USAA Defines What It Isn’t in Massive Ad Campaign

Usually known for its understated and reserved approach to marketing, USAA is going on the attack in its latest ad campaign, reportedly the largest ever for the member-based financial organization.

The campaign is built around the what USAA isn’t and what it didn’t do: no bailouts, no greedy Wall Street bankers, etc.

“They charged you $38 billion in fees, and some still needed a bailout,” reads one ad. “We believe the only banks that can claim financial stability are ones like USAA that didn’t take a dime in TARP funds,” reads another.

USAA, whose membership is closed to military families, is running the campaign in cities with significant military populations. The campaign invites military men and women who are not yet members to, “Try USAA.” The basic call to action is used as a common refrain in each of the ads.

The campaign — estimated at $25 million — includes print advertising, billboards, radio advertising, direct mail, email and online marketing, and will run through early November.

One unique component of the campaign is coffee sleeves with messages such as: “What’s more bitter, a $3 ATM fee or a $3 cappuccino? Try USAA Bank.” They will be distributed by independent coffee shops in all of the USAA’s major markets, according to an article in MarketingDaily.

The message USAA intends to send is, “We are responsible.” But for some people, it might come across as, “Hey, at least we didn’t screw up.” That might leave them wondering, “So what? Big deal? You didn’t make the same reckless mistakes as others.”

Reality Checks:

  • People aren’t going to heap praises on companies just because they didn’t screw up.
  • Everyone has been bashing big banks for months. The “We’re-Not-Like-Wall-Street” space has gotten really crowded in the last few months. Congress. The media. Even local delis and coffee shops are piling on. Besides, if you don’t have a corporate jet, you’re just like 99.9% of all the other companies out there.

Unlike most banks around the world, USAA Federal Savings Bank returned a healthy after-tax profit of $188 million in 2008. USAA’s president and CEO Joe Robles said USAA continues to be profitable in 2009. “We did not take a cent of government bailout money,” he said an email to members. “In fact, we returned $857 million to our members last year.”

$368 million of it went to members through ATM surcharge rebates, rebates for buying or selling a home through USAA, credit and debit card rewards and home-equity loan closing costs paid by USAA.

The campaign is the work of Interpublic Group’s Campbell-Ewald, who won the USAA account earlier this year. The agency also handles ad responsibilities for the U.S. Navy account.


Key Takeaway: Juxtapositions can be immensely powerful (think about the Mac vs. PC ads from Apple), but you will only get so far by defining what you aren’t. The rules of advertising still apply and there has to be real consumer benefits. Simply saying “we’re not like them” doesn’t cut it. As Bryan Clagett, a branding and marketing consultant, recently put it, “Sure, safety and soundness are important, but there needs to be an even greater value proposition.”




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