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Smooth-talking Westpac’s banana slip-up

"In some ways, a bank is just like a company that sells banana smoothies." Behold the most-talked-about sentence in Australian banking. It comes from a three-minute animation sent to retail customers by Westpac in December in which the bank sought to explain rising interest rates on its mortgages by comparing them with the increase in Australian banana smoothie prices after Typhoon Larry.

Westpac is on the defensive after raising its mortgage interest rates by 45 basis points on the back of a Reserve Bank of Australia increase of barely half that, 25bp. But many customers have felt patronized by the animation, whose opening line is "once upon a time there were big lush fields of banana crops", delivered in a voice-over one Australian commentator describes as "the manner of a Hi-5 TV presenter on Mogadon".

It’s a rare challenge to chief executive Gail Kelly, who has built her career on the power of banking brands and the ability to relate to the individual customer. The antagonism has spread right up to prime minister Kevin Rudd, who said he thought Westpac should take "a long, hard look at itself".

The public reaction was not helped by the fact that the animation came out shortly after Westpac’s annual report revealed that Kelly earned A$8.48 million ($7.75 million) in the 2009 financial year including equity-based awards that vested during the year – rather more than one imagines Sydney’s banana smoothie vendors take home. 

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