RSP Wars: Desperately seeking distinction

RSP season is upon us but this year's campaigns are not as aggressive or as memorable as past efforts, according to observers. In past years, financial services companies pointed to growth and r.o.i. as a sell point; however, the economic downturn ended all that. No company wants to publicize its losses. Yet, creative types say that shouldn't impede their ability to establish a brand identity.

RSP season is upon us but this year’s campaigns are not as aggressive or as memorable as past efforts, according to observers. In past years, financial services companies pointed to growth and r.o.i. as a sell point; however, the economic downturn ended all that. No company wants to publicize its losses. Yet, creative types say that shouldn’t impede their ability to establish a brand identity.

David Rosenberg, SVP and CD at Bensimon-Byrne D’Arcy, which works on the Scotiabank business, says the challenge is people don’t want to hear anything from a corporate point of view from a bank. He believes the key is to ‘simplify the message and make it seem as approachable as possible.’

‘In this [economic] climate, people are wary – a lot of people lost money last year,’ he says. ‘If you’re overly aggressive, you’ll provoke a huge defence mechanism.’

Strategy polled five CDs on RSP advertising and the consensus is that the creative is selling the category rather than a point of difference. The few campaigns that stand out – AGF Management, Scotiabank and London Life’s Freedom 55 – are believed successful because they invest in year-long advertising.

Randy Van Der Starren, senior vice-president of marketing, AGF Management says there are a couple of premises the financial services industry has mistakenly been working under in its advertising. The reason AGF is breaking through, he says, is because it has rejected those premises and is a consistent advertiser.

He says: ‘The first [false premise] is that people are actually interested in [financial services companies] and the second is that advertising should be designed to sell a fund as opposed to a brand. If you assume that anyone who comes home from work and turns on their television is excited to see you interrupting their programming, that’s the first mistake,’ says Van Der Starren.

‘The second premise is that advertising is designed to sell funds. Money is far too serious, far too complex a subject to try to sell in 30-seconds of television or a few hundred words in a print ad.’

Other brands pushing RSPs include: RBC Royal Bank, TD Canada Trust, CIBC, AIM Funds Management, Altamira, Ethical Funds, and AIC Group of Funds.Below five CDs share their thoughts on what hits the mark:

Mark Dwyer, SVP and CD

Padulo Integrated, Toronto

Dwyer comments on the interchangeable, brand-nebulous nature of many RSP TV executions.

‘Scotiabank has two executions where I guess the idea was to dramatize that young couples don’t have the resources to max out their RSPs.

‘In ‘Facial,’ they talk about a $25 a month plan, and it seems to empathize with, ‘we know what’s it’s like to be young and strapped [for cash] and therefore we’re responding to you.’ [The spot has a wife rattling off monthly expenses, but her partner stops her when he hears, 'facial.'] I like the dad with the little kid in the tub [where the Dad asks if there's any money hidden in the child's armpit, as he discusses lack of cash for RSP's with his wife]. It’s just a nice piece of lifestyle.

‘There’s nothing wrong with that creatively or strategically. My concern is it’s pretty much a categorical statement. I don’t find anything from a brand point of view that’s ownable. I had trouble sorting out whose ad it was. The ultimate test is, can you put someone else’s logo at the end of it? I think you could.

‘For AGF, ‘the Tin Man’ spot, I think creatively the campaign is showing stretch marks, but I think strategically they’ve done the right thing to stay the course. I’m guessing they’re one of the few brands of financial services that are known.

‘There’s another problem, these names – AGF, AIC, AIM, AIG – it’s really hard to figure out who’s who. AIC has a really graphic campaign. Each ad simply shows type on black. One simply says, ‘Buy, Hold and Prosper,’ which is basic mutual fund advice. Basically the offer seems to be that AIC embraces conservative, solid advice. It’s a simple, clean execution. There’s no reason the consumer would infer that AIC is a better choice. It’s so categorical, the other brands owe them a thank you for investing in communications.

‘The RBC [execution with subtitled movie] was definitely built on a consumer truth. You can say it’s on your mind. You can say you worry about it. They dramatize it to the point that it could even infiltrate the movie you’re watching.

‘Executionally, I’m not sure it’s a particularly enjoyable spot to watch. I think people will notice the spot because it’s very different. I don’t know that they’ll automatically attach RBC to it. I think they’ll say it’s that RSP spot where there are subtitles.’

Paul Wales, VP and ECD

Enterprise Creative Selling, Toronto

Wales I.D.s the few TV efforts that successfully imprint the brand.

‘RSP is a category, so you need to offer something different. I don’t think a lot of them have figured that out. If you want people to remember more, ask them to remember less. Most [advertising] is like having brochures on TV. They’re asking people to work too hard. Get me interested and remembering it for when I decide to talk to someone about this – that’s the critical point. Who do you talk to about retirement? It’s not who offers the best RSP rate. Nobody remembers that.

