OCBC launched its Stay True campaign in April last year, pledging to, in their own words, “stop advertising like others”. It undertook to simplify offer mechanics, avoid hiding restrictions in fine print, and shun misleading advertising.
It was a bold promise, no doubt, and the bank wasted no time getting the message out there with a huge advertising push- full page print ads, video and digital media buys, sponsored posts, the whole shebang. They even wired up their Head of Consumer Financial Services to a polygraph test and unleashed the SGAG team on him, which I’m pretty sure constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
I admired the sentiment behind the campaign, as well as the bank’s candid admission that they’d been guilty of some of these tactics in the past, but couldn’t help but be more than a bit skeptical. Not so much because I felt the bank had a particularly bad reputation in the market or anything, but more because I felt it was digging an unnecessary hole for itself.
Taking the moral high ground, especially when it comes to advertising in banking, is a tricky proposition. The problem is that people are naturally cynical and when you say you’re going to do X, everyone’s going to naturally think of all the times you failed to do X. Moreover, it seems like a lose-lose proposition. If you do well, you can’t really play it up without seeming self-aggrandizing. If you don’t, people are going to jump all over you.
In the words of Dollars and Sense:
The main problem, however, is that while this campaign claims to have ambitions to help society, it feels exactly like what it is – a marketing and PR gimmick – rather than a shift in the bank’s morals or a sense of wanting to do good.
It’s all good and well to have the best of intentions in mind, but unless you’re a veritable Caesar’s wife, it’s inevitable that sooner or later you’re going to goof up somewhere. And in OCBC’s case, it seems like some of those chickens may be coming home to roost.
Case in point: last week, OCBC decided to call time early on their 10X promotion for personal care and mobile payments on the Titanium Rewards card, bringing forward the end date from 31 December to 5 August. The 10X promotion, along with other generous bonuses on IKEA, Emirates and Mileslife, made the Titanium Rewards one of the must-have cards for miles chasers, and I happily recommended it to anyone getting started in the miles game (earning the site a referral commission in the process, for purposes of full disclosure).
To say that people haven’t taken the early termination well would be an understatement. The internet rage machine is in its majestic full flow, and OCBC may well feel aggrieved at the backlash it’s receiving. After all, when the promotion launched, it was originally intended to last till 31 December 2016. The promotion was later extended to 31 December 2017, and then again to 31 December 2018. So from OCBC’s point of view, they may feel they’ve been more than generous.
I don’t dispute that. I think most people would agree that this has been one of the most amazing promotions we’ve seen in the Singapore miles and points game in recent times. Let the record show that OCBC isn’t the first (and will certainly not be the last) company to pull a promotion early. The recent example of Owndays comes to mind, and I’m sure a little more digging would easily unearth more case studies of brands which found their promotions a bit too successful for their liking.
The fundamental problem is, however, that other companies haven’t built an entire marketing campaign around “Staying True”. Therefore when something like this happens, the (totally foreseeable) backlash is going to be twice as hard. And trying to spin the matter just makes it worse. Take this statement from OCBC’s HWZ rep regarding the early promotion termination, for example:
The promotion allowing customers to earn 10 OCBC$ for every dollar spent in our Mobile Pay and Personal Care categories was first introduced in October 2016 when the card was first launched. Since then, we have extended the promotion twice: Once on 31 December 2016 and once more on 31 December 2017.
After a recent review, the decision was made to end this particular portion of the promotion earlier than scheduled, and planned to communicate this to customers with about a month’s notice.
Our website was updated yesterday evening with the changes in the promotion, with the SMS update scheduled for today. We wanted to communicate this upfront to our customers (with about a month’s notice from 4 August) so that customers are aware of the change in promotion date early. The advance notice is also a nod to our Stay True philosophy, where we did not want to hide behind terms and conditions and let customers find out about the change only when they are calculating their OCBC$.
However, it’s not the end of our “S$1 = 10 OCBC$” story: You can continue to earn 10 OCBC$ for every dollar spent in (1) Clothes, shoes and bags; (2) Department stores; (3) Electronics gadgets and (4) Babies’ and children’s wear. In addition, we’ve also rolled out more promotions with popular merchants like IKEA, Emirates and Mileslife. Currently, we’re running a campaign that offers card holders the chance to get an additional 2% rebate on top of earning 10 OCBC$ for every dollar spent at Best Denki on Titanium Rewards credit card.
Hope this helps clarify!
Honestly, honestly, I would have been ok with all that if not for this part:
The advance notice is also a nod to our Stay True philosophy, where we did not want to hide behind terms and conditions and let customers find out about the change only when they are calculating their OCBC$.
In addition to being a disguised “ownself praise ownself” statement, it also comes off as somewhat disingenuous because it takes a whole lot of mental gymnastics to see how anyone could interpret these actions as “a nod to Stay True”. “Stay True” would mean making a commitment to a promotion and seeing it out, even if it ends up costing more than expected. “Stay True” would mean fulfilling the reasonable expectations of customers who signed up for this card with the goal of earning 10X on mobile payments to the end of the year.
It’s funny, because the statement talks about “not hiding behind terms and conditions”, but that’s basically what the bank is doing in deciding to call time on this promotion early- it’s hiding behind the protection of Clause 4 in the T&Cs.
And that, by the way, is entirely their prerogative. The T&Cs, which like it or not you agreed to when you started using your card, give OCBC broad powers to vary the terms as they see fit. They’re no different from the T&Cs you’d find in any other bank’s promotions. In that sense, OCBC has acted no differently from any other bank in exercising its right to end the promotion early.
But therein lies the rub. OCBC has acted no differently from any other bank. When you run a campaign promising to be different from other banks, people are going to hold you to it. Truism it may be, but talk is cheap. Fulfilling a promotion which ended up costing more than expected is expensive. Had OCBC bitten the bullet and seen the promotion through because it promised to, it would be putting its money where its mouth was. Instead, it’s done exactly what you’d expect any other bank with a duty to its shareholders to do: a reasoned cost-benefit analysis that concluded the promotion wasn’t worth continuing. That, in itself, is entirely unobjectionable, but let’s not pretend it’s in line with the spirit of “Staying True”.
Here’s another hypothetical situation. Suppose Citibank decided to pull its uncapped 8 mpd promotion with Apple Pay early. Would people be upset? You bet. Would they be as upset as they are now with OCBC? Probably not. The key difference? Citibank didn’t take out full page ads in the newspapers promising to behave differently.
So you can see how OCBC’s well-intentioned campaign has only served to compound the problem it now faces, which leads me to wonder whether they’d have been better off not running the campaign in the first place. For the record, I’m not saying that banks shouldn’t be allowed to change T&Cs at all. I don’t like it, but my fear is that if they were prevented from doing so, most would err on the side of caution and we’d see fewer fantastic promotions, which doesn’t benefit consumers at all. What I am saying is that marketing campaigns shouldn’t make impossible promises.
That said, some perspective is necessary here. Some of the stuff I’m reading online about lawsuits and boycotts and pulling [insert $X amount where X→∞] of funds from the bank is textbook knee-jerk keyboard warriorism. When it’s all said and done, OCBC didn’t do anything illegal- they just failed to live up to a very public marketing promise they made. That’s disappointing, but I’m hardly going to close my accounts with the bank over this. At the same time, I imagine the bank’s going to face a lot more raised eyebrows when it attempts to trot out the “Stay True” line in the future- it’s the natural course of things when you make a bold promise and don’t live up to it.
OCBC asked to be held to a higher standard. And that’s exactly what people are doing right now.