Desjardins: a caisse for the people

The story is well known: Alphonse Desjardins was working as a French-language stenographer in the House of Commons when he was moved by a report of a man who paid $5,000 interest on a loan of $150. The former journalist and civil servant went on to establish the Caisse Populaire de Lévis in 1900 to serve working-class Quebecois. It was the start of the co-operative movement in North America.

The story is well known: Alphonse Desjardins was working as a French-language stenographer in the House of Commons when he was moved by a report of a man who paid $5,000 interest on a loan of $150. The former journalist and civil servant went on to establish the Caisse Populaire de Lévis in 1900 to serve working-class Quebecois. It was the start of the co-operative movement in North America.

The latest branding effort from Quebec’s largest financial institution – 5.8 million Quebeckers are ‘member-owners’ – takes Desjardins Financial Group back to its roots while asserting itself as more relevant than ever. Launched this spring, ‘Portraits’ features Alphonse’s story, told through the eyes of an art student. ‘Today,’ she says, ‘we call that sustainable development.’

While 2009 won’t go down in anyone’s books as a good year for FIs, Desjardins has weathered the storm better than most, reporting surplus earnings of $455 million in the first six months of 2009, up $50 million from the same period last year. They’re still number one in terms of market share in the province, with 39% of residential mortgages and 43.1% of personal savings. Corporate Knights named DFG one of the 50 best corporate citizens in Canada, while internationally it was recognized as one of the 50 safest FIs in the world in 2009 (along with the Canadian Big Five) by Global Finance.

It’s been a long road to this point: the consolidation of the brand began in 2001, when 11 regional caisse federations united under a single, national federation representing the 513 autonomous caisses in Quebec and Ontario. The Group also encompasses the life insurance business Desjardins Financial Securities, the P&C brand Desjardins General Insurance Group (GIG) and brokerage and venture capital interests.

Since then, ‘integration’ has become Desjardins’ marketing mantra. Beginning in 2003, all of the subsidiaries came together under a single unifying brand identity that established Desjardins as the dominant element or motherbrand. ‘All the components were working before on their own logos and own graphic standards and nominal ways to express themselves,’ says director of advertising, consumer banking, Lucie Bouthillette. ‘As a consequence we had a lack of impact in our communications, and also a lack of perception for Desjardins as a major financial group.’

The second step was aligning external communications, for which Desjardins formed a branding committee representing marketing units at all levels of the organization. One of the first orders of business was to enlist a single agency, Montreal- and Quebec City-based Lg2, to handle all mass media advertising (POS material is created individually at the caisse level). Lg2 developed the double-CASSIE-winning ‘Ceci n’est pas une banque/This is not a bank’ platform, which launched in the summer of 2003.

‘The challenge with a FI is, not only do you have institutional communication, but you have a lot of product advertising – be it for RRSPs, mortgages – and then you have the subsidiaries, and it’s really a challenge to develop a platform that speaks to all of them,’ says Lg2 strategic planner Julie Dubé. ‘Not only did we want to communicate that Desjardins was integrated, but we wanted to differentiate it from banks, because in past years it had communicated too much like a bank.’

The branding committee established a set of guidelines for a distinct tone of voice that would work across all product lines. ‘All our communications are based on the person, finally, and always express proximity and [state] the benefits very clearly,’ says Bouthillette.

In 2006, Desjardins took that distinction one step further with the ‘Names’ platform, launching an outdoor execution in Montreal that replaced the ‘Desjardins’ in the logo with the member’s last name. No product, no call to action and very little clue as to the marketer – beyond the ubiquitous green square. But the message was clear: the brand is its members.

And, crucially for a brand with a strong rural Francophone association looking to appeal to a more urban, multicultural audience – it’s the only FSP in over 600 villages in Quebec – ‘Names’ incorporated people from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities. Since then the platform has supported upwards of 15 campaigns for various products and promotions, including a savings push in 2008 that scored a perfect 100% brand awareness.

‘A mortgage [is] pretty much a parity product,’ says Taxi Montreal VP/GM Yves Blain, whose father sat on the board of his local Caisse Populaire. ‘So it becomes all about the personality, the connection. It’s not that their brand is so dramatically better than another bank; it’s that their deeply rooted relationships [with Quebecers] have been actualized and made more contemporary.’

Outside Quebec, Desjardins’ profile could not have been more different. Seeking to raise awareness in Ontario and the rest of the country, ‘Who the heck is Desjardins?’ first bowed with the brand’s Rogers Cup sponsorship in 2004, poking fun by intentionally mispronouncing the name in an Anglophone accent (think ‘rhymes with Wes-gardens’). The PR and sponsorship strategy extends to university football with the Desjardins Vanier Cup, and arts and entertainment with the presenting sponsorship of Cirque du Soleil’s Canadian tour for 2009 to 2011.

Starting in March 2008, Desjardins ventured into the broker-dominated Ontario insurance market with its direct-to-consumer product via a TV, radio and outdoor campaign. ‘Zeppelin’ and ‘Wheels’ drove home the notion that ‘we didn’t invent insurance, but we sure improved it,’ says Alexis Rubin, strategic planner at Lg2. ‘There was no strong knowledge of the brand and what it stands for. We were starting from scratch.’

Ontario DFS activities included a ‘Meet the experts’ advertorial series and ‘Be Well,’ a health-focused site developed with the Globe and Mail. This month, a new feedback site, Shapingourdestiny.com, invites members to give input on the future of the brand as part of global Cooperation Week.

Since before the first sponsorship dollar was invested in 2003, the total awareness in Ontario has more than doubled, says Andre Forgues, director, communications and institutional advertising, ‘We’re very pleased with the result, even though there’s still a lot of work to do.’

Early Canadian banking facts:

The first Canadian currency: Atypical to First Nations barter systems, the Ojibway used copper as currency. The Haidas also considered copper an indicator of status and wealth, and used it in shields and other special objects.

The first Canadian credit card: In the 1680s, motivated by a lack of hard currency in circulation, playing cards were used as a method of promissory payment in New France.

The first Canadian Tire money: During the war of 1812, merchants issued tokens in lieu of coins, some of which included a discount with purchase.

The first bank (still standing): The Bank of Montreal received a charter in 1822. It would appoint the first female director of a Canadian chartered bank a mere 145 years later.

The first crash (you thought 2009 was bad): After issuing its own currency for 29 years, the Newfoundland bank crashes and has to join the Canadian system, which then introduces the dollar.

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