TORONTO (Reuters) - In any other industry at any other time, trying to build an ad campaign around stability would send shudders through marketing mavens. But there has never been a better time to be a stodgy Canadian banker.
“I guess boring is cool and Canada is cool,” said Jim Little, chief brand officer with Royal Bank of Canada (RY.TO), explaining the bank’s decision to play up its nationality in a ad campaign aimed at U.S. and British capital markets.
A few months ago you might never have known Canada’s No. 1 and 2 banks, Royal Bank and Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD.TO), were big players in global banking.
Each tiptoed around their geographic identity, hiding behind inscrutable acronyms like RBC and TD, the better to reassure clients they were just like folks.
Canada’s success in emerging nearly unscathed from the financial crisis changed all that. Caution has a new cachet, and the nation’s bankers are embracing their inner maple leaf.
“We were always worrying about how we’d be seen, because when we’re in the United States we act like Americans,” said TD Bank Chief Executive Ed Clark, whose U.S. retail operation has been marketed as “America’s most convenient bank.”
“Now it’s actually a positive to say, yes, we happened to be owned by a Canadian bank.”
It was perhaps U.S. President Barack Obama who opened the door to Canadian banking bravado when he hailed the nation’s sound banking system back in February. The compliment followed the World Economic Forum’s ranking of Canada’s banking system as the world’s soundest.
Before long, marketing executives at the big banks noticed a newfound interest in Canada’s conservative credentials among capital markets and investment banking clients.
“We did some testing three, four months ago ... and something popped out in the research that showed there was something good about being from Canada — there was a strength and stability, an earnestness message,” said RBC’s Little.
“A little moment opened up. So we added ‘Royal Bank of Canada’ to our capital markets campaign,” he said.
That’s it — just the full name of the bank. No hockey stick to replace the 108-year-old lion on RBC’s logo, no snowflake motif to emphasize northern resolve. Just an open acknowledgment that RBC’s home is in Canada.
“It’s about time,” said Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. “It’s very much a story of stability and growth ... but why weren’t they doing this 30 or 40 years ago?”
Middleton noted with approval RBC’s move to reach out to readers in relatively upscale print media, rather than try to market to the masses on the street.
“Business Week, The Economist, Financial Times of London — I’ve never see them be so aggressive before in an ad campaign,” Middleton said.
Still, Little acknowledged the bank is not about to bring the Canada brand to its retail customers in the U.S. Southeast, where RBC has built up presence since buying North Carolina-based Centura in 2001. For ordinary bank customers, local is still reassuring.
“In retail business in Alabama, we don’t say Royal Bank of Canada. It is a conversation for a non-retail audience: opinion leaders, people who understand internationalism, those typical high-net-worth capital markets targets,” Little said.
And he’s more than aware that fame is fleeting.
“Right now Canada banking is synonymous with strength and stability ... In two years, when people are in a more optimistic mood, it will be interesting to have this conversation again and see whether risk balance is still as important to the world as it is today,” he said.
“If it becomes a neutral or a non-issue, we’ll turn the volume down.”
Additional reporting by Pav Jordan; editing by Rob Wilson