Sucheta Dalal :Surprisingly SBI!
Sucheta Dalal

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Surprisingly SBI!  

December 2, 2005

“Which bank has more customers than the population of Australia?” ask publicity hoardings in all major cities. The answer: “Surprisingly SBI”.


Many of us probably didn’t know that particular fact or understand the comparison, but does it matter? Most of us certainly know that State Bank of India (SBI) is the Big Daddy of Indian banking. The bank is so large (assets of $ 126 billion) that its closest competitor, the super-aggressive ICICI Bank is a distant second (assets $42 billion). A bank which started life as the Imperial Bank of India nearly 200 years ago continues to be 60 %owned by the RBI and has been known as the banker to the government.


SBI’s network of 13,813 branches apparently makes it the largest bank in the world in terms of its branch network and reach. And, even after a  steady erosion in its market share since the liberalisation process began, SBI still accounts for 20 per cent of India’s loan and deposit activities (without including its large family of sister banks).


That is why, when I was chasing the Harshad Mehta scam story in 1992, it was so difficult to believe that the mighty SBI could be involved in dubious financing of the late stockbroker.


Why should SBI, in what is probably its largest publicity campaign, exhibit such shocking inferiority and diffidence about the size of its banking network or customers? It would be understandable if SBI felt diffident about the quality of its service or the level of automation at its branches but surely not the size of its operations or its market leadership.


One could argue that a business journalist is not the target audience for this campaign. So I asked a variety of people for their opinion on the advertisements and I also trawled the Internet for reactions. Almost everybody I spoke to (these were all urban, educated people who own a bank account) knew that SBI was India’s biggest bank and found the advertising campaign surprisingly insecure.


For instance, Blogger Kaushal Sheth says he likes the campaign. He thinks it is a good idea to remind people that SBI is the biggest bank in the country, but he is ‘bothered’ by the use of “surprisingly”. “Everyone knows SBI is the biggest amongst all banks in India and it will take a lot of time for private banks to perhaps get closer to it. Then why use the word Surprisingly?” he asks. I would have used “Of course, SBI”, or “Naturally SBI”, he says.


SBI itself appears surprised at its market leadership, muses another blogger. A top government official concurs with this view. Taking an even more extreme stand he wonders why SBI investors are not suing the management.


How does one explain what bloggers have clearly identified as diffidence or an inferiority complex? To my mind, part of the problem is faulty research, but it also reflects a steady emasculation of the spirit of public sector organisation (PSUs) in the 14 years since India embarked on its economic liberalisation programme. In these years, vested interests have portrayed all PSUs negatively while lobbying for their privatisation. Although some PSUs have risen to the challenge from agile competitors, SBI’s campaign suggests that a few are losing their nerve and their confidence. 


I asked SBI’s PR agency about the basis of this campaign. I was told that it was conceived after a survey of 10,000 people conducted on FM radio. This is corroborated by someone called Shuuv who has meticulously posted almost identical messages on two blogs explaining the basis of SBI’s campaign. Shuuv says he worked closely with the advertising campaign and that it was based on “consumerspeak” which showed that SBI’s target group in the age bracket of 20 to 35 were pleasantly surprised at SBI’s leadership in ATMs, internet banking and customers.


Anyone who has studied statistics knows that badly collated data leads to outrageous results. Most educated Indians in the 20 to 35 age group probably have a bank account and are familiar with some information on banks. However, the research was based on a FM radio survey and we have a fair idea of the profile that usually responds to FM quizzes and contests. This begs some basic questions. What was education level of participants in this survey? Did they have bank accounts? Were they yuppie technology company executives, college students or maybe even taxi drivers and casual labour?


SBI’s campaign, on television as well as its publicity hoardings depicts hip workplaces. Clearly then, the advertisements aim to target young, educated, tech-savvy people. The question is, were they “pleasantly” surprised at the size of SBI’s ATM and internet banking network or that it was the largest bank in India? If it is the latter, SBI’s advertising sending out a wrong and unintended message.


The more interesting question is, which did the respondent think was India’s largest bank? Was it ICICI Bank?  SBI’s television advertisements depict a young man who changes his name and another who turn up at office in red boxer shorts (worn under a jacket and tie if you please) after losing a bet over SBI’s market leadership. Unfortunately, instead of correcting the picture, it shows SBI in bad light.


Isn’t it also possible that the target customer group simply doesn’t care? They are probably unimpressed by market size and more concerned with service quality.


SBI is India’s biggest bank and is clearly working hard to protect its market leadership through international bank acquisitions; but it has a long way to go in improving service quality, the ambience of its ATMs as well as branches and to demonstrate that its technology savvy. Fixing these issues will make a bigger difference in fixing the bank’s image.


Whatever way you look at it, the “surprisingly SBI” campaign makes India’s largest bank appear unsure. The advertising message itself is well conceived and executed, but the basic premise itself is wrong; but SBI’s management is responsible for that. 


(This article first appeared in the Hindustan in hindi)

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-- Sucheta Dalal