What inspired HSBC to target the consumer in transit?
We’re very much focussed on the sort of person who has an international outlook. That’s not necessarily someone jumping on and off planes, but someone who is interested in the world. Maybe they work for a global company and need to travel for work.
We’re an international bank with a presence in 86 markets and a lot of our products – specifically our Premier banking and a new product we’re launching this year – are designed for people who have financial needs in more than one country.
So it would be crazy for us not to target this demographic.
These days it’s rare to cross an airport terminal or air bridge and not see an HSBC ad. How did you become the “airport brand”?
We started off buying U.K. airports, then our office in the U.S. bought up the New York airports. We’re now in 48 airports in 24 countries.
The U.S. has been interesting for us. We just did a huge research project on effectiveness and the New York results were very skewed. The passengers going through LaGuardia are very domestic. But outside New York and California, where we have a few branches, no one in the U.S. knows who we are. So our ad recall results were low there.
Generally, we’ve bought in places where we have a very large footprint in the market. There’s no point in advertising in all these jet bridges if the take-away message is, “Oh, HSBC is here,” and then we’re nowhere to be seen. So we need to think about changing our message. We can’t presume people walking through LaGuardia will know who we are.
We also look at the international traffic going through an airport. For example, we bought jet bridges in Bangkok. We only have one branch in Thailand but given the international passengers passing through Bangkok, and bearing in mind our footprint throughout Asia, it was obvious for us to buy ads in such a hub. Same with Los Angeles. We only have five branches in L.A., but that city is the gateway to the United States from Asia so it was an obvious choice for us.
Your ads appear in print, on TV, and online, as well as in airports, airplanes and other public spaces. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each medium in getting your brand message across?
Print has become so targeted that we use it to advertise certain products and services, and not much for brand awareness any more.
TV ads are the most versatile because you can use them for inflight systems, online streaming television, movie theatres, etc. These days a TV ad isn’t necessarily just going to reach you in your sitting room.
We do lots of online advertising at the local level and we’re appearing on British Airways’ website, on their Executive Club pages, which makes sense for us.
How do you integrate the HSBC brand into physical spaces like airport lounges and terminals in a way that also serves the immediate needs of people in transit?
It’s something we’ve looked at, but haven’t cracked yet. What can you offer as a bank within an airplane environment that people can take away and do something with? It’s not like we’re selling phone chargers or cashmere blankets.
We did do an initiative in 2008, where we commissioned food writers, supermodels, directors, and economists to write articles and then set up airport kiosks where people could create their own bespoke magazines as an alternative to the inflight reading.
As an international company, how do you tweak your brand messaging to appeal to local customs, norms, sense of humour and taste?
When we launched our brand globally, the creative was all about understanding local customs and culture and sensibilities. But it’s very difficult developing campaigns that will mean the same thing in 86 markets. We provide the framework at the global level and they do what they need to do locally to make it work. But it’s tough because you can’t please everybody, and you do need to retain some sort of control and discipline at the centre.
Any examples of ads you thought would work globally but were construed differently than you intended?
We’ve been quite guilty of developing brand TV commercials that work very well in sophisticated markets like the U.K. or Hong Kong, where we have very high brand awareness, but fall flat in places like Poland. Because no one knows who we are in Poland.
So this year we’ve developed TV ads that don’t use a one-size-fits-all approach.
We’ve literally made one ad that explains HSBC is a bank. Two years ago we wouldn’t have thought that was necessary. But in a lot of places where we’re just opening up, people have no idea what HSBC is.
It’s interesting how you’re such a household name in some areas, while in other places people don’t even know what HSBC stands for.
They haven’t got a clue, and we haven’t always done a very good job explaining it to them.
In Tokyo, for example, we bought every jet bridge in the airport, but had only one branch on the ground. At that time our creative featured pictures of food, and a lot of people walking through thought we were a catering company.
Hearing things like that made us realize that we had to understand our brand awareness in each market and work from there. We can’t assume anything.