First Direct Is The Platypus of Banking

In a TV commercial starring the world's most bizarre animal, First Direct tries to reclaim its position as the UK’s favorite challenger bank by returning to their irreverent roots.

First Direct has launched an integrated campaign intended to reignite its status as one of the UK’s favorite challenger brands. At the center of the multimedia push is a strangely compelling, one-minute, black-and-white TV spot.

The commercial stars “Barry,” an affable platypus walking about town while he makes points about his favorite bank, First Direct. As the platypus makes his way from a second-hand record store to a local bar, he espouses the many virtues of First Direct: they are offbeat, friendly and different — just like him.


“The main character in the ad is Platypus — half mammal, half bird — a bit of an oddball character,” says Lisa Wood, Head of Marketing at First Direct. “He is a little bit of a cool dude. He likes his vintage vinyl. He knows people. Cheeky little chap — very friendly — but actually really knows who he is and what he stands for. He’s a bit like us as a bank, so we love the idea.”

“I like things a bit offbeat,” says the platypus. “So I bank with First Direct. They do things differently. They’re not into that automated recording malarkey. You get through to a friendly human who just get things sorted. Clearly First Direct aren’t very banky for a bank, which suits me — just your average half-mammal/half-bird with flippers and claws who collects second-hand vinyl and lays eggs.”

The bank says the campaign represents a deliberate effort to return to its roots as a scrappy and irreverent upstart. First Direct helped pioneer the direct banking concept nearly a quarter century ago, but on the eve of their 25th anniversary, the bank’s leadership feared the brand may be losing its edge.

“We’re now seen as a quiet brand, whereas it used to be quite a loud brand. We realize we need to reenergize the brand,” Wood confesses in an interview. “We’re trying to really reignite the challenger element of our brand and show we’re a different kind of bank, The new spot is irreverent, and dials back up what we stood for 23 years ago.”

Print and outdoor ads use headlines that are somewhere between witty and cryptic: “If a tomato is a fruit, then we’re a bank,” “We’re the crab that walks forward,” and “We’re a zebra in a stable full of horses.”

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For a Brand Analogy, a Platypus is Pretty Good

It’s probably safe to assume that no bank has ever used a platypus as a brand analogy in its ads. Most financial institutions prefer to compare themselves with corporate clichés in the animal kingdom in an attempt to lionize their brands — literally — with images of mighty cats and birds of prey like hawks and eagles.

But the platypus isn’t simply something that’s unique and differentiated — it’s not just a gimmick. It’s a comparison that actually holds up to scrutiny. First Direct has frequently positioned itself on the fringe, pursuing innovative and often daring ideas (translation: not everything they’ve tried has worked). But they are most certainly unique and quirky, like a platypus.

Unlike a platypus, however, First Direct isn’t really a “hybrid bank.” If they were truly “part mammal, part bird” — a beaver with a duck bill and webbed claws — the analogy would seem to connote a financial institution that had killer tech (like First Direct does) and branches (which First Direct does not have).

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What’s particularly interesting about the “Platypus” spot is that First Direct uses two animals as brand analogies, not just one. The zebra that sneaks in in the last few frames speaks much about how the bank sees itself — the simplicity of something that’s presented purely in black-and-white, and the irresistible attraction of oddities. Indeed First Direct models its entire brand identity on the monochromatic palette zebras are so famous for. Color is very rarely used, if ever.

Key Insight: Branding consultants often use animal analogies to tease out an organization’s personality. When conducting these exercises, almost every financial institution says (uncourageously) that it is friendly and loyal like a dog — man’s best friend. But safe, common, predictable answers — like dogs — don’t yield any real insight or brand differentiation. Merrill Lynch sees itself as fierce and powerful, like a bull. What brand totem would you pick for your financial institution?


Ummm, Excuse Me…

The spot ends with a fart joke. (Yes, you read that correctly: a fart joke.)

The First Direct Platypus walks into a bar. He pulls up a stool next to a guy sipping his beer, sits down, and starts to groan and squeeze like he’s cutting cheese. “Pfffrt…” Out pops an egg. The platypus looks over at the guy and says, “Yeah yeah, I know. ‘A platypus walks into a bar…’ I’ve heard ’em all before.”

Yuck, yuck.

It’s a gas gag that might offend some viewers in America, but isn’t likely to raise much of a stink in the U.K. where the ad was made.

The final shot in the spot shows a zebra rounding the corner outside the bar, although most people in the audience probably won’t notice; they’ll still be pondering the coarse display of table manners exhibited by the now-relieved Platypus.

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Executing the Creative Strategy

“Along this journey through the street that the platypus takes, he kind of just nods and observes moments that illustrate the points he’s making about the bank,” says Jason Berry, Creative Director at JWT, the agency that hatched the platypus concept. “We wanted to appeal to a younger group of people, and get this younger crowd to think of the bank as a bit innovative and different but not trying to be too cool.”

The spot was filmed on Columbia Road in London’s East End, an area rife with smaller, quirky, independent mom-and-pop type shops.

“We filmed there because it absolutely represents the kind of bank that we believe we are, and the kind of place our duck-billed platypus person would be actually be at home in,” Wood explains.

Filming the commercial was challenging, since the star (Platypus) couldn’t actually be on the set. The main character had to be rendered with CGI in a studio, so during production film crews used stand-ins — a cardboard replica and a stuffed otter.

Tim Van Hussen, lead animator on the project, said it was quite difficult to animate expressions in a computer-generated platypus.

“What we wanted to avoid was to enter Disney areas and make him over-expressive,” Van Hussen recounts. “So all of the acting we could do would have to be in the body mechanics — head motion, and hand motion if possible.”

First Direct admits this is the first time that they’ve ever tried anything with CGI animation.

“Building a character from scratch is a really exciting thing to see come to life,” Woods says. “You’ve got to try and imagine how the whole thing will come together in the end.”

Woods seems quite pleased with the final product.

“We were looking for a creative idea that really stood out for us, and we think this ad just ticks all the boxes.”

How about you? What do you think? Do you like First Direct’s “Platypus” spot? The message it sends and what it symbolizes?

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