Greater Building Society

The mutual, the celebrity and the forgotten community

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Did ya hear? Some bank in Orstraya signed up Jerry Seinfeld to do their ads! Oh my god, oh my god, he’s just so nice.

Or so the fans were chanting down in Cedarhurst, New York, the location Greater Building Society flew its marketing manager and some Aussie talent for an ad campaign like no other.

The last time Jerry fronted up for a bit of corporate spruiking it was for Microsoft, and he was rumoured to have been paid US$10 million.

A spokesperson for Greater told us the building society paid “significantly less” than this and frankly they were a little surprised he took the gig. Apparently instead of “show me the money” Jerry said “I like it”.

Seems there was an “alignment” between Jerry’s humour and that of the marketing folks at Greater. Overstated American humour lining up with regional Aussie self-mocking – I guess that could work.

If you live outside regional NSW or the Gold Coast you’ll only be able to see the ads on YouTube, since Greater is not planning a national campaign and is sticking to TV, it’s advertising medium of choice. Greater Building Society has used TV almost exclusively throughout its history.

Type “Greater Building Society” into Google and you won’t see any targeted ads from the institution. Of course with the kind of free publicity the ad is generating there’s plenty of organic listings. But should you wish to apply online for a new account with Greater you’ll be disappointed.

You wont find Greater Building Society on Facebook, and I suspect they’re not fans of Twitter.

Which is a shame because with even a slightly improved online presence Greater could have taken its campaign national.

Perhaps if Greater was participating in social networks it would be able to respond to some of the interesting posts being made on Twitter. Like this one which appears to come from the husband of a staffer revealing concerns the ad spend might mean the death of this years’ bonus.

But putting all that aside and assuming the campaign delivers a rush of customers to Greater Building Society’s call centre and branches, is it right for a regional mutual to be putting itself in the same advertising ball park as American Express?

I’ve always had a soft spot for credit unions and building societies. I used to work for one. The idea of a financial institution that is owned by its members and isn’t run to profit shareholders who might not actually be customers makes sense to me.

But in recent years a rash of mergers and demutualisations have left me wondering if there’s room in Australia for small community banking.

When a group of economists came out calling for a state-supported bank this week, mutual industry association Abacus was quick to shout back “We’re the people’s bank”.

And there’s the rub. Much of the coverage and chatter about Greater uses the word bank. And if there’s one thing I remember from my days in credit union land, mutual people HATE being called bankers. A mutual being mistaken for a bank because of its advertising campaign is not doing anything to support the concept of mutuality.

Think for a moment about what a “people’s bank” would be expected to do. Would a people’s bank spend megabucks on glossy advertising campaigns? Or would it be expected to take the profits it makes and channel them back into the community, or offer more products with competitive interest rates and low fees?

New Zealand “peoples bank” Kiwibank gets it. In their albeit slightly lower budget advertising they highlight their understanding of local community. I’m yet to be convinced Jerry Seinfeld speaks community. Sure the ads are funny, but in five years time will we remember the regional bank with the celebrity spruiker, or the credit union that helped pay for the soccer pitch our children play on?