RBC: Creating a new connection

RBC takes (good old-fashioned) Canadian stability abroad

When Jim Little joined RBC as chief brand and communications officer in April 2007, he set three Day One goals: first, to break through what he refers to as the bank advertising ‘sea of sameness’ to increase brand recall and link. ‘We wanted to push the limits of what a bank brand, and more specifically what RBC’s brand, could be comfortable with,’ says Little. ‘You never want to break or even bend too much, but you want to push.’

Second, he wanted to integrate the corporate marketing, CSR and corporate communications department, all of which reported to the marketing department, to ensure the brand story was being told consistently from all angles.

Third, he identified a global issue, water conservation, to bring the various national operations in Canada, the U.S., U.K. and Caribbean together. ‘We have been perennially amongst Canada’s best corporate citizens and we have done that mainly through a bottom-up approach, our branch network is the strength of the brand. But we didn’t have enough horizontal connective tissue. [Blue Water] landed everywhere very quickly, because it was global and local and personal. And personal for employees in Trinidad is different from personal for employees in the U.K., and it’s different than in Canada, but it meant something. You didn’t have to finish the sentence.’

Since last fall, Little’s marketing team has been working with global AOR BBDO Canada to develop a new, unified brand message that, like Blue Water, will personally connect with consumers at home and abroad. Evolving the consumer-experience focus of the long-running ‘First for You’ campaign, developed almost five years ago, RBC officially launched ‘Create’ in Canada during the Beijing Olympics in August with a total of 11 different television executions including a Blue Water spot, ‘This Much.’

Conceptually, ‘Create’ is an enterprise-level campaign which shifts focus onto the consumer, based on the old maxim that money can’t describe the things it buys: houses, vacations, businesses, retirements. Each ad focuses on those things, and on the consumer’s ability to ‘create’ them – the word appears in every tagline – with RBC’s help. ‘The problem with ‘First’ was that we found we were always slipping into a conversation about ourselves,’ says RBC Canada head of brand marketing Maya Russell. ‘We wanted to hear from our clients and understand what they wanted.’

Where RBC comes into the conversation is via its new iconic device, an animated advisor in a blue suit and bowler hat named Arbie who plays a supporting role in ad creative. ”Create’ will be, and is today, the value proposition that connects us,’ says Little. ‘It’s really advice that connects all people in the company [so] advice is our value proposition and create is [the customer's] benefit.’

One of the primary motivations for developing a new campaign was that ‘First for You’ didn’t register south of the border, where RBC is more of a challenger brand. ‘Create,’ already visible across Canada, will be used in retail communications in the U.S. and the Caribbean, as well as in the wealth management business. ‘We have a tale of two companies,’ says Little. ‘We’re ubiquitous here in terms of brand awareness, and [outside Canada] all Canadian banks are still fighting the big guys for brand awareness and brand space.’

RBC’s American retail banking interests reach back to 1998, when the bank acquired Security First Network Bank, the world’s first Internet bank. Three years later it purchased Minneapolis, MN.-based wealth management brand Dain Rauscher (now RBC Wealth Management) and Raleigh, NC.-based Centura (now RBC Bank). Considering the incredible changes to the economic climate since then, in hindsight the transition to a single brand over the past year was well timed, to say the least.

At press time, RBC had moved from sixth to fourth largest FI in North America in terms of market capitalization in a span of five months. Retail market share in the U.S. is relatively low, ranging from fourth to ninth in six southern states, but new account-openings are boosted with every bit of bad news from the toppling American giants, as consumers take an interest in what Little calls ‘good old fashioned Canadian conservatism.’

‘Incumbent inertia is starting to come undone, and in the U.S., all Canadian banks will have an opportunity in the next years that they didn’t have,’ he says. ‘Strength and stability, both in the U.S. and in Canada, are required again. People need the sense of trust and the strength and stability that, frankly, the Canadian banks all bring and we like our position as the biggest in that situation.’

Strategy played fly-on-the-wall to follow Canada’s largest bank through a 15-month transition as they extend the new brand platform beyond our borders.

October 2007

Six months after Little came aboard, ongoing tracking via online quantitative studies measuring awareness, brand linkage and attribute impact shows that ‘First for You’ has plateaued over the last quarter. In response, RBC briefs BBDO on the need for a new enterprise-level campaign and direction to address tone of voice, brand linkage, breakthrough and recall. ‘We were suffering from lack of intrusiveness in our advertising,’ explains Russell. ‘We were spending a lot but people weren’t really paying attention to our messaging. It was a little bit benign; it wasn’t as creative or as confident as it could have been.’

