In late June, the banking and financial services giant Barclays introduced a fictional character named Dan on its Facebook page. Dan's appearance coincided with the bank facing massive fines for illegally manipulating interest rates. The social media mascot - whose character was, after all, no more honest than those of rate-fixing bank officials - became a natural target for the bank's outraged customers, who turned an awkward social media campaign into an epic fail. Social media strategists: Beware the combination of bad timing and tone-deaf execution.
The fictional Dan, a hapless everyman who needed banking advice in a bad way, first appeared to Barclays' Facebook following on June 26. The following day, the bank agreed to pay a $450 million fine for its involvement in fixing the London Interbank Offered Rate known as Libor. (Libor exercises a broad influence over everything from credit card bills and mortgages to student loans.)
Barclays is accused of artificially adjusting rates to promote the company's own finances, a charge made all the more damning by the recent publication of private email correspondences in which executives and traders chat casually about popping bottles of champagne to celebrate the fixed rates: "Dude. I owe you big time! Come over one day after work and I'm opening a bottle of Bollinger."
So What's Wrong With Dan?
Even if he hadn't been introduced at the exact wrong time, Barclays' fictional social representative was spectacularly poorly executed. Big banks are among the least trusted companies in the world, along with airlines and cable providers. In a 2010 survey, only 16% of HSBC customers agreed with the statement: “My financial provider does what’s best for me, not just its own bottom line." Other major banks didn't fare much better, and the numbers haven't exactly rebounded in the years following the financial crisis.
With customer trust at rock-bottom, a brand like Barclays must tread very delicately when it comes to directly interacting with customers, especially on a casual social platform like Facebook. To pull off anything remotely clever in such a social campaign, a brand either needs to have the trust of its target audience or it better be making a joke at its own expense. Barclays proved lacking in both areas.
The company introduced its effigy with a condescending flourish:
Say hi to Dan. He says he’s pretty useless at budgeting. We’re going to follow him this week to see what he spends, and work out where he can save to enjoy more of summer.
It wasn't long before Barclays' Facebook page devolved into a minefield of jokes lambasting the company, which only served to highlight the socioeconomic rift between the banking institution and its customers.
An especially awkward post suggested that Dan might not be aware that he could save money by not spending it at restaurants:
Dan’s a HR manager and spends £5 a day on lunch. That’s about £100 a month; enough to buy a ticket to the vintage car festival he really wants to go to in August. Bringing food from home for a couple of months would mean a more memorable end to the summer. So come on Dan, get making those sandwiches and book those festival tickets.
The responses virtually wrote themselves:
"Dan's festival fund is suddenly wiped out by an inexplicable hike in his mortgage rate."
"I don't care about 'Dan'. Dan is a HR Manager and likes vintage car festivals. On top of that, he seems to be getting financial advice from Barclays bank. The man's an idiot."
"Bob’s a CEO and spends £5,000 a day on Bollinger. That’s about £155,000 a month; enough to buy a classic Ferrari at the vintage car festival he really wants to go to in August. Rigging LIBOR for a couple of months would mean a more memorable end to the summer."
Former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond, who walked away from the company in the midst of the scandal, is set to receive a £2 million severance package. Unlike Dan, Diamond won't need to pack brown-bag lunches anytime soon.