Hear no humour, see no humour, speak no humour

What's with the banks in this country, and their DM agencies, when it comes to humour? For some reason, in the land that gave birth to humorous folk ranging from Stephen Leacock to John Candy, promoting a financial service through the...

What’s with the banks in this country, and their DM agencies, when it comes to humour? For some reason, in the land that gave birth to humorous folk ranging from Stephen Leacock to John Candy, promoting a financial service through the mail is considered to be very serious stuff… time to put on the Mr. Sombre Suit and speak only in the most sonorous of tones.

Funnily enough, though, these same people have used humour successfully to sell RRSPs on the boob tube. Remember that Bank of Montreal spot featuring the customer with his head in the vice or that one by a mutual fund company about the guy who’s making his retirement dream come true by starring in RRSP commercials? But take such an approach into the mail? No way.

This lack of levity in financial direct mail is compelling your scribe to break a rule he set for himself when he started penning this column 2 1/2 years ago – not to feature Knight & Associates creative. But today’s subject is the dearth of humorous financial services direct mail and, in the past few years of collecting DM samples, he’s only managed to hoard three pieces that fit today’s theme. And two of them were created by your scribbler and his team. So let the exception begin.

Knight’s DM Features Two Knighted PMs

Note: Lest I be charged with plagiarism when I describe our Westminster Savings self-mailer, I’d better state right now that it was sent out a full four years before CIBC’s brilliant series of prime ministerial ads hit the streets. (I love the latter campaign so much that I’m tempted to digress from the DM focus of this column and describe it in full for anyone who’s missed it, but John Burghardt already did a masterful job of that in his Nov. 20 Strategy column: ‘CIBC brings visual twist to well-trodden turf.’)

When I got involved with Westminster Savings in ’96, they’d been running community newspaper ads featuring the stars of Canadian currency: past prime ministers. So when it was time to create a self-mailer to solicit new customers for the credit union, it seemed obvious to continue to employ former PMs. The only causes for hesitancy were that there was then, as now, little humour being used in direct mail generally and that there was virtually none in financial services DM.

The question was asked, ‘Do ‘they’ know something we don’t know?’ Believing that the value of consistency was greater than that of convention, the answer came back ‘No’ and we set about creating a piece measuring a mailbox-commanding 5 3/4 by 11 inches. The cover was five-dollar-bill blue and starred a computer-saddened Sir Wilfrid Laurier under the headline ’6 New Ways To Beat Those Banktime Blues.’

Inside, were money-saving or money-making coupons for five different services. The sixth coupon was an entry in a contest to ‘Win Fun In The Sun’ in Palm Springs, Calif. Carrying on the prime ministerial theme, it depicted Sir John A. Macdonald…in shades.

Did serious-minded recipients who were members of the credit union storm their branches to withdraw all their funds because of our light-hearted approach? Did non-member recipients take one look at the mailer and vow to never join such a brazen bunch as those inhabiting our client’s organization? No on both counts. In fact, an unusually high percentage of recipients took advantage of the offers, many more, I’m certain, than would have if the mailer had been of a more typical genre.

Aunt Helen’s Excellent Adventure

Last spring, Surrey Metro Savings, then Canada’s second-largest credit union, embarked on a campaign to sign up Visa cardholders. The first thing they wisely decided was to differentiate themselves from the hordes of other credit card providers by offering something other than the standard deal of 5.9% interest for six months. Surrey Metro’s enticement: the chance to win 1,000,000 travel points or a trip to a fabulous locale.

The next was to avoid appearing as ‘ever so serious’ as their card-promoting competitors. The solution: to use a Surrey Metro employee dubbed Aunt Helen in newspaper ads, in branch and, yes, in the mail.

‘Using Aunt Helen just made sense,’ says SMS’s Direct Marketing Manager, Bali Singh. ‘Our slogan is ‘The Friendly Way to Bank’ and Aunt Helen is very friendly. Plus, she made it easy to cut through the clutter of all the other serious-toned credit card mailings people receive.’