Directionally, RBC hopes to build on the successes of its internal employee-facing campaign, ‘Client First,’ which educated and mobilized employees to realize the vision statement: always earning the right to be our client’s first choice. ‘I’m an evolutionist,’ says Little, who joined in the last days of the four-year campaign. ‘The next chapter of that story is we’ve completely taken it off our back and pushed it to the client. ‘Create’ is the extending and deepening of ‘First for You’ and ‘Client First’ because it’s all about you.’

After the brief, the BBDO team led by SVPs/co-CDs Peter Ignazi and Carlos Moreno spends three or four days in a workout session to hash out potential ideas. They emerge with three fledgling concepts including ‘Create’ and two others: one focuses on RBC advisors, and one focuses on clients’ personal stories. ‘Create’ is an early favourite on all sides. ‘The fundamental thing was that it was really celebrating what clients want to accomplish,’ says Ignazi.

The idea of Arbie – a working name that has stuck – as a character in a small-business spot tentatively titled ‘Muffin Man’ is also hatched, although other possibilities for icons (penguins, anyone?) are also explored.

Little and the RBC team immediately see Arbie’s potential as an iconic recall device. ‘As soon as Carlos said, ‘And then the guy is going to come and whisper something in his ear,’ we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘that’s the icon,” says Little. ‘It happened as we were talking about it; he was going to be an animated figure who was a dispenser of advice, trust, confidence and competence.’

November – December 07

Back at BBDO, the team further fleshes out the three conceptual ideas with scripts and storyboards to test their relevance across the various countries and businesses – retail, high net worth, and capital markets in Canada and abroad. ‘We were looking for a platform that was appropriate for all of RBC, not just Canadian banking,’ says BBDO SVP managing director Vince Aragona.

Nov. 1

With the holidays approaching and the environment top of mind for many consumers, RBC takes out a newspaper ad to announce its global CSR cause the Blue Water project and its $50 million donation pledge to global organizations dedicated to water conservation.

Nov. 7

A second Blue Water print ad announces its first recipient, the Quebec-based One Drop Foundation founded by Cirque de Soleil creator Guy Laliberté, which uses arts and education to mobilize people in richer countries to support ongoing conservation projects around the world.


With the official launch of the new campaign platform slated for the Beijing Olympics, the creative pitch process begins on a TV spot for Avion, Visa’s travel rewards card, which needs a campaign in market by the spring. Among the alternatives BBDO presents to RBC is an animated spot called ‘Long Legs,’ which features a long-legged man circling the globe in a few steps, thanks to the travel points earned on his Avion card.

January 2008

The three enterprise-level campaign alternatives, including ‘Create,’ are tested via qualitative/quantitative research to see how employees and consumers react.


Results in, the RBC marketing team makes the initial decision to go with ‘Create.’ ‘While all three of them did well, ‘Create’ did very well,’ says Aragona. ‘It was a much stronger campaign both in terms of the client and the consumer feedback. From a consumer perspective, they saw themselves in the campaign.’ The other spots were considered too bank- and service-focused.

From RBC’s perspective, ‘Create’ holds the most potential for going beyond advertising. ‘There’s something very alluring and hopeful and instinctual and truthful about that concept that everybody is attracted to,’ says Russell. ‘We all live with goals and aspirations; they’re things that pull us through life. And ‘Create’ is such an incredibly big concept and so flexible, it could be very intimately interpreted from a lot of different points of view.’


Based on research, RBC settles on the ‘Long Legs’ animated spot for Avion. The spot is a marked creative departure from previous efforts. ‘Going animated was a huge thing for us,’ says Russell.

The advantages of a concept like ‘Create’ open doors for the creative team at BBDO. ‘The idea of ‘Create’ in itself has allowed us to execute in different styles and manners, as long as we stay true to the overall concept,’ says Moreno. ‘As [the 'Long Legs'] script was being developed, it became clear that animation was the right way to go, not just to execute that script but also to break down that wall and start giving people a taste of things to come: making things friendlier, more approachable, more human. Even though it’s three-dimensional CGI, there’s a lot of texture, a lot of humanity in it.’

Arbie does not appear in the Avion spot at this stage, as the process of hammering out his final appearance had just begun: in one iteration, he is in shirt sleeves and no tie, in another he is made of wood. Timing is another consideration: ‘The idea was to launch Arbie during the Olympic timeframe,’ says Russell, referring to the large media buy RBC made on CBC for the summer games. ‘We didn’t want him going out on one solo ad all by himself; he wouldn’t have had any context or support.’

March – April

BBDO and RBC take ‘Create’ on the road, presenting the concept more than 20 times to various stakeholders in Canada and elsewhere. ‘We needed to socialize this idea with the bank as a whole,’ says Aragona. ‘There were a lot of people that needed to be engaged at this point that hadn’t been so far. Initially it was just explaining why we were moving from ‘First for You.’ People weren’t questioning the decision; they were just trying to understand it.’

