• Transform magazine
  • March 26, 2017

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Brand experience: PNC Financial

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To educate children about finance, American financial services company PNC uses its Christmas Price Index to create brand experiences that promote the brand’s reputation, engage children and educators in banking and explore yearly financial change. Emily Andrews reports on this year’s gingerbread bank

Every year at Christmastime, PNC Financial Services Group, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, takes part in a festive tradition. The PNC Christmas Price Index is an annual economic report that puts a price tag on each gift quoted in the classic Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’ Last year, the report’s findings were presented in a unique experiential way; at a bank branch made of gingerbread. The interactive experience was a bold and fun way for a financial company to deliver a report with informative and educational undertones.

In the past, the Christmas Price Index was solely published online. Yet despite this, PNC and Deutsch, a creative agency with offices in New York and LA, ensured that the digital experience was immersive and interactive, so that the index was as fun and easy to digest as possible. This style of publication and communication was appropriate for the playful nature of the report and the random nature of the cited gift items.

Barbara Chandler, EVP and group account director for PNC at Deutsch, says, “The index found a natural home on the web, and each year we have upped the experiential nature there (one year we did a treasure hunt around the world, another year we had visitors to the site build their own toy versions of the gifts in the song). This is the first year that we’ve brought the index into the real world with a hands-on live experience.”

The live experience, which was built at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, was a life-size bank branch made of real gingerbread and frosting. A family attraction, the branch opened for one weekend in December. Its interior included columns with information about each of the twelve days of Christmas gifts and their current costs. Visitors received hot cocoa and gingerbread cookies from the ‘cookie counter’ – but the gingerbread house also functioned as a working PNC Bank branch, complete with cookie-encrusted ATM and personal banking services.

Chandler says, “It’s an experience we wanted everyone to be able to enjoy, but we particularly focused on families for the holiday season. It is, of course, a great way for kids to learn about the economy, but we saw people of all ages admiring the art deco design and architecture, the unique columns, vault, cookie- and gumdrop-covered ATM and taking in the gingerbread.”

Deborah Van Valkenburgh, SVP of corporate brand management at PNC Financial Services Group, says, “We loved that families could experience the spirit of the season while also learning a little bit about the economy and banking. And the branch was magical, it was a thrill to see children’s eyes light up at a storybook brought to life.”

For those who were unable to make it to the physical destination of the gingerbread house, the accompanying website, specifically for the launch of the index, offers an immersive experience that includes a mobile-ready, 360-degree augmented reality tour of the house in Philadelphia. The site also has a ‘the baking of’ section, which tells the story behind the creation of the gingerbread branch through film and photographic images. This content-led approach encourages users to engage with both the index and the PNC brand in a deeper and more meaningful way. The design of the site makes it easy to use and interact with, and the visuals include close-up shots of the baking process, which add to the sensuality of the browsing experience and thus make the site even more immersive.

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The website also contains information about the Christmas Price Index which, in 2015, was aligned with the U.S. government’s Consumer Price Index having increased 0.2% over the past 12 months. Other information includes the history of the index, as well as educational resources for teachers looking to teach their students about the stock market, inflation and economic trends. A lesson plan is provided by the SIFMA Foundation, an organisation dedicated to providing youth of all backgrounds with an understanding of the capital markets. By including resources for educators, PNC also positions itself as an educator and authority, as well as a business that gives back to its communities.

Chandler says, “Every year, we try to think of a fun, new way of bringing the Christmas Price Index to life, and to play off of traditional holiday themes. This year we approached the assignment with two additional considerations: it should be participatory and localised with the ability to be brought to life elsewhere.”

Fun and finance may, at first, seem unlikely bedfellows, but PNC’s brand supports the creativity and ingenuity of the project. By creating such a fun and interactive campaign around the release of its annual index, PNC cleverly goes against negative banking stereotypes such as stuffiness, inaccessibility and untrustworthiness. Yet, if the campaign was not aligned with established public perception of PNC’s overall brand, the campaign would seem disingenuous and jarring. PNC has, over the years, built up a brand strategy that will support a campaign as potentially risky as a biscuit bank branch. Many of PNC’s other brand communications, also conceived with Deutsch, buck the clichés of the financial industry – they are creative and visually compelling.

PNC Financial Services traces its history to the Pittsburgh Trust and Savings Company, which was founded in 1845. It is currently the fifth largest bank in the United States. The Christmas Price Index was first launched 32 years ago when the chief economist at PNC Bank decided to figure out how much it would cost to buy each of the gifts in ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’ The total cost for the Christmas Price Index in 2015 was $34,130.99, just $198 more than last year. The 2015 report found that five gold rings would cost the same as they did the past two years, despite a general decline in the price of gold. The price of the pear tree however – home to the partridge – increased 1.2% in a reflection of rising property prices. The price for the eight maids-a-milking – the only unskilled workers to appear in the index – held steady for the sixth year in a row, reflecting minimum wage in the U.S. which hasn’t risen since 2009. PNC’s sources include retailers, hatcheries, the Philadelphia-based PHILADANCO and the Pennsylvania Ballet Company.

Jim Dunigan, chief investment officer at PNC Asset Management Group says, “While the economy continues to chug along on a sustainable path, low commodity prices are keeping consumer costs down. With only a few items in our index increasing in cost this year, true loves should be thrilled that they can have their goose and better afford the gas to roast it too.”

The Christmas Price Index is part of PNC’s aim to make matters of economy, which affect citizens in general – and its customers in particular – on a daily basis, easy and effortless to understand. This is a part of PNC’s wider mission, values and purpose. Chandler says, “PNC’s mission is to foster financial well-being for all, and helping people better understand the economy is a part of that mission.”

She adds, “By making learning about the economy more fun and accessible, the gingerbread branch truly exhibited the brand’s personality – it was approachable, innovative and insightful.” The campaign both felt like the PNC brand, and helped to further its wider business goals and mission. The interactive and immersive elements of the index launch helped to engage people with both the campaign and the brand to better deliver its message and position it as an industry leader. Like future economic trends, the tactics that PNC will use upon the launch of next year’s report are yet to be determined.