For the rest of the world, life is not so simple. Many recruiters struggle to attract the people they want, because graduates simply haven't heard of them. Other employers, such as utilities and mass-market brands, suffer from the reverse effect. They are so well-known that high-flying graduates see them as unaspirational, lacking in both cachet and challenge. This was the situation that propelled Lloyds TSB, one of the UK's four largest high-street banks, to remake its image.
In common with its direct competitors, Barclays, HSBC and NatWest banks, Lloyds has never attracted the calibre of graduates recruited year after year by the JP Morgans, McKinseys and Deloittes of this world. Latterly, the banks have been struggling to hold their own against mobile phone companies, retail chains and other up-and-coming high-street names not traditionally associated with graduate employment.
The root of the problem is the image that students have of banks—an image that the banks have themselves helped to breed through bland consumer advertising: competent, dependable and about as likely to take risks as a flock of sheep on sedatives. Appropriate, perhaps, for savings investors concerned with the security of their finances, but a real turn-off in recruitment terms. Closely linked to this is the additional problem of students assuming, quite mistakenly, that a career in banking means working behind a counter.
From a recruitment perspective, Lloyds needed to do two things with its brand. First, give students an understanding of the range of career paths that it had to offer, most of them outside the high-street branches. Second, find some way of getting across the idea of banking as a challenging, even exciting, career. As Doug Hamer, Lloyds' graduate recruitment manager puts it: "We wanted to show the side that people never see: the fact that banking is about taking risks to create the safe place in which customers are happy to invest."
But how, given its lack of credibility in the recruitment market, could Lloyds convince students that it had a story worth listening to? To avoid being dismissed out of hand, Lloyds hit upon the idea of running a guerilla-style marketing campaign at target universities—but without, at first, revealing to the audience its name or black horse logo. Crucially (and after some internal wrangling) the recruitment team succeeded in persuading Lloyds' corporate marketers that the campaign should have its own identity, distinct from the consumer brand, and be executed in a youth-friendly, colloquial tone of voice.
Lloyds' campaign opened in September 2003, with unbranded fly-posters appearing on campuses around the UK. These were followed, a few days later, by outlines of horse-shoes stenciled on pavements and finally the arrival of life-sized effigies of a mysterious black horse.
At this point, the only clue to the perpetrator's identity was the inclusion on the posters of a web address: adarkhorse.com. Once on the site, however, students were presented with a spoof psychometric test and a riddle holding the key to the mystery sponsor's identity. Solving the riddle took them through to the company's main graduate website, where they were invited to discover more about Lloyds TSB and the opportunities on offer to graduates. So did it work?
Creatively, the campaign was a clever piece of marketing: niftily dodging the problem of how to gain the attention of an unsympathetic audience and, through the mischievous style in which it was executed, disrupting the bank's staid, play-it-by-the-book image.
The campaign proved to be very effective. In the first year that it ran (2003/2004), Lloyds recorded a 30 to 40 percent increase in applications, followed by an 80 to 90 percent year-on-year increase in 2004/2005. Lloyds also claims that since the campaign was launched, the quality of candidates seen by its assessment centers has improved.
In a tactical sense, then, the dark horse campaign has performed well. The longer-term implications are, however, more complicated. First, there are the obvious dangers of sending out mixed messages—emphasizing traditional service-oriented values to customers and employees, while trying to convey intellectual challenge and excitement to prospective recruits. Then there is the practical issue of how to follow up on the campaign, now that the element of surprise has been exhausted
One possibility is to bring the consumer and recruitment brands closer together. This is, perhaps, now more likely as the company has recently launched a new consumer advertising campaign, which it claims will position Lloyds TSB as the UK's "most personal and modern" bank.
But will giving the consumer brand a contemporary twist make it any easier for Lloyds to achieve its ambition of attracting top-flight graduates? Maybe, but perceptions don't change overnight. More immediately, there is a risk that if the graduate brand falls in line with the firm's corporate marketing it will lose its quirky distinctiveness and, with that, the ability to explode students' expectations. Adopting the tactics of guerilla marketing has enabled Lloyds TSB to steal a march in the war for talent. The question now is how to turn a clever maneuver into a strategy for achieving victory each year.