Throughout this process, Arbie is subjected to further scrutiny and makeovers via focus groups with employees, some of whom question the decidedly white, British character. ‘We looked at a female Arbie, different ethnic background Arbies, and what we found is that yes, absolutely RBC needs to continue to reinforce its diversity mandate, but this icon isn’t necessarily the way to do it,’ says Aragona.

Mar. 3

Meanwhile, south of the border in Minneapolis, the sun-setting process of RBC Dain Rauscher is completed when it changes its name to RBC Wealth Management. BBDO Canada develops print advertising as well as direct client communications to communicate the shift.

Mar. 22

On World Water Day, RBC takes out its first consumer-facing print ad to support Blue Water. Lynn Patterson, director, corporate responsibility at RBC, told strategy in May that the focus of the campaign up to this point had been employee engagement and education: ‘[One] thing we’ve learned on the environmental front is that a company needs to have its act together before it goes out in the marketplace,’ she says. ‘Our environmental approach isn’t a marketing campaign; it’s really an integrated program within the company.’

Apr. 4

The U.S. RBC brand consolidation continues as Raleigh, NC.-based RBC Centura changes its name to RBC Bank and launches rbcbankusa.com. Signage and conversion take place through six southern states over the next three months.

Apr. 22

Blue Water leadership grants criteria are announced, and the doors swing open to proposals.

Apr. 25

A year into Little’s remit, 100 communicators from RBC worldwide meet in person at training facilities in Toronto or link in via videoconference to lay out detailed plans for the launch of ‘Create’ in Canada and abroad.

‘Basically what we’ve said to everybody outside Canada is, ‘When you come up on your next big planning cycle, that’s when we want to naturally load ‘Create’ into it,” says Little, who plans to have a common template and look and feel in place across all public marketing spend by 2009. It is agreed that ‘Create’ will be introduced outside Canada after the Olympics.

Broader employee education and engagement efforts are kicked off with letters from RBC Canada president and CEO Gord Nixon and from the regional presidents.

May 31

‘Long Legs’ TV creative runs for the first time in Canada, and is the first execution to use the term ‘create’ in a tagline: ‘Create your vacation sooner.’ According to BBDO, in terms of card acquisition, the campaign is the best RBC has ever had.

At BBDO, the team is up to its eyeballs in creative development on four more spots destined to launch at the Olympics. ‘Muffin Man,’ a 60-second Wallace and Gromit-esque claymation spot, tells the story of a small-business owner who takes advice from an RBC advisor – Arbie – and sees his business flourish into an empire, ending with Arbie eating a muffin next to the super: ‘Create a better future for your business.’ The spot has become RBC’s flagship ad for ‘Create.’

Why muffins? ‘It seemed like a very humble kind of thing,’ says BBDO’s Moreno. ‘How many people do you know that make really good cookies or muffins, and you hear they have a little tiny store now? It seemed like an inspirational story that anyone could connect to.’

Arbie plays a supporting role in the ad, whispering something in Mr. Muffin’s ear early on that the viewer can’t hear. ‘That was quite intentional,’ says Aragona, adding that Arbie went over well with RBC advisors who saw themselves in the character. ‘Arbie never speaks, or if he does speak ever, it’ll be a vocabulary of one word: ‘create.’ But we have yet to allow him to speak.’

Also in the works, the Blue Water spot ‘This Much’ highlights the small percentage of fresh water available for human consumption; two non-animated TV ads include the core banking spot ‘Tour Bus,’ which features a musician banking from the road while on tour, and ‘Sarah,’ which speaks to the concept of ‘Create’ on the broader level of creating a home and career. Arbie appears in the last five seconds of each of these, within the Olympic context.

‘It’s gotten to the point where we actually build that into our creative briefs for subsequent projects where we ask, ‘What is the client trying to create? How does RBC help?” says Aragona.


In preparation for the Olympics in Beijing, BBDO develops a half-dozen 10-second vignettes featuring Arbie at the Opening Ceremonies and in various sports such as diving, rowing and sprinting.

Back at home, RBC launches an intranet site to help staff familiarize with ‘Create’ and Arbie. ‘It didn’t take long before we heard from a lot of people wanting to see more of him and know how they could get more,’ says Russell. ‘As soon as they see an asset that might work for them, there’s a lot of interest.’

June 16

RBC purchases Port of Spain-based Royal Bank of Trinidad and Tobago banking network in the Caribbean, previously divested in 1987.

July 22

Charlotte, N.C.-based Wachovia announces second-quarter loss of US$8.9 billion; in prior weeks, rumours of the loss spur consumers to open a record number of new accounts at RBC Bank.