Aunt Helen appeared with her packed suitcase on the front of the envelope. On the back, she appeared in garish tourist garb in photos from Sydney, Fiji and London. She was also featured on the front and back of the letterhead where she greeted recipients with a cheery ‘Hello there, John,’ rather than the expected ‘Dear Mr. Sample.’ And the irrepressible Aunt Helen urged people to act quickly with a trademark exhortation ‘Don’t just sit there, Dearie. Daylight’s burning.’

On the laser-printed cover of the lift note, Aunt Helen asked ‘Why in the world would (name) leave (name’s town)? To take a free trip to…’ Inside, the answers ‘Europe, the South Pacific, The Caribbean…’ were provided, along with details about the card and the contest.

And to keep the necessarily serious application form from spoiling the light-hearted mood of the rest of the package, the fill-in-the-blanks side of the app was folded inwards; what first greeted holders of the lift note was a finger-wagging Aunt Helen lecturing ‘Why waste time looking at me…hurry up and fill out the form on the other side…’

Reassuring for all who believe that even mild humour deserves a bigger role in financial services direct marketing, people in droves followed Aunt Helen’s instructions to sign up for a Visa card from Surrey Metro.

A Humungous Success

If there’s one thing you can bank on, besides most financial institutions’ penchant for avoiding humorous DM at all costs, it’s that Vancouver-based creative director Chris Staples and his team – formerly of Palmer Jarvis DDB and now at Rethink Communications – will come up with breakthrough creative on just about any project they undertake. That’s exactly what they’ve done for Richmond Savings Credit Union, starting in 1993.

Richmond Savings’ positioning that it was the antithesis of big banks was captured in their slogan ‘We’re not a bank. We’re better.’ And, as a way to prove it, the mythical Humungous Bank was created, complete with debonair and stereotypically arrogant CEO Markus Stoiber as Richmond’s foil.

Through laugh-aloud radio spots and can’t-help-but-crack-a-smile print ads, the Humungous Bank came to epitomize all that was wrong with big banks and, by contrast, present all that was right with Richmond Savings. The campaign grew in the hearts and minds of Richmond Savings’ target audience. And so did the credit union’s membership and assets – both have doubled since the campaign’s inception.

The only thing I could never figure out was why they hadn’t taken this long-standing creative delight into the mail. But at last they have, albeit in a small way to date.

To launch 2001, the real CEO of Richmond Savings sent out a traditional New Year’s letter. But it was accompanied by a calendar for Humungous Bank, with special dates highlighted and a host of insights from the inimitable Mr. Stoiber sprinkled throughout.

There are dozens of noteworthy days in a year according to Humungous Bank, including Jan.18 (CEO’s hair appointment, 1-4 p.m.), June 13 (ATM Appreciation Day), and July 18 (1,000,000th loan denied).

From their CEO we learn such things as, ‘At Humungous Bank, we know the customer is always right. Like when you say, ‘You’re charging me eight dollars just to talk to you?’ we always say, ‘that’s right.”

He even shares with us that ‘Autumn always reminds me of the grasshopper and the ant. See, once there was this grasshopper who didn’t plan for the future. Eventually winter came and he died. That joke always cracks me up.’

In this era when the masses demand instant gratification, exhibit minimal customer loyalty and are quick to develop ennui over anything sounding the least bit corporate, advertising campaigns just don’t last the way they used to. Humungous, now in its eighth year, is more than an exception; it’s proof that humour, done well, can get results. Even in banking circles. Even in the mail.

Perhaps best of all, a humorous campaign can sometimes get the competition really P.O.’d. For example, the Canadian Bankers Association sued Richmond Savings over their Humungous campaign. (Thankfully, CBA lost.) Not only can’t these guys come up with a joke, they can’t take one either.

In all seriousness, Bob would like to tip his hat to the aforementioned clients, and others, who have the courage to let their creative teams break a mould now and again. He’d also like to thank, in advance, any readers who can provide samples of humorous direct mail (especially for financial sevices) which could be the subject of a future column. For forwarding details, e-mail him at b_knight@telus.net. Or, hey, present them in person at BC Direct Marketing Day, Feb.20, when Bob speaks out on e-mail marketing.