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Johnnie Morello

Johnnie Morello
drives customers to the brand
by Robin D. Rusch
November 3, 2003

Financial institutions are not the most groundbreaking brand practitioners -- which is rather odd when you think about it, since there can be no more emotionally laden topic than the management of one’s money.

Still with a few exceptions (the UK’s Egg comes to mind), financial institutions consistently fail to ignite any kind of passion beyond deep anger or anxiety from their clients. Why is that? Well banks and financial institutions tend to be run and staffed by number crunchers. The intangible aspects of branding are seen as a foolish if not frightening waste of money. The irony is that the first bank to form a less cynical relationship with the public on either a consumer or B2B level guarantees great word of mouth and a loyal clientele.


But clearly client relationships are tricky for banks. How does one straddle the world and still connect with the man in the street, the small business owner and the multimillion-dollar corporation? HSBC, a massive Asian bank with meaningless initials to many in the Western world, took a small campaign to the streets of New York City to reach its market by presenting a true rarity. In a city where anything can be had for a price, HSBC offers a free cab ride to anywhere in Manhattan for anyone with an HSBC card in his pocket. What’s more, the cab ride is no ordinary screaming trip through the masses of humanity, horns blaring, meter ticking, pedestrians flying. The HSBC cab ride is a picture of old time values and surprising calm.

On a recent evening, we hailed the 1981 red and white Checkered Cab for a gentle drive through the streets of Manhattan with HSBC BankCabbie Johnnie Morello at the wheel. Dressed in khaki trousers, white button-down shirt and bright red bow tie, Morello was already fairly distinguishable from the average cabdriver, but after a few blocks, when he slowed and then swerved to avoid hitting a pigeon, we realized something was shockingly different about this cab ride.

In fact shockingly different fairly describes the whole idea behind the HSBC promotion.

Earlier this year, Morello’s girlfriend spotted the posting for a New York City cabbie in the back of Variety magazine. Intrigued, Morello responded to the ad with an initial introductory letter.

“I was feeling rather inspired,” he recalls. “[The letter] went on and on about what I thought would make me a suitable driver for them -- more than suitable. Excellent. The only person who should be considered. And it had to do with wearing clothes well and being able to close that six degrees of separation into a 59 second connection with whoever happened to get in the back seat, which is something I pride myself on. Being able to make a real connection with someone. Not just to make a connection, but I enjoy chatting and finding the common thread between us. The common bond.

Thus began perhaps one of the more bizarre recruitment efforts in the bank’s history as it searched for someone with the right combination of skills and personality to represent the bank as a brand ambassador on wheels.

“I told them in one of the initial interviews that I knew how to get out of the way of fast-moving objects. And I didn’t want to be a fast-moving object that moves somebody up on the hood. I feel like that’s a big part of driving in New York.

“Then I think an impossibly long time went by before I heard from them. And so I thought, have they lost their mind? They must have lost my number if they are not calling me back. I felt that between the way I like to drive, the way I like New York, the things I know about taxi driving and people, I thought it was a perfect fit.”

Luckily Morello was called back for the final stage of the recruitment phase, which was held as a contest event at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. Local personalities were among the judges to decide which of the handful of candidates should steer the HSBC promotion.

“I was nervous. I’m always nervous before I go on. It doesn’t matter what the show is, how many times I’ve done it. I never know what’s going to happen. My God, my head might explode.

“I didn’t sleep at all. I went to the club…. They actually had to go out and buy me another shirt, I was so sweaty. Then I went into the bathroom to put the shirt on and I stepped in a bucket of cleanser and it went all over my shoes and my pants. So I was soaked, my shirt was soaked. I didn’t sleep at all. So when you don’t sleep and you’re nervous, then you are going at, like, four-hundred miles an hour.”

Despite the anxiety, apparently Morello impressed the judges with his background and warm personality because at the end of the event, he was named winner and presented with a five-foot long key for the car.

So what does being the HSBC BankCabbie entail? “The way I simplified it for Nippon Radio was that I said: ‘You have to be conscious.’ I don’t know if that was reductivism to the point of that’s all you have to be. But indeed that requires a lot. To be truly conscious. I like the sort of Zen sound of that, and all that that would require to be conscious.”

Besides being conscious, Morello also knows a thing or two about driving a cab in New York. “The most knowledgeable cabbie was what they said they were looking for, or the savviest cabbie in New York. I like to think that I knew what was going on.”

Luckily Morello does not have to be the savviest financial planner in New York.

