Building strong, sustainable campaigns is not something that comes
easily to the high-street banks, so the news that another advertising
strategy looks set to bite the dust is unlikely to come as too much of a
The expected casualty this time is NatWest’s Canning family
Axing these ads would signal not just the bank’s weak commitment to
marketing, but the growing threat to the future of the NatWest brand
Eighteen months ago, NatWest took the brave decision to strengthen its
brand using financially demanding, star-studded, soap-style
Gary Olsen and Samantha Beckinsale were signed up for the lead roles and
the bank pledged that the strategy would take it into the 21st
The aim of the campaign - created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty - was to bring
warmth, humour and reality to NatWest’s advertising, which in turn would
help to position the bank as a major provider of financial services.
Canning family values
But as the bank finalises its budgets for the 1998 calendar year, the
future of the Cannings campaign looks far from certain.
According to one source, TV budgets for the Cannings in 1998 have been
cancelled and a new brand-building campaign, through Ammirati Puris
Lintas, which breaks in the press and on posters in January, will not
feature any members of the Canning family.
Ian Schoolar, head of brand communications at NatWest, says the Cannings
campaign has researched well but refuses to comment on whether the axe
is now hanging over a family that was supposed to ape the success of the
characters in the Oxo and Nescafe ads.
’We are hopeful that it will appear again, but I cannot comment at this
stage,’ says Schoolar.
Sources say Schoolar is refusing to commit to the campaign’s future
because of the pressure being exerted on all NatWest business units to
That pressure has arisen in the wake of the bank’s disastrous and
expensive foray into investment banking - a market from which it
withdrew last week, with the sale of its UK and European equities
business to Bankers Trust and the acquisition of its US and Asian
derivatives business by Deutsche Morgan Grenfell.
The whole episode is expected to leave a substantial hole in the
accounts this year, and raises further questions over NatWest’s ability
to remain independent.
In the past 12 months, the bank has been plagued by constant speculation
about a merger with Barclays or a deal with Prudential or Abbey
One source says: ’NatWest’s chief executive, Derek Wanless, will be
under pressure to show that the business is very profitable and to
deliver the best financial position to shareholders in the wake of any
’What is the point of investing millions in brand building when the
brand may not exist in six months’ time? The situation is very difficult
for the NatWest marketing team but there is no doubt that they are under
pressure to slash the marketing budget.’
NatWest marketers are understood to have debated whether the Cannings
campaign could survive on a smaller advertising budget. In 1997, NatWest
invested pounds 12m in the TV campaign. This compares with the pounds
7.5m put behind the launch of Midland’s new advertising strategy.
’The Cannings campaign needs a lot of money put behind it to develop the
characters,’ says a source, ’and NatWest doubts whether it would be
worth putting it back on TV on a smaller budget.’
Another source was more critical of the Cannings campaign. ’It has had
pounds 12m spent on it in the past year but it has still failed to
capture the nation’s interest. I think that reveals serious questions
about the bank’s strategy.’
Regardless of people’s personal views about the Cannings campaign, the
fact that it looks set to become the most high-profile victim of
NatWest’s renewed cost-cutting offensive again raises questions about
the bank’s approach to marketing.
If ever there was a time for traditional banks to be marketing-led it is
now. Not only are they under pressure from new entrants, such as the
supermarket chains and the likes of Richard Branson, but former building
societies turned banks, such as Abbey National and Halifax, are also
posing more of a threat as they work to improve their customer
While Schoolar argues that NatWest is taking great strides to improve
its service, many still believe that the bank, like its traditional
competitors, is still not as focused on the customer as it should be and
that advertising is just simply used as wallpaper to cover the
Nigel Sherrington, group managing director of the Added Value Group,
says: ’Banks would do better to invest their entire marketing budgets in
information technology and internal communications.
’In the case of NatWest, what is more important: to present an image of
a twee middle-class family on TV, or to make sure all your supply chains
are effective and that your staff are all singing from the same song
sheet day in, day out?’
Price Waterhouse marketing partner Mike Sommers agrees that many banks
still don’t understand marketing. ’They should be targeting customers
with distinctive offers rather than trying to appeal to everyone with
bland statements in their advertising.
’Marketing is still a bolt-on department in these organisations.’
While the future for NatWest and for the Canning family is not clear,
shareholders and customers are unlikely to be impressed if the bank
decides to switch its advertising strategy again.
They may even be hoping that NatWest does merge and that the new
operation will focus on meeting customers’ needs, rather than
concentrating on the advertising strategy.
1990-1994: ’We’re here to make life easier’
1995-1996: ’NatWest. More than just a bank’
1996-present: The Canning family.