Possible,’ shows the bank accomplished two important brand-building objectives.

Macmillan says not only was the bank able to improve its ranking among competing financial institutions in terms of aided and unaided awareness, but consumers who had seen the advertising said they looked upon the Bank of Montreal more favorably as a company with which to do business.

As well, she says, nearly 90,000 consumers have contacted the Toronto-based financial institution over the past nine months to request the customized financial planning kit – the strategic platform on which the creative was built – offered in the advertising.

(That kit, called Your Book of Possibilities, includes profiles of Canadians whose financial circumstances closely resemble those of the respondent.

(A professional financial planner comments on the approach of those profiled, and suggests other financial options they might consider.

(The selection of financial profiles is made on the basis of personal and financial information supplied by the respondent, including his or her age, employment status, household income, value of investments, value of property and financial goals.

(The kit also contains one of two financial workbooks, one for people who are just starting out, the other for those who have had some financial planning experience.)

Phase one of the television creative, which went to air May 7, is distinguished from the warm and fuzzy advertising common to the banking category in its strident tone and use of black humor.

Each of the commercials, a 60-second teaser and three subsequent 30-second spots, features a grossly exaggerated character, photographed through a wide-angle lens, who belittles those who dare express hope for the future.

Macmillan says with lines such as, ‘Do you really think this faith in the future is the sign of a sane individual?’ and ‘Take it from me, this is as good as it gets,’ Macmillan says the characters represent nay-saying authority figures – teachers, parents, even bankers – who stand between people and their goals.

The spots conclude with the Bank of Montreal corporate logo superimposed on a calm blue sky, while a voiceover invites viewers to call for their free financial tool kit – clearly positioning the bank as the solution to the dark and negative scenes that came before.

While Macmillan stresses this campaign was an integrated one, she says she does not believe the bank would have been able to achieve what it did without the use of television.

‘We wanted to elicit both an emotional response, as well as a rational response,’ she says.

‘Had we relied solely on print, I don’t think we would have been able to hit the emotional chords as quickly.’

Bruce Philp, executive creative director at Vickers & Benson Advertising, the Toronto-based agency responsible for the advertising, agrees there are not many media that can match television for its emotional impact.

‘We could have mailed out lots of books of possibilities without television, don’t get me wrong, but, the attitude shift – it’s really hard for me to imagine how we could have done that without tv,’ Philp says.

‘Television is all about feeling,’ he says. ‘Its strength is visceral, and that was totally necessary to the nature of the message.’

As well, Philp says, seeing the exaggerated performances of the actors was essential to viewers understanding the nuances of the campaign.

‘If you look at the fsi, and imagined that it had to function alone, too much would have been left to the imagination, as to what that character was all about,’ he says.

‘But, television gave it such resonance, it worked.’

As for the choice of television as a medium to deliver the message, Philp says the standard answer really applies.

‘We needed a medium that reached everybody, everywhere, fast,’ he says. ‘And, television does that.’

According to Philp, the satirical approach taken in the television commercials came about as a result of two main factors.

‘Over the last three years, the financial business, the bank business, had been revolutionized by a focus on product, and, it really made the category into a marketed category for the first time,’ he says.

‘But, as is the case in any category, you cannot indefinitely continue to build a brand strictly on the basis of product advantage – because it is, ironically, difficult to differentiate yourself after a time.

‘We wanted this advertising to restore the bank’s distinctiveness, which was a gap which had gradually been closing, in the years since [BoM's 'We're Paying Attention' campaign,]‘ Philp says.

‘The question was, ‘What can we do without doing empty vacuous corporate advertising to consolidate our differentiated position in the banking business,’ he says.

The tone was also suggested by consumer research, which said Canadians were feeling pessimistic because they thought the recession would never end.

‘In the latter part of ’93, when we were developing this, there really wasn’t a lot of hope around,’ Philp says.

‘People were wondering whether they were going to be able to count on anything anymore, whether it was their jobs, or the security provided by their pension plan,’ he says.

‘So, we realized that whatever clever thing we were going to do to consolidate our position in consumers’ minds was going to come to nothing if they weren’t prepared to receive that message in a positive way.’

According to Philp, financial products of all kinds are fundamentally about optimism.

‘Whether you open an rsp, or take out a mortgage, or open a savings account when you are nine years old, it’s all about what it might become – so, hope is an essential precondition for successfully marketing financial products,’ he says.

The challenge, then, was to instill consumers with what Philp calls a sense of ‘empowered hope’ – the sense that people could begin to control their financial destinies, if only the financial institutions they dealt with would help them, rather than stand in their way.

Phase two of the campaign, which broke in October, builds on that premise, with a pool of four surrealistic commercials showing a man constructing a ladder to help him surmount a wall blocking his path.

Philp says the second phase acknowledges the fact that the recession was finally beginning to dissipate.

Given the success of the ‘It is Possible’ campaign, Philp cautions marketers to think twice before shifting an even greater proportion of their budgets to below-the-line activities at the expense of television advertising.

‘The motivation to try things below-the-line is very often results-driven, and often those activities achieve the results they were expected to, but, in the process, you end up withdrawing some goodwill from the bank that has been established for the brand,’ he says.

‘You can’t do that forever. You’ve got to tend those fields.

‘Having said that, for a lot of product categories, television is an indispensable way to do that, because, in a lot of categories, the nature of the bond is substantially emotional.

‘You may be able to sell a computer on completely rational grounds, or a household appliance, but I think the selection of a brand of beer, for example, or the choice of a car, which is loaded with rational opportunities, is still something that has a lot to do with identity – it’s an emotional issue.

‘So far, television remains the most powerful medium for speaking to the heart.’