“I can get you to Sixth Ave and Fifty-Seventh Street. If you want a financial advisor, call this number.” He says reaching for the bank’s promotional flyers on the front dash.

He does however speak well of the bank, but not because he was expressly told to as part of the job. “I’m the happy face of the bank. So I stay positive. It only pays to stay positive -- as you know, you’re out here in the big bad city, where if you cross anybody up it’s probably going to come back to maybe rear end you.”

One of the perks of the job is that HSBC provides Morello with a financial planner who can help him manage his own money. This has the added benefit that Morello can now speak from personal experience when evaluating the bank’s services.

“Indeed I can speak well of the bank because they did treat me well. I defend the bank in terms of, I say, well here’s my side of it. I’ll defend them as best I can, but I don’t fib. I give them the website [address]. I tell them that I think they should write a letter or go to the website, or depending on what their complaint is, I just try to direct them toward somebody where they can get some satisfaction.”

In return he believes that his services are definitely benefiting HSBC. “When I’ve asked HSBC people point-blank what outcomes they want, they say they want to raise the level of awareness of the bank in New York City,” he says. “I think [the cab campaign achieves that] even if I didn’t pick anybody up. I see people looking at the car and they go ‘H-S-B-C.’ It’s a marketer’s dream to be mouthing the product, and not even knowing it. They are not saying it to me; they are saying it to themselves. A lot of people don’t know what [HSBC] is. I notice that it is good to put the letters in front of them.”

HSBC employees apparently agree. An HSBC Vice President who hailed Morello in Greenwich Village for a trip down to City Hall described the cab as an asset to reaching clients in a cluttered landscape of brands.

“It makes a good impression about the New York experience,” says the employee. “We use cabs a great portion of the time. And so we’re identifying with city folks and what they go through on a day-to-day basis. We transfer that and say ‘We also want to identify with you when it comes to your finances. So keep us in mind.’ ”

The HSBC employee had no involvement with the creation or concept of the HSBC cab and his first thought upon learning about the promotion is that he’d never actually see the cab. When he did spot it, he introduced himself as an HSBC customer and did not immediately reveal his employer during the ride. Now he describes Morello as a great asset to the bank. “He’s got the right personality. I think he’s personable. I think he enjoys what he does. He’s genuine.”

Perhaps part of Morello’s genuine character can be attributed to his colorful background and regular contact with the “man in the street.” Morello’s jobs have included gravedigger, actor, stand-up comedian, playwright, teacher and official New York City cabbie. In fact, his first play, “Hacking New York,” was a result of the years he spent driving a Yellow Cab in New York -– an experience he characterizes as vastly different from the one he is in now with HSBC.

“A buddy of mine and I were always saying cab driving would be so great if we didn’t have to do it for money. If it wasn’t all about picking up the fares. Because you are frantic. You start out deeply in the hole when you’re leasing a cab. I would drive with my money in my hand, and I was counting it all the time. And if you go 20 minutes without a fare, you really start to get nuts and you make crazy turns thinking I’ve got to get someone in the car. So [with this job] you don’t have to hustle for the money.”

In fact not only does Morello not charge a fare, but he flat out refuses tips. To accept any payment at all would be violating an agreement with the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, since he is not an official Yellow Cab.

Another difference in Morello’s role as BankCabbie for HSBC is that he drives with a relaxed, polite attitude rarely seen in a car with New York plates, much less a taxicab. Part of this is physics, the ‘81 cab just doesn’t have the kind of handling you need to cut off a messenger, splash water on pedestrians and out gun a bus all in one maneuver. The other reason is reputation. As the bank’s brand ambassador, Morello realizes that everything he does reflects back on his employer.

“I don’t want to make any kind of error in driving, ‘cause it wouldn’t just be me going to the insurance agency. It’s the bank. I don’t want this cab getting a bad rep. Or anyone even getting a [bad] perception. You know: ‘oh that cab cut me off when I was crossing the street.’ Every cabbie does it. That’s how you survive on the streets of New York. You’ve got to make your way.

“Not only will they perhaps remember that I didn’t cut them off, but they’ll think ‘wow that guy in the HSBC cab is so nice.’ That will be passed on to the bank. I really feel that way. So I look at that as my job.”

A cab driver that waves pedestrians across the street on a green light cannot fail to be noticed in the streets of Manhattan. With this sort of extraordinary kindness, it shouldn’t take long for potential customers to start wondering if all of HSBC’s employees are so helpful.

Robin D. Rusch is Editor-in-Chief of Brandchannel.
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