Sep 29, 2005

Irish Banks target immigrants

Story from the Sunday Times:

To compete for the huge new wave of immigrant workers in Ireland , banking now needs to be multilingual.

BANKING jargon is gobbledygook to many people — and that is official. According to a report released this month by the Educational Building Society, more than a third of Irish adults don’t know what APR stands for. (It’s annual percentage rate.)

If fluent English speakers have such difficulties, what happens to those who do not even speak the language?

This is a daily problem for thousands of immigrant workers and members of ethnic communities up and down the country. Now the retail banking sector is beginning to wake up and take notice. Banks are scrambling to prepare marketing strategies aimed at capturing a slice of the immigrant market, the country’s fastest-growing personal-banking market segment.

With the introduction of the Irish Bankers Federation’s switching code and Permanent TSB’s (PTSB) launch of its free current account, Bank of Ireland (BoI) and Allied Irish Banks, which between them control about 75% of the market, have seen their market share come under threat. Smarting after a succession of high-profile scandals, both have been eyeing up the immigrant sector to boost branch footfall.

That the immigrant sector is growing at a phenomenal rate is not in doubt. Currently there are about 240,000 migrant workers living in Ireland, about 6% of the population, and the Central Statistics Office has said that the country needs a further 50,000 each year for the next 12 years to sustain economic growth. With some 57% of immigrants holding higher education qualifications, the opportunities for banks who tailor their marketing strategies accordingly are obvious.

BoI, the country’s second-largest bank by market value, was first out of the blocks with the launch of its migrant worker marketing initiative during the summer. “The increase in immigration is obvious to see on the streets,” said Fergus O’Neill of BoI’s personal banking division and the person charged with driving migrant-worker sales. “We noticed it in the branches too.”

According to BoI, in the past year up to 70% of new accounts in some areas were opened by migrant workers.

BoI enlisted the help of the Immigrant Council of Ireland last January as it sought to develop its strategy and, according to the council, more companies have contacted it since. “We carried out significant research with members of the migrant worker community,” said O’Neill. “This highlighted language difficulties as the single biggest barrier for them when it comes to banking.”

In response, the bank translated its brochures and forms into three languages: Polish and Mandarin Chinese, to target Ireland’s two fastest-growing immigrant sectors, and Russian, to target the rest of eastern Europe and the other EU accession states. The forms are available at all branches countrywide. It also recruited a number of bilingual customer service staff for some of its key urban branches, including Chinese speakers at its O’Connell Street and College Green branches in Dublin, and a Polish speaker at its Blanchardstown branch.

The bank is also planning to revamp its online and telephone banking services to reflect the language changes.

In an attempt to reach its new target market, BoI is compiling an advertising campaign in foreign-language press here in Ireland. “Migrant communities are not great readers of mainstream press,” said O’Neill. “We will be advertising with Szpila, a Polish magazine, next month, and we will be also looking at the Polska Gazeta and the Shining Emerald Isle, a Chinese community paper.”

BoI said that, with the exception of a high usage of foreign currency wiring, or remittance services, migrants have exactly the same banking requirements as other sectors, and it has no plans to develop tailored banking products.

AIB, the country’s largest bank, has left itself open to charges that it has dragged its heels on the issue and has yet to reveal details of how it is planning to target the immigrant segment. However, it is expected to follow a similar path to BoI and focus on translation services rather than a product- development approach. “While we believe that ethnic customers will have some unique needs, our approach will be that they can avail of the full range of services offered by AIB to all our customers,” said Grainne Clancy, of the bank’s customer strategy unit.

“It is an important emerging market for us,” she said. “In terms of our business customers, an increasing number are employing non-nationals and are looking to the bank to support them in ensuring that they have accounts in which to pay their salaries.”

AIB will be able to leverage off its presence in Poland — it owns a majority stake in the country’s BZWBK bank — when it comes to targeting that community here in Ireland. “Our primary focus has been on building links with the Polish community,” said Clancy.

PTSB, which is aiming for a 25% share of the current account market, says that it is opening an average of 1,000 new accounts each week. According to the bank, there will be a “number of marketing initiatives” aimed at immigrant communities over the next few months. “We will be looking to identify publications of high interest to the non-national community in order to find new advertising vehicles,” said the bank. “You can also expect initiatives in translation and dedicated customer-service points for non-nationals.”

According to Sarah Deeny, an account director with advertising agency AFA O’Meara and who has experience of working with the banking sector, the banks should focus on building trust in its communications with the immigrant population. “In its poster campaigns BoI should include a photo of its bilingual staff and it should say, ‘Come in and talk to’ (staff member’s name). You have to cross the fear barrier first,” she said.

“Banks could also learn a thing or two from the way Vodafone markets itself at the airport. It targets people as soon as they step off the plane. They should be using this as a benchmark,” she said.

Other ways for banks to target ethnic customers, according to Deeny, would be local leafleting campaigns in urban areas with a high migrant population, the use of mobile-phone marketing through text promotions, and the targeting of ethnic food stores and internet cafes for advertising. “They could run promotions with a trip home to visit your family as a prize,” she said.

Irish banks are still a long way behind their counterparts in the UK and Europe when it comes to targeting migrant communities. In recent years, HSBC launched a Muslim-friendly mortgage — the payment of interest is forbidden under Islamic law — which consisted of rent payments until the value of the house was paid off. Lloyds TSB, the UK’s fifth-largest bank, recently rolled out a remittance venture with India’s ICICI bank to target the millions of pounds sent home by Indian migrant workers each year. BBVA, Spain’s second-largest bank, has launched a chain of designated one-stop shops for immigrants under the banner of Dinero Express.

Across the Atlantic, many US banks now provide “talking” ATMs in several different languages. With the launch of a “talking” ATM for the visually impaired on Baggot Street in Dublin last week, it could only be a matter of time before the country’s cash machines start chattering back to customers in a variety of different tongues.

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