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Surprisingly diffident

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Why is it so surprising that SBI has all these achievements under its hat?

Ramanujam Sridhar

I SUFFERED my first major disappointment in life in 1975, a mere 30 years ago. Yet, it is still vivid in my memory. I got knocked out in the SBI probationary officers' interview after getting through a difficult (at least, for me) written exam. SBI in those days was an `employer of choice' and a probationary officer's job in India's premier bank was only marginally behind the Indian Administrative Service in terms of prestige. More so, for guys like me who did not study for engineering either because they were too dumb, too lazy or a combination of both. Thirty years later, I do not have many regrets about not joining the bank, a feeling reinforced by seeing State Bank of India's surprisingly diffident advertising campaign, which one must concede, is still extremely interesting.

Chiman Lal? Who is this Charlie?

I saw this SBI commercial on ESPN (which is one of the few channels I watch) during the West Indies' not-surprising capitulation to Australia at the Gabba. The commercial is set in an office where everybody insists on calling Charlie "Mohan", which, presumably, is his real name. He initially corrects everyone (and there are quite a few who need correction) reminding them that his name is Chimanlal Charlie. The reason for that is simple. He has just lost a bet about SBI having the largest number of ATMs (5,290 located at 1,721 centres spread across the country) in India; a fact that he obviously did not know. And having lost the bet he changes his name to the great amusement of his colleagues. Interesting.

Another commercial on the same theme of `diffidence' has a guy in an elevator talking to a sympathetic elevator operator who seems to be as ignorant about SBI's car loans as the hero. The element of surprise in this commercial is that our hero is wearing only a colourful pair of red boxer shorts. The reason? He has lost a bet too about SBI's car loans. He enters the office which is in full attendance, to roars of laughter. Another interestingly diffident commercial; both the commercials are well-cast and beat the clutter.

So what is the problem?

Any advertising campaign has two related components. First, the strategy, which, simply put, is what is being relayed in the communication. The second part, arguably more important, is the execution, or how it is being said. Clearly, the execution of both these commercials stands out, particularly for a large, well-established bank which goes back in time to being a part of the Imperial Bank of India. Research, even cursory, might suggest that the bank's image is fuddy-duddy. The commercials, which are light-hearted, irreverent and on the verge of being cheeky, are clearly an attempt and a message from the bank that it is not taking itself too seriously.

I don't want to get into a needless controversy of whether humour is appropriate for financial institutions or whether irreverence works with the whole range of the bank's customers across socio-economic classifications and age profiles. The obvious mistake that marketers make in their desire to acquire new customers is alienate their old, existing customers. I am sure the campaign is aimed at prospects who are younger and the argument advanced in favour of the strategy would doubtless be that SBI's success is a well-kept secret. My question is very simple: Why would a bank that is among the top 12 in Asia, among the top 100 banks in the world (as per Euromoney), owns the largest amount of commercial property in the country, holds deposits of Rs 3.67 lakh crore, pays a dividend of 125 per cent, and has taken over banks in Indonesia and Mauritius, be so diffident ?

I think it suffers from the malaise that affects a lot of Indians as they swing from absolute arrogance to total diffidence, with an inability to ever experience the happy medium. Why would a bank that could be the envy of many an international bank in size, network coverage and competence choose a strategy that is perhaps relevant for a company from Hyderabad in aquaculture that will soon have an IPO?

Multi media? Boon or bane?

Clearly, the SBI campaign has made good use of multi-media. I have seen the SBI message on hoardings, in press ads and on TV. If I know the public sector and the decision maker's profile, press may hold greater weight. I am a great admirer of press. My thick spectacles bear testimony to that. But what about the creative? Undoubtedly, it lends itself to TV, as the diffidence, as inexplicable as it may be, does not seem so blatant on TV. But press and hoardings are a different kettle of fish. I was put off by the hoardings and the press ads before I saw the TV ad. While it is likely that they all broke simultaneously, my first exposure was to the hoardings (was there a teaser?) and subsequently the press, before I saw the TV commercial. This is another problem in today's clutter. People don't see your creative in the order you want them to. As a result, campaigns, however striking, thanks to their scheduling, end up with sub-optimal results.

Whither public relations?

Clients and advertising agencies tend to be pretty hazy about the value of public relations and even hazier about how to use it effectively. In reality, it was the public sector organisations that first had full-fledged publicity departments.

Sadly enough, in the less enlightened organisations the PRO was, and still is, busy making travel arrangements for senior executives and has a hazy view, if there is one at all, of image building.

And let's not forget that public relations in several of these organisations is hardly a senior management function. So, even a competent public relations professional may have limited access to the ears of the CEO.

I feel that one of the problems of SBI's campaign is that it attempts to do a lot of things that public relations can achieve with greater credibility.

If you are the leader and streets ahead of the rest, with 5,290 ATMs in 1,721 centres across the length and breadth of the country, and you have networked all your branches (9,000 in India; and 65 in 29 other countries) far more than any other bank, have a unique joint venture with a software major and done things that others are still contemplating because of paucity of resources, then which would you use to greater effect - public relations or advertising? Obviously, the State Bank of India has missed a trick over the years. A concerted PR strategy and consistent execution over the years would have made the task of the advertising agency a lot easier.

Image building - a process, not an event

If the SBI wants to target new customers who are younger and are individuals with a high net worth, and thus seeks to make its image more contemporary and in line with their expectations, it must view this effort as the first significant step forward. Image is not built overnight. Nor is it developed by one advertising campaign, as different as it may be. It needs perseverance. The agency needs to be given time.

Public sector organisations have this habit of reviewing their agency set-ups every two years.

A new agency would have a completely different view and could easily undo some of the good work done. And, more significantly, the bank cannot afford to ignore one very important fact:

Advertising can and will build expectations. But the service has to measure up, across the length and breadth of the country, in every branch. And if the service does not measure up, the customer might well say, "Hardly surprising, it's SBI after all!"

(The author is Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of Brand-comm.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 24, 2005)
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