Hello, I'm not impressed.

POSTED BY John Rousseau on May 18, 2009

Unless you live in Seattle where the recently completed WaMu Center stands conspicuously as a giant, gleaming glass monument of greed and ambition, you have likely forgotten that JP Morgan Chase acquired Washington Mutual (WaMu) last year during the stunning series of bank collapses that finally convinced everyone that the financial crisis was bigger than “a few bad apples.” Since then, it has been fascinating to watch how both large and small bank brands have responded to the changing landscape; and, specifically how the WaMu/Chase brand transition has been handled.

WaMu spent the past few years establishing a distinctive, contrarian brand voice that was deliberately the opposite of “big-bank”—beginning with a comprehensive brand overhaul by Wolff Olins and continuing with a series of prominent, well-executed advertising campaigns by Leo Burnett. This theme extended into consumer experiences as well, from no-fee ATMs that communicated in a casual vernacular and forced change on the entire industry to the innovative, open design of its retail environments. The distinctive blend of moxie, authenticity and trustworthiness contributed to a healthy and growing retail banking business and helped establish WaMu as a leading consumer brand. How quickly things change.

Hello, big bank.

Since assuming control of the company, and shortly after the obligatory “don’t worry, business as usual” period, Chase has largely ignored this substantial brand equity—moving quickly to replace WaMu’s engaging brand voice with its own impersonal, conservative and down-to-business approach. Over the past six months, high-level messaging has reinforced familiar themes of strength and convenience (“Backed by the power of Chase.”) and has been supported by the sort of endemic, commodity-driven marketing (free! rewards!) that characterizes financial services. And then, for a dash of personality to help ease the transition, we are given a campaign based on the ubiquitous and banal “hello” nametags—with handwriting. I feel so much better now.

It might be argued that such tactics are suited to the times, and what consumers really want is simply a bank they can trust and an ATM on every corner. Yet, given all that has happened over the past year, my question is whether a giant, global bank like Chase can be sufficiently credible based solely on its perceived strengths—and whether that alone is enough to sustain the brand going forward. Moreover, I would caution that what works in New York may not work in Seattle or L.A.—and judging by the chorus of marketing from smaller regional banks and credit unions—many of which are seizing the opportunity to remind us that they had little to do with any of this, I am not alone.

Brand transitions following a merger are challenging, and particularly so when the parent brand is more tolerated for its pervasiveness than loved for its individuality—just ask AT&T, who is still using their famous globe on top of the oddly dissonant orange Cingular background. Lucky for them the iPhone came along; perhaps Apple should design an ATM (a great idea, actually). Brand personality: is there an app for that?

WRITTEN BY John Rousseau

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