From Henry the lonely hedgehog and Hanna the flightless bumblebee to this year’s conscientious father to be, Erste Group has defied financial sector stereotypes to create some of the most emotional and creative festive campaigns of the last four years, writes Laura Swinton
Back in the winter of 2018, we met a lonely little hedgehog whose prickles were getting in the way of his friendships. Between the soft, felted animation, the tearduct-tingling soundtrack and the warm and empathetic storytelling it was the standout festive campaign of the Christmas ad season that year. It proved to be a hit with audiences and has clocked up 78 million YouTube views.
But Henry the Hedgehog was a real surprise at the time. He didn’t come from a *cough* high profile British department store. Or a major global soft drink purveyor. Or any of the sectors that have been naturally drawn to Christmas advertising. So, who was this new player in the Yuletide advertising arena? Erste Group, and Austrian-founded financial institution that serves Central and Eastern Europe.
Since then, Erste Group’s holiday campaign has become a much-anticipated staple of the season - and the winning combination of Erste, their agency Jung Von Matt and production company Passion Pictures continue to tug the heartstrings in unexpected ways. Since 2018, the group’s festive campaigns have collectively garnered over 200 million views and over 50 industry awards.
But back in 2018, making a highly emotional Christmas ad wasn’t really an obvious choice for the finance sector.
Marketing director Mario Stadler and group brand manager Daniel Ratzenböck explain some of the thinking and conversations that led to the decision to go big for the festive season. “In 2018, we had the idea of doing something special across our group, something that also fitted with the holidays season. We wanted to launch an emotional campaign that was focused mainly on digital media, that was based on our brand purpose and really managed to touch peoples’ hearts and create a buzz. Out of a wide range of ideas put forward by our agency Jung von Matt, we decided to go with one that relied on animal characters to bring across that message.”
And so, Henry was born. In just two weeks he’d pulled in 38 million views and tens of thousands of interactions and comments. The team knew that emotion and storytelling would be effective, but even they were blown away by just how effective it would be. “. We were simply overwhelmed by this response – we honestly couldn’t believe what was going on! It went so far beyond what we had hoped to achieve.”
That emotional approach has been key to Erste Group, not just in their Christmas campaign but more broadly. “In the financial sector, it’s almost impossible to differentiate yourself over a longer period solely on the basis of your products and services,” Mario and Daniel explain. “We believe very strongly in the power of values and in the importance of conveying our attitude. Our overall brand communication approach is very much based on emotion. It’s not just our Christmas adverts that follow this principle.”
Thankfully the group has 200 years of history to draw from. As the leading financial institution for the eastern half of the European Union, with over 16 million clients and 45,000 employees across seven markets, the marketing team has leaned into the challenge of pulling the region together under a sense of purpose. With a focus on retail and corporate banking, Erste Group sees itself has playing a key role in supporting the economy of a region that they say ‘serves as Europe’s growth engine’. And that translates to a very deeply held mission.
“We were founded over two hundred years ago as the first savings bank in Austria. Since then, Erste has been driven by one strong purpose: to make prosperity available to everyone, regardless of their age, gender, nationality, or social class. Our brand narrative is built on that: “Our region needs people who believe in themselves. And a bank which believes in them. ‘#believeinyourself’,” say Mario and Daniel - and that narrative is clearly the thread that weaves through all of their Christmas campaigns from Henry the Hedgehog to Hanna the Bumblebee who wanted to fly and Edgar the pianist who’d lost his love of music.
Over time the stories have shifted a little, notably from the soft, fantastical stories of anthropomorphic forest creatures to more human characters. This year’s campaign is all about a father whose love for his daughter leads him to change his behaviour to make a better tomorrow, for example. Mario and Daniel say that through all of the campaigns is a deep human insight - although the changing global context has inevitably changed the kind of stories they want to tell and their audiences will want to see.
“We think there are also strong human insights in the Henry the Hedgehog or in the Hanna Bumblebee adverts: believing in yourself and helping others as they build on that self-belief. But one major difference in our two most recent adverts is their topicality,” the pair explains.
“Loneliness was such a major topic in the first difficult year of the global pandemic and was key to our Edgar the Composer advert in 2020. And, of course, sustainability is front and centre in this year’s advert. The decision to shift the visual presentation away from cute woodland creatures was thus more a result of our choice of topic, the story we wanted to tell. We always aim to find stories that are not only emotional, but also relevant and we want to take a stand as a brand – to contribute, to surprise and to inspire.”
This year’s campaign also weaves Erste’s values around green banking into the narrative. Again, that sense of responsibility is rooted in the group’s history - and in more recent years they’ve built sustainability into their business model. The mantra #believeinyourself has become #believeintomorrow. “Since our founding over two hundred years ago, we at Erste have taken social responsibility and contributing to the positive development of our region very seriously. Sustainability really is firmly rooted in our DNA and ESG is a major cornerstone of our business strategy. The “E” component of ESG is evolving dramatically and affecting not only our business, but our planet as a whole. As a banking group, we’ve made serious commitments to do our part in helping our customers and our region achieve a greener, more sustainable future.”
As much as the messaging around belief is an important narrative thread, there’s also a craft and aesthetic that also pulls all of the campaigns together. While the specific techniques may have changed, a soft, textured-looking animation and delicate music have created a signature for Erste Group’s festive ads that makes them distinctive and recognisable. Curiously, that’s something that has evolved organically - though has proven beneficial from a marketing standpoint.
“To be honest, we did not start down this path with a fix plan to use animated animals. For our first advert, it was the Henry the Hedgehog script that we fell in love with -- the animation was then “just” a result of that script. So, we were mainly looking for great story ideas. But it’s true that visual constancy can be an advantage.”
Looking back the Christmas campaigns have evolved to become so much more than Erste originally imagined. But what’s run through all of them is that aforementioned ‘dream team’ of agency and production company. It’s built a sense of camaraderie around the annual campaign that Mario and Daniel believe is incredibly motivating for all involved. “Trust and knowing each other and each other’s challenges is definitely beneficial. It is equally important to have the team consist of people who love their work and are fully committed to this project -- and that’s definitely true for our partners,” they say.
This year’s campaign will be seen on Erste Group’s YouTube channel and local market Facebook pages as well as Twitter, TikTok and on the corporate website - and the film has been cut down to a TVC that will run in some of its key markets. But it’s also important to understand where the campaign sits in relation to the business’s wider marketing mix throughout the year. “They don’t exist in isolation, but rather amplify the #believeinyourself platform that runs throughout the rest of the year. “Our Christmas campaigns are based on our brand narrative. Yes, we see them contributing positively to our brand perception, but they don’t do so in the sense of being the “single source” for it. It’s a matter of team play with our other activities under #believeinyourself.”
Photos: Left Mario Stadler by Sven Gilmore; Right Daniel Ratzenböck by Katharina Schiffl
So what lessons have Mario and Daniel learned from four years’ of successful and award-winning festive campaigns? For one thing, they say that Christmas advertising can be an additional but important element of their overall brand approach. Their advice to fellow marketers is: “The key is to have a team that loves working on the project. Don’t over engineer things. Keep the core team small, agile and decisive. Be brave - and have fun!”
2021’s outing is performing well, with nearly six million views in ten days on YouTube, and 2.5 million views on TikTok in Austria alone. So after all of that, why do they think the Christmas campaigns have proven so popular?
“We have managed to tell short stories that are emotional and surprising, that address broad audiences with topics and feelings that are relevant for them on a personal level,” they say. “Of course, sometimes you also need a little bit of luck – and we’ve had that as well.”