By Stuart Elliott
The New York Times - April 19, 2005
An ad for HSBC Bank USA shows a New Yorker's reaction to non-New York behavior, like falling asleep on a stranger's shoulder in the subway.
THE city that wants to be known as "the world's second home," to quote a trademark application recently filed by the Bloomberg administration, is about to be inundated by a marketing blitz from a company that promotes itself as "the world's local bank."
The HSBC Bank USA unit of HSBC Holdings is mounting an elaborate campaign, with a budget estimated at $10 million to $15 million, meant to stimulate business in the increasingly competitive New York market. The campaign is the first major new effort for HSBC in the United States since JWT and other agencies owned by the WPP Group were named last May to handle the bank's worldwide account, with spending estimated at $600 million.
The campaign, with television, print, radio, online, retail and other elements, portrays New York as a market that is uniquely able to benefit from what the ads describe as the worldwide - and worldly - scope of HSBC's services. The reason: the city's mosaic-rainbow-melting pot of ethnicity.
"In New York, even the dog parks are multicultural," the headline of one ad proclaims above photographs of breeds like a German shepherd, French poodle and Irish setter. Another ad, depicting an apartment building entrance with doorbells displaying two dozen different surnames from Cohen to Kim to Xavier, carries this headline: "In New York, the whole world is your neighbor."
The campaign is the most recent round in a fierce battle that the giant banks are waging for hegemony in the giant New York market. The category is rapidly taking on the trappings of the scrappily competitive airline market, as longtime forces in the New York region, like the Bank of New York, Chase and Citibank - the bank equivalents of legacy carriers like American, Delta and United - seek to fend off aggressive newcomers like Bank of America, Wachovia and Washington Mutual, the banking counterparts of airlines like AirTran, JetBlue and Southwest.
And like airlines, the financial services category "is full of skeptical consumers" unhappy with their experiences, said Chris Halsall, a partner in the New York office of Prophet, a brand identity consulting company.
"It's a tough burden to come up with something new," he added.
Executives at HSBC acknowledge the daunting challenge they face.
"We're taking the offensive to make a pitch for business here," said Kevin Martin, senior vice president and head of customer marketing for HSBC Bank USA, who is based in New York. "It's time to compete head on."
Although "New York is fundamental to us," Mr. Martin said, "we've never achieved a relevance to a New Yorker, getting into the psyche."
"The idea is that if we're 'the world's local bank,' and New York is the city of the world, we're saying what a great fit there is," he added. "That message has never got through."
A centerpiece of the campaign is a humorous 60-second television commercial directed by the filmmaker Errol Morris, which alters the longtime format of HSBC's TV spots for a New York audience.
HSBC commercials typically show the effects that different meanings for the same word or gesture have in different countries, which is intended to convey that HSBC's operations in 77 countries prepare the bank for helping customers wherever they are. The new commercial is, like so many New Yorkers, all about New York, showing what happens when an overseas habit, like falling asleep on a stranger's shoulder on a train, is exposed to New York subway passengers.
"The idea is when you're 'the world's local bank,' what happens when the local point of view is a New York point of view," said Diane Epstein, senior partner and director in charge for HSBC at the New York office of JWT.
"Lots of banks force you to live in their world, by their rules and regulations," Ms. Epstein said. "With this, we're saying the bank lives in our world." In other words, the insights gleaned by HSBC at its 9,800 branches on six continents make the bank particularly suited for the tough New York market.
Mr. Halsall of Prophet reacted like a New Yorker to that approach, or maybe more accurately like a resident of Missouri, the show-me state.
"I would say I'm skeptical," Mr. Halsall said, because in financial services, "big is not necessarily a benefit."
Rather, "the brands are only as strong as the weakest consumer touch point," he added. "If a teller had a bad day, that has more impact on a customer than a $100 million ad campaign."
Rather than HSBC declaring through the campaign that "I'm going to know you New Yorkers better because I know every market," Mr. Halsall said, the ads ought to concentrate more on "the breadth of product well delivered," especially those that New Yorkers prize highly, like teller interaction and online access to bank services.
The New York-centric campaign is running in addition to ads for specific HSBC products and services like business accounts, which will continue to run with a separate multimillion-dollar budget.
In addition to the traditional aspects of the new campaign, there will be New York touches like ads on four to five million paper cups distributed by coffee shops and pushcarts; posters that take over all the ad space in subway cars and stations as well as commuter rail stations; promotional taxi cabs from Brazil and England fitted out with HSBC ads; and wall murals.
Ads will also be customized for other markets in New York in which HSBC operates, like Albany and Buffalo, because there is one thing that "the world's local bank" has already learned: it is difficult to determine who is more offended when New York State is confused with New York City, the state residents or the city residents.