Westpac conjures friendly monster for biggest brand campaign in a decade

Westpac’s biggest branding investment in a decade has delivered one of the strangest ads you’re likely to see from a major bank.

In unveiling its “Together Greater” tagline, the bank has released what is essentially a two-minute short film by DDB Aotearoa which tells the story of a Kiwi girl befriending a furry giant that looks as though it was plucked from an unpublished chapter of The NeverEnding Story.

In the commodity-driven field of bank advertising, which often relies on the trope of a good honest family making progress up the financial ladder, it’s highly unusual to see something leaning so heavily on metaphor.

The other notable shift in the bank’s strategy is that it is distinctly Kiwi, with the story playing out in a fantastical version of the New Zealand landscape.

Westpac chief marketing officer Suraiya Phillimore Smith said the bank specifically wanted to tell a story that would resonate with New Zealanders.

Like all the major Australian banks, Westpac has long had the reputation of being an Aussie juggernaut in the local market. It’s something that the competitor brands love to point out at every opportunity they get.

Until this point, nothing in Westpac’s communications strategy has really challenged that notion in the local market. Among the major banks, Westpac has arguably been the most generic from an advertising perspective.

“We’ve had no platform or story,” Phillimore Smith says.

“And if the only things you see and hear are about being an Australian bank, then that’s how people perceive you.

“We haven’t been in control of who we are at a local level. We’ve just let that happen to us, whereas this truly is about New Zealand.”

Phillimore Smith says the bank has been active in the local community for years, but simply hasn’t been good enough at telling those stories.

“The Westpac rescue choppers, Women of Influence and rolling out a living wage for staff are all core to the bank’s DNA. This stuff has existed forever, but we just haven’t talked about it in a way that pulls it all together.”

It is interesting to note this major rebrand comes off the back of an announcement out of Australia that the bank would not be de-merging its New Zealand arm, ending months of speculation that could have seen Westpac potentially emerge as the largest locally owned bank in the country.

Asked whether this campaign was developed in anticipation of a demerger, Phillimore Smith said this work had been more than 12 months in the making and would have gone the same way regardless of the corporate shape of the business.

“The insight remains true,” she says.

“This is a bank for New Zealand with New Zealanders. Everything we’ve done in our advertising is an articulation of that. So to be honest, it would’ve have made no difference.”

The one impact the de-merger saga did have, however, was on the timing of the release of the campaign. The bank ultimately had to wait for the final decision before hitting play on the campaign, which will now officially go public on August 8.

Banks are among the biggest spenders on advertising in the local market. Over the past three years, Westpac has ranked behind ANZ, ASB and BNZ in terms of how much it spends on media placements for its adverts annually.

Nielsen figures show that Westpac spent $22 million on advertising placements in 2020, putting the bank just behind BNZ’s $24.5m.

This year has already seen a number of big moves in the bank advertising sphere, with ANZ launching a new brand platform, ASB putting its account up for pitch and Kiwibank appointing Special Group to take over its creative account.

This suggests we can expect competition to ramp up in the coming months and years.

Westpac’s decision to go for such a creative approach will stand out, but this type of boundary-pushing work does come with some risks.

Massey University marketing Professor Malcolm Wright described it as “an unusual story” that’s designed to make people pay attention.

“It’s very long and I didn’t notice any branding until right at the end,” Wright said.

This ultimately means that the story needs to be strong enough to keep the viewer engaged until the final seconds of the video. There is risk in this, but it also shows the company is confident in the quality of the work it has delivered.

Wright tells the Herald that this type of symbolic advertising is usually a slow-burner, which lingers with the viewer long after they’ve watched the story unfold.

“What they’re trying to do is create positive emotions that tie into the brand,” Wright says.

Despite the ad being incredibly strange, Wright doesn’t believe that this will hurt the reputation of the brand.

He said it was refreshing to see something so original in the “humdrum context of commodity advertising”.

“If people are still talking about it hours after they’ve seen it, then it’s done a good job,” he says.

New Yorker illustrator Christoph Niemann has written that creative work that “really moves us is often slow, strange and nagging”.

It’s a sentiment that resonates with DDB executive creative director Gary Steele, who worked on this campaign alongside former chief creative officer Damon Stapleton.

“You’ve got to stand up in a sea of sameness, especially in the financial sector and especially with banks,” Steele says.

“You’ve got to show something different to connect emotionally. This story does that because every person who watches it will respond in a slightly different way. We’ve created this whimsical and metaphorical space where anything’s possible.”

As the campaign starts to hit screens around the country, Westpac will find out shortly what exactly the public takes away from its revamped approach to communications.

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