July 25

‘Muffin Man’ launches in Canada, running nationally for two weeks with print support. In accordance with the Olympic launch plan, Arbie does not yet appear in the final five seconds.

Aug. 8 – 24

During the Beijing Olympics, of which RBC is a premier national partner, nine new spots are aired, including the six Arbie vignettes. Plus, the Avion ‘Long Legs’ spot and ‘Muffin Man’ are rebroadcast with the addition of Arbie in the last five seconds. Breakthrough of ‘Muffin Man’ is three times that of ‘First for You’ creative launched before the Torino Olympics in 2006. With the addition of Arbie in the last five seconds, recall of the ad goes up 16% over the previous version without him.

Blue Water’s ‘This Much’ spot runs for the first time in Canada, attempting to start a conversation about the scarcity of fresh water. ‘It was a very intriguing and compelling story but it was a very scientific data-[based] story, so the challenge for the team was to make it into the beautiful scientific story,’ says Ignazi.

The spot runs during the last three days of the games. ‘The thinking was very esoteric: it would be the end of the games, people would be feeling good, they would be thinking about a better world, it was a good time to put out a CSR message,’ says Russell.


After the Olympics, the next phase is to spread ‘Create’ beyond Canada’s borders, establishing a single coordinated direction across all regions. Live and via RBC’s closed circuit TV system, Leo TV, Jim Little begins reaching out to over 6,000 employees to explain their role in delivering this new brand promise and gathering feedback and insights.

In the U.S., RBC’s Blue Water spot begins a 13-week run on Discovery Channel’s Planet Green. There are no plans to introduce Arbie outside of Canada at this point.

Sept. 15

Lehman Brothers files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Sept. 16

AIG suffers a liquidity crisis following the downgrade of its credit rating.


It’s U.S. push time. BBDO sets to work with local agency, Nashville, TN.-based Buntin Group, on U.S.-specific creative in line with the ‘Create’ concept to launch in January-February ’09.

The media buy consists of local television in six southern states as part of a pre-existing long-term sponsorship contract of the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team – which also includes building naming rights on the RBC Center in Raleigh, NC. RBC Bank also gains media properties with its sponsorship of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.

Oct. 9

The World Economic Forum releases its Global Competitiveness Report for 2008-09, ranking Canadian banks as the safest in the world, ahead of Sweden, Luxembourg, Australia and Denmark. The U.S. is ranked 40th.

‘A year ago we talked about the role of Canada in our brand [with consumers in the U.S.]. It was kind of a neutral conversation,’ says Little. ‘Today it’s a positive conversation … with the citizens of Alabama, South Carolina and Florida. There is something that’s happened as this inert state has unlocked. It’s not that Canada’s cool, but Canadian conservatism is cool. And required.’


Work begins on a global template for print, DM and other below-the-line advertising material in the U.S. and Canada. ‘One of the only good parts about being in a challenging economic environment is that everyone understands the efficiencies of doing one thing,’ says Little.

Early November

Given the economic downturn, RBC puts ‘Create’ and Arbie into a new round of Ipsos qualitative and quantitative testing, to assess continued relevance with employees and consumers.

Nov. 17

Citigroup announces 52,000 job cuts, bringing the 2008 total to 75,000.

Nov. 24

In Q4, RBC’s unaided awareness goes up 30%.

Nov. 26

Ipsos test results on ‘Create’ and Arbie come back overwhelmingly positive. ‘We tested Arbie and his role, and he has come out absolutely crystal clear: the more people see him in the right context, the more they like him,’ says Little. ‘Exposure and weight is helping drive this guy, and you’re going to see more of him in the future in the right ways.’


Five months after the Summer Olympics, thoughts move forward to Vancouver 2010. BBDO produces a 15-second direct response spot called ‘Torch 15,’ in which Arbie carries the torch to drive viewers to rbc.com/carrythetorch, where they can make pledges to ‘Create a better Canada’ by changing habits to become more eco-friendly.

Dec. 26

A 30-second version of ‘Shiny Happy Relay’ launches in Canada, introducing a contest to become an Olympic torch bearer in 2009. The animated spot features people carrying the torch across the country and carrying out pledges to a catchy song, ending with Arbie.

Late December

‘Create’ appears for the first time in U.S. television advertising.

January 2009

The global template for look and feel, print and collateral rolls out, allowing room for local customization. In Canada, a 60-second version of ‘Shiny Happy Relay’ launches later in the month.

Little is happy with the strides the brand has made. ‘I actually feel that what we’ve done in the past six months [since the Olympic launch], injecting a new iconic flavour, is making a lot of other people react. It was really time for us to evolve, and I think we did.’