After maintaining a largely anonymous presence since crossing the 49th parallel in 1997, the company embarked on an identification and awareness campaign in November 2005. The result was a series of television commercials depicting stereotypically stuffy bankers in dark blue suits with their hands (literally) in the pockets of Canadians from all walks of life—a couple out for a romantic boat ride, a pair of boxers duking it out in the ring, a curler throwing a rock down the sheet, and long-haired rockers singing and jumping around on stage.
The soundtrack to the spots is a catchy jingle written specifically for Capital One called "Hands in My Pocket." (Not to be confused with Canadian singer Alanis Morrisette's 1995 hit "Hand in My Pocket.") Eventually, the music stops when a Capital One cardholder flashes the plastic to make a purchase. One of the pinstriped bankers then faces the camera and asks: "What's in your wallet?"
Clinton Braganza, Toronto-based director of brand and marketing at Capital One, says the company took a disciplined approach in its research, including widespread concept testing, before handing its findings over to an advertising agency.
"We make sure at any juncture of making decisions that we have the right information and what we're doing is going to meet the needs of consumers from a product-development and advertising perspective," he says.
Braganza says that with the Canadian financial services industry dominated by the so-called Big Five banks—Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Nova Scotia, Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bank of Montreal, and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce—the opportunity for Capital One to firmly position itself on the customers' side was there for the taking.
" 'Hands in My Pocket' is an articulation of the premise that the big banks are nickel and diming you," Braganza says. "Canadians are looking for great value—without the hassle—in a financial services company. The metaphor is very appealing and we hoped it would resonate with Canadians in a humorous way. We believe we have a clever sense of humor—and we don't take ourselves too seriously in an industry that is full of very serious institutions."
Robert Warren, director of the Asper Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Manitoba, agrees, noting the "Hands in My Pocket" series comes on the heels of very successful campaigns in the US, one of which featured snarky actor/comedian David Spade as a spokesman.
"These are great follow-ups," Warren says. "They really bring out what kind of company Capital One is. They say, 'We care about you as a consumer and we do everything we can to make your lives easier.' "
Warren agrees with the company's strategy of aligning itself against typical bank practices. "That will resonate with Canadians; we like nothing better than bashing banks," he says. "We're tired of the high fees and we're tired of being treated impersonally."
Warren feels Capital One's branding also positions it well north of the border because Canadians have been building up their debt levels for the last number of years. "People are looking for other credit cards," he says. "Rather than expand the credit on one card, they'll take another card on."
Braganza says the campaign has been a "massive" success and has built the company's awareness up from virtually nothing to the point now where nine in 10 Canadians are familiar with Capital One.
"We had little equity in the name Capital One and then we threw down the gauntlet and said we're going to become a household name," he adds.
According to Braganza, Canadians have a love-hate relationship with their banks. They appreciate the history and the convenience of the massive network of branches, but at the same time, they don't believe they're getting the best deals or that they're being treated like individuals.
The strength of the branding has been reinforced with the widespread appeal of the jingle, which proved to be so popular, Capital One commissioned a full-length version of it.
"People were singing it and turning it into ringtones on their cell phones," he says. The jingle—and physically seeing bankers with their hands in [Canadians'] pockets—was the one-two punch that made it successful," he says.
Prior to 2005, he says the marketing efforts of Capital One, which doesn't have any brick-and-mortar locations in Canada, were driven by direct mail. Today, it is currently the tenth-largest issuer in the country, with outstanding managed loans topping US$ 2.5 billion.
The success over the past year has enabled the company to graduate to product-specific messaging—across a variety of media including newspapers, television, radio, outdoor, direct mail, and online banners—for its Prime Plus One no-fee credit card.
He describes the card as a "revolution" for consumers because its low rate is not just an introductory offer. The company's business plan predicts consumers will be responsive and loyal to the product, enabling it to turn a profit without the annual fees or higher rates of other companies.
"A lot of companies will offer you lower rates, but you pay an annual fee for that," he says. "If you were to go to the competition and look at their no-fee product, they wouldn't come close to Prime Plus One."
Which means, the company hopes, that more Canadians will have the Prime Plus One card, not other bankers' hands, in their pockets.