HSBC is plotting a follow up to its 'We Are Not an Island' campaign. Though widely assumed to be a reference to the bank's Brexit stance – despite repeated assertions it wasn't – the fact it got people talking and put HSBC at the centre of a cultural moment has paved the way for a bolder approach to marketing.
“The brief for the next campaign is to get me sacked,” joked Chris Pitt, head of marketing at HSBC UK, on the bank’s next advertising campaign, which will roll out in January. “Not in a way that's controversial for controversy’s sake. But that it actually has a point of view relative to our really strong values.
“Put it this way – the task again is to be culturally relevant. To talk about being open and connected and do it in a way that has a strong point of view around something that matters to Britain."
Pitt’s confidence and determination to break out of the bank’s historically cautious approach to marketing comes on the back of the success of the 'We Are Not an Island' posters. Launched in January by as the nation continued to grapple with the potential consequences of Brexit, HSBC opted to champion the UK's internationalism.
Working with creative agency Wunderman Thompson, it piggybacked off its earlier ‘Global Citizen’ campaign that saw Richard Ayoade revelling in the influence that countries such as India and Colombia have had on the UK.
“What I’m really proud of is it came out of a strategic thought rather than a nice creative idea that was put in front of us,” Pitt explained.
The poster plan was to amplify how HSBC is a British bank that looks to the world – both geographically in how it trades and in the attitude it wants to appeal to with its target audience. However, some observers interpreted the campaign as having anti-Brexit sentiment. After a flurry of activity on Twitter that derided the bank, HSBC had to publicly deny accusations that the campaign has anything to do with politics.
“I would stress its nothing to do with politics,” Pitt contended, referencing instead HSBC's values of being "open, connected and dependable". “They have been [our values] for time and memorial. The idea that being open and connected would be a controversial thought would be an anathema to us three or four years ago.”
The response to the ads demonstrated the difficulties faced by brands trying to reflect the mood of customers without inflaming political factions. "In a world that feels like it's closing down, it gives us a strong point and a message to build off, which is equally not true of our competitor organisations," he added.
Despite the scrutiny on social media, the campaign was positively welcomed by many, and HSBC saw its number of trades go up about 30% as a direct result of the campaign.
It went on to refresh the print advert for all-English Champions League and Europa League finals with a message that celebrated the diversity of the Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal teams to show their success wouldn't be possible without a little help from overseas.
And last month, it launched the second phrase, championing connecting the UK to the wider world through the mutual exchange of ideas, culture and innovations.
And so, having had a taste of being an outspoken brand, Pitt is keen to ensure the follow up packs the same punch.
“We’ve been too conservative in the past and too resistant to talk about the values of the company in a positive way for Britain,” he admitted.
Further fuelling this desire for HSBC to be bolder in its advertising was the experience of judging an awards programme last year. Pitt was struck by a case study for Guinness that showed “they have a point of view, but their point of view is always a function of their environment that their customers exist in.”
The follow-up campaign, which has again been developed by Wunderman Thompson, is still in pre-testing and Pitt was reluctant to give any indication of the creative direction it would take. But he did say that he was so emotionally engaged with the concept that was pitched he struggled to make a rational decision.
“We’ve got to think about how we turn people’s love of our advertising into more action,” he said. “Getting people to move their banking to you is a tough gig.”