Ally’s Advertising Launch Campaign

When GMAC became a bank in order to receive TARP funds in 2009, it launched as Ally Bank, an online-only “direct bank” serving the U.S. The economy was in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, and studies showed that only 33% of consumers trusted financial firms. Ally Bank decided to stand out  by truly doing things differently, filling the gap between consumers’ needs and banks’ current practices, through better offerings and straight talking communications.

Interim Objectives:

  • Make the Ally target segment (the “Money in Motion” psychographic segment) aware that there was a new bank called Ally.
  • Convince these consumers that Ally Bank was better and different.
  • Establish a retail identity for Ally Bank.

Sales Objectives

  • Drive $5 billion in bank deposits in order for Ally to survive

Strategy: As the deposit-taking division of GMAC Financial Services, Ally decided to brand the bank as a customer-focused brand  by an institution that aims to conduct itself with complete transparency on rates and terms, not hiding behind legalese and jargon. The concept is “straight talk” for customers, no sneaky disclaimers, no teasers, no bait-and-switch tactics, and 24-hour service that connects customers with live representatives.

Sanjay Gupta, formerly SVP of marketing at Bank of America, who joined GMAC Inc. as CMO in March 2008, led the effort. “There are already 8,000 banks in this county, so our rallying cry was the world doesn’t need another bank but a better bank,” he says. He explains:

“The Ally brand is founded on three principles: Talking straight, doing what is right for the customer, and being obviously-better than the competition.”

Does Negative Advertising Work?

Ally’s creative idea was carried out with hidden cameras capturing kid’s honest and unfiltered reactions to common bad banking practices. The worked forced consumers to ask: “If kids can tell the fundamental difference between what’s right and wrong, why can’t banks be trusted to do the same?” Three Ally Bank spots, created by the Bartle Bogle Hegarty agency, aimed at rebranding Ally to distance it from the struggling automaker, General Motors. They highlighted bait-and-switch themes using kids, and the message is that other banks dupe you with the fine print, but Ally bank wouldn’t do that.

Many pronounced it a brilliant strategy in trying to rebrand a bank in the middle of a recession blamed on banks. And Schwab’s Talk to Chuck campaign had already been enormously successful at coopting consumer angst with angry rant ads, which boosting market share appreciably. One critic writes about the Ally spots:

The true genius of the spots is how real the reactions are from the kids. Most of the time when kids act, it looks like they’re reading lines from a script. But when the pony girl realizes she got cheated out of a pony, she looks genuinely aggravated and ticked off — a complex reaction you’d expect from an adult, not a child. In the spot with the boy, when he gets handed a cardboard truck and says, “It’s a piece of junk!,” it’s raw frustration that we can all relate to, then laugh at because we’re watching it being acted out by kids.

Agreed that the ads were well executed, comical and memorable. But the million dollar question is: how would they be received?

A Risky Strategy

Not all of the reactions were favorable. Here’s one consumer reaction:

I’m a 56 yr old father and have raised 3 children who are now good parents themselves. I hate those ALLY BANK commercials! Those little children are duped and then emotionally abused! Even if they are actors (see link about making them), the stinging pain of the switch & burn is very evident in their face. How the hell can anyone not feel for them?

Reaching Women Daily Blog notes that there is a difference between male and female humor. Remembering that women are the bigger consumer market, consider these comments:

Being mean to kids definitely got an emotional reaction out of me. What I’m struggling to understand is how showing a commercial with deceitful men being mean to kids makes me feel good about their bank. I’ve been surfing the net to see what reactions others have to these commercials. Some find them hilarious and love them. Others are deeply disturbed and hate them. It’s tough to tell by commenters’ names if they are male or female. But I’ve noticed that many of those who don’t like the ads are female. (Though there are men who don’t like them either).

I think this is another fascinating example of male vs. female humor. Women don’t like humor where someone is put down or is the “victim.” Women especially don’t like to see children put into the “victim” role.

One of the reasons why folks like the commercials is because of the realistic looks of hurt, disappointment and anger in the children’s faces. But that’s a double edged sword. Women are natural empathizers. They are relating to the negative emotions the kids are experiencing. I don’t know whether these kids are actors, or as some of the commenters have suggested, that these were real kids brought in unknowingly to participate in the commercials. But that just ads to the ickyness factor. These commercials might have worked better for women if there was an “after” focus. For example, if the kids had a piggy bank, and after the deceiving treatment, they walked across the street to an Ally bank and were welcomed and treated properly. That way women are left with a positive image and emotion associated with Ally. As I said, Ally Bank is certainly getting attention with these ads. But for me, all it says about Ally is – if this bank thinks these commercials are good, it’s a bank I don’t want to have anything to do with.

Despite the risk, consumer feedback to the creative advertising was overwhelmingly positive. Out of over a hundred comments on Ally’s YouTube Channel, 70% were favorable, 24% neutral, and 6% unfavorable.

Time for a Change?

Some say that if Ally had stuck with “Mr. Disclaimer,” perhaps they might have been able to create a pop culture icon like Allstate’s Mr. Mayhem (background here.)  However, Ally appeared to recognize that a negative message in itself cannot sow a positive brand association for the bank. It was indeed time to move on. But to what?

Since then, Ally Bank has now had three different ad campaigns in three years, produced by two separate ad agencies, which makes it difficult to deliver any kind of consistent message or build a cohesive brand.

In 2010, Ally switched gears completely, abandoning its “straightforward” message and shifting to a “love” theme created by ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. In the “Love Commercials,” Customers brag about their affections for their bank’s “Raise your Rate CD” while listeners react incredulously.  Since it doesn’t seem a  very plausible message that someone would love their bank, snarky humor was again used to sneak in the message. The campaign slogan is, “Do You Love Your Bank?”

In September, 2011, the Bank’s switched its message to “No Nonsense. Just People Sense.”

Ally says it is not replacing its “Straightforward” tagline with the new slogans and insists that ‘”Straightforward’ is a brand pillar and a philosophy and guiding theme demonstrated in products and service.

Both Kiplinger’s Personal Finance in its December 2009 issue, and Money magazine have lauded Ally Bank’s products, and its customer satisfaction tops 90%. So, a bank that set out to create a better banking experience, has largely succeeded with an approach that is resonating with customers, and it is still working to hone its messaging.

Final Analysis: Positive

Ally Bank’s deposits increased 16.5% in the first quarter of 2009 to $22.5 billion. In 2010 the banking industry retail deposits declined 1.3%, while Ally’s actually went up an impressive 12.7%. Retail deposits at the bank, important to the overall liquidity and health of Ally Financial, were $20.5 billion by the end of September 2010, a 29% increase over last year. Ally has seen an increase in retail deposits each quarter, totaling $34.5 billion at the end of the second quarter this year. In November, it reported its third straight profitable quarter.

Gupta measures the rebrand in terms of brand awareness, but also tracks whether the brand attributes are sinking in. “We’ve been thrilled not only with the way the brand has taken traction but also the attributes that the brand stands for,” he says.

In the final analysis, Ally has succeeded in doing things few banks have been able to. Ally has been able to turn around a negative image associated with GMAC by rebranding to Ally in May 2009, and differentiate itself in the mind of the consumer and capitalize on it. Ally’s campaign worked because it clearly defined its target segment and tapped into their mindset, using a clever and edgy differentiating message to drive home its mission.

Snap principle of bold differentiation:

Make it edgy, consistent with your core values, and hone in on the mindset of likely adopters.