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How the Political and Social Influences Marketing


Sparked in part by the Great Recession of 2008, Occupy Wall Street, the protest against social and economic inequality and financial institutions’ inordinate influence on government, was a movement that spread around the globe.

By 2011, when Occupy Wall Street hit New York City, Canada was slowly recouping its losses from the recession, both in employment numbers and GDP, despite continued contraction of exports. But, like the rest of the world, Canadians were still feeling frustration and a sense of powerlessness, says Joanne Battaglia, vice-president of marketing, communications and community partnerships at FirstOntario Credit Union (126,000 members, $5.4 billion in assets), headquartered in Stoney Creek, Ont.

This discontentment sparked FirstOntario’s marketing campaign that year, led by the provocative statement, “In a world where banks hold the rest of us ransom we need to feel like we have a voice.” Leveraging dissatisfaction with the banking system enabled FirstOntario to point out key differences between credit unions and banks, says Battaglia, which “highlighted the fact that members are actually owners and therefore have a voice.” As part of the campaign, FirstOntario asked people on the street, business owners and retail members to talk about their monetary frustrations, videotaping their responses to, “What would you do if you owned your own bank?”

The tagline was splashed across more than 200 billboards in the region where FirstOntario operates. It had a blue-jean theme, as befit the blue-collar workers from the region’s steel and car manufacturing industries, as well as everyday people on the street. The public campaign, which included television and newspaper ads, was bolstered by the microsite FirstOntario emphasized its difference from banks, showcasing things like higher rates on investments and free chequing products. “We talked passion, frustration and provided alternatives,” Battaglia says. As a result, brand awareness doubled from the year before while 30 percent of people surveyed said they would consider switching to a credit union from their bank. “It really resonated with people.”

Two years later, public frustration with high banking fees and feeling “like just a number” were still running high. Small business owners were enduring especially onerous financial pressures Another campaign, titled Bank Therapy, launched in conjunction with the ad agency Play Advertising, spring boarded upon the notion that the public was addicted to paying financial fees. Business members from FirstOntario agreed to be part of television commercials, stating how they “kicked the Big Bank habit this year.” Using real members ramped up the authenticity of the campaign, Battaglia says. “You can’t replicate that with actors.”

Such marketing initiatives successfully supported FirstOntario’s goal of boosting brand awareness by becoming relevant in the communities it serves, with the objective being sustainability and growth, the former not possible without the latter, says Battaglia.

That relevance and sense of partnership has never gone away, although the marketing campaigns have shifted from focusing on people’s frustrations with the financial industry to finding ways to make banking as seamless and productive as possible. Today, FirstOntario focuses on cultivating relations with young families, nurturing long-term relations that see a member cycle through their first mortgage through to retirement planning. The taglines are more benevolent, including the current, “Let’s do this together.” As Battaglia says, “we work with our members and help them realize their dreams; we’re evolving with them.” A key part of this is nurturing financial literacy, with FirstOntario CRO Dave Schurman doling out advice on CHCH TV’s Finance Friday, answering questions and concerns about personal finances from viewers. (The segments are also available on FirstOntario’s website). “That’s the ‘value add’ that we can do,” says Battaglia, “and the rest will come.” ◊

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