The lessons in a marketing fumble by TD Bank

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“When you’re Downtown, but your debit card’s somewhere in Dorchester.”

TD Bank certainly only intended to promote its instant debit card reissuance, perhaps with an alliterative play on different neighborhoods of Boston. But for those who live, work and have civic pride in Dorchester — an ethnically diverse community that is often stereotyped as crime-ridden — the message hit a nerve.

A customer snapped a photo of that poster inside of TD Bank’s Back Bay branch when he stopped in to close his account, and it was not long before the picture was circulated on Twitter. It earned the Canadian bank stern words not only on social media, but also from Dorchester native and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who called it “really insulting.” Within about a day, TD Bank had pulled the signage from its branch and apologized.

At best, the message was another example of tone-deaf marketing. At worst, it stemmed from — and played to — racial and socioeconomic prejudices.

While some may be tempted to dismiss the incident as another product of internet-outrage culture, it holds some important lessons for bankers, according to marketing experts and other observers. It is risky to try to get too cute in your advertising, and trying to come across as local can sometimes read as inauthentic. It is also critical to get a diversity of viewpoints into the room when deciding how to market your bank. And it highlights the importance of a swift correction when a message lands poorly.

After all, banks spend a lot of money on marketing — isn’t it worth it to get it right?

“I don’t think we can afford to dismiss our markets or the audiences we serve and just chalk it up to, ‘they’re critical,’ ” said Kevin Tynan, a bank marketing consultant. “We expect more from our banks now than we ever did, and you must relate to the consumer. Other people want your clients, and they will find ways to relate to your consumer.”

The marketing mishap was surprising for a few reasons. First, while TD Bank’s U.S. headquarters are in New Jersey, the bank has long had a presence in the Greater Boston market (though notably, not in Dorchester). The company also prides itself on diversity and inclusion, both among its ranks and in its corporate philanthropy.

Finally, the ad also echoed a 2017 campaign by Samsung that caught heat for similar reasons. In that case, the company hung large banner ads in the South Station train hub in Boston that read: “We’ll keep your work stuff safe if you go to Alewife and your phone goes to Mattapan.”

Though Alewife and Mattapan are opposite ends of the same subway line, many read a more ominous subtext in that message: The phone wasn’t just left on the subway, but stolen — by somebody from Mattapan (another diverse Boston neighborhood).

“I’m really surprised that they basically replicated a campaign that had previously been pilloried,” said Steven Reider, president of the marketing and branch planning adviser Bancography. “You can’t tell me that if you’re advertising in the Boston market that you’re not aware of that.”

For Bill Forry, the publisher and editor of the family-owned Dorchester Reporter, it was the operative phrase “somewhere in Dorchester” that stung.

“It’s not on your desk in Dorchester or in your couch back in Dorchester,” he said. “There’s a sinister meaning to that and that’s why it engendered the response it did.”

While it would be easy enough to characterize the episode as a classic big-bank bungle, Tynan said community banks are not immune to making these kinds of mistakes, either. Smaller banks would also do well to check in with others outside the marketing department before going public with a new ad.

That can make the difference in something as simple as nailing the correct dialect for the neighborhood you’re targeting with a Spanish-language ad, he said.

“You obviously need a second or third set of eyeballs on these before they go to market,” said Doug Strickler, CEO of the advertising firm HOT° INC. “If other institutions can learn something here, it’s that you really have to make sure that everyone’s done their due diligence. Have a spirited debate and dialogue.”

Forry also believes that a greater diversity of voices in the bank’s marketing and advertising teams could have helped prevent an issue like this.

“Everybody should review their marketing content in light of this and make some decisions based on that and based on the composition of their team,” he said. “Mistakes do happen, but the best prevention here is to have a diverse group of people, whether in your C-suite or ad agency.”

There is at least one more lesson in this for other bank marketers: If you do screw up, do not be too proud to apologize.

TD Bank declined to comment further for this story but reiterated its original apology for the message.

“We are sorry that an ad that appeared in one of our stores was insensitive to the Dorchester community,” a spokeswoman said in an email. She added that the ad “does not reflect our core values around diversity and inclusion.”

Forry told American Banker he received a phone call from TD Bank’s regional president after the photo caught fire on Twitter. He said he appreciated the phone call and the swift response from TD Bank, but added that TD’s lack of a presence in Dorchester only poured salt in the wound.

“It annoys me that they would insinuate our community into their marketing if they really don’t have a presence here,” he said. “That’s part of the frustration and the angst around them doing it.”

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