‘On TV, I don’t think consumers are going to digest [a lot of] information. So if you at least make them remember the brand, that’s more important.

‘I like ‘Tin Man’ in the ongoing series of ‘What are you doing after work?’ I think it says a lot in terms of AGF. I may not think through it in terms of RSPs but I don’t know if that’s the point. I think it’s there to remind you. It’s a great promise they’ve tapped into and they’ve brought it to life subjectively speaking. They’re running transit shelters as well, so there’s some synergy.

‘[As for] the Scotiabank ['Facial' spot], I like good dialogue spots and it is done well. I find the work to have human insight in that they try to depict real humans. Again, I didn’t realize it was for RSPs. I looked at it as the bank – we help you with your financial planning. It didn’t directly say [RSP] to me but I recognized it as Scotiabank and I think that’s the toughest part. You have more or less a category message and I think it’s very tough for consumers to walk away remembering a brand. It’s probably difficult to figure out a unique proposition.

‘The (London Life) Freedom 55 creative – it has stayed true and has some decent insight. I think the recent ads have been very good. [For instance], the one where they did the big misdirect: the girl taking her parents to the airport and you think she’s going to backpack in Europe, [but you find out her parents are]. That’s tied into the idea that you can do what you want when you plan prudently with Freedom 55.’

Jim Ranscombe, president and CD

One Company, Toronto

Ranscombe deconstructs the print executions, and finds an overall lack of synergy and strong brand tie-in, at a time it’s needed most.

‘There doesn’t seem to be the year-round branding of RSP and mutual fund products that we’ve seen in the past. I don’t feel overwhelmed by advertising.

‘The Ethical Funds are running full-page, four-colour ads in the Globe and Mail special section, and it’s a back cover position. I think it’s a smart-looking ad. It uses colour nicely. It’s got a little frog à la Telus and the headline is, ‘Global warming is having a chilling effect.’ So, it’s got a purpose to it; it’s not just talking about results. It says amphibians are dying at alarming rates in the copy. It just says, do the right thing.

‘The RBC print is smart. The transit shelters and print ads have a bowl of alphabet soup with a spoon with four letters in it, and the letters are, of course, RRSP. Interestingly they change tack in the newspaper. They don’t talk about not being able to get RRSPs off your mind; they talk about helping small investors. There’s a picture of a small dog and a big dog and the line, ‘Naturally we help small investors exceed. That’s where big investors come from.’

‘There’s a three-quarter page for TD Canada Trust talking about stock market growth and GIC protection. There are captions and a guy sitting in the ever-present chair. It’s very complicated. It takes quite a while to figure out what he’s doing. And, stock market growth and GIC protection seem to be diametrically opposed ideas. The stock market isn’t doing that well, and protection – what am I supposed to think there?

‘CIBC’s print talks about how the financial market is difficult to forecast and about top managers – nothing that ties into their existing ad campaigns.

‘I think at a time when there aren’t any numbers and it’s a level playing field, you’ve got to do some really smart advertising – because the advertising is what will be different. For the banks, they should make sure they’re attracting at least their everyday customers, whether through direct mail or e-mail. I think people want the security right now of going to something they know and trust. There’s no financial advantage to shopping around. A few years ago, you felt if you went with a certain fund you could make two points more. These days nobody is talking results.’

Brian Hickling, CD

Goodgoll Curtis, Toronto

Hickling believes the year-long advertisers are getting more bang for the buck, earning consumer recognition.

‘The problem I have with the category is this last-minute dash for positioning. Not only do you crowd the market with the same kind of strategy and imagery, it feels opportunistic. Shouldn’t investment firms somehow deal with you 365 days a year, as opposed to just in January and February when they know you have the money?

‘Why do they do it? ‘Fish when it’s top of mind’ is one theory, but if everyone is doing the same thing it’s hard to discern who is doing what.

‘Looking at companies like (London Life’s) Freedom 55 and AGF, they’re doing things that are human. AGF is funny and we do Freedom 55 – it’s serious, with a twist and a smile.

‘One of the things [Freedom 55] and AGF do – we’re out in the marketplace all through the year. That starts to build. I think a lot of financial planning is in different stages throughout the year.’

Dennis Forbes, EVP and CD

Cundari Integrated Advertising, Toronto

Forbes recommends pouring on the product specific benefits – and the personality.

‘Scotiabank, RBC, AGF, TD Canada Trust – are very well-produced, entertaining and watchable but none really offers a product benefit, or talk of being knowledgeable. It’s really just building awareness for the category.

‘Then you look at Fidelity Investments. Their commercials may not be as entertaining, [but] they are serving up tangible, product-specific benefits. They seem to be the only ones talking from a point of knowledge. If I was a serious investor, I think that would be the one company I might call up and expect the right answers from.

‘Sometimes it’s the personality of the advertiser that comes out. That’s why ING is one that does stand out as a brand. ING is consistent in its personality and its message.’