Business & Tech

Ads show Eastern Bank’s true colors on social issues

An Eastern Bank ad (above) is prominently displayed on a Southeast Expressway billboard in Dorchester.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

An Eastern Bank ad (above) is prominently displayed on a Southeast Expressway billboard in Dorchester.

At a time when many companies are trying to sidestep political controversy to keep all of their customers happy, Eastern Bank is embracing its socially liberal bent.

The state’s largest community bank is launching a rebranding effort on Tuesday under the slogan “Join us for good” that puts the bank’s politics front and center.

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In a series of commercials and billboards, the bank is hitting such hot-button issues as gay rights and immigration. One ad features two women, their hands clasped and wrapped in a rainbow flag, with the message “Good unites.” Another depicts immigrants swearing their allegiance at a naturalization ceremony under the banner of “Good welcomes.” Television spots include transgender people.

The campaign has been in the works for more than a year, and wasn’t a rebuke to President Trump’s recent crackdown on immigration and reversal of an Obama administration order allowing transgender students to use bathrooms based on their gender identity, said Bob Rivers, chief executive of Eastern Bank.

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But in this hyper-sensitive time in a deeply divided nation, the ads are being seen through a different prism.

“There was a recognition that the resonance of the campaigns would be stronger post-election than pre-election,” Rivers said.

While Eastern Bank might disagree with the Trump administration on certain policy issues, the ads are not meant to be anti-Trump, he said.

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US brands have been struggling in recent months to calibrate the right tone for these charged times, when a routine business decision or a stray comment can spark a backlash — including from the president.

Luxury department store Nordstrom found itself at the center of controversy in February when it dropped Ivanka Trump’s fashion line due to poor performance. In a Twitter message to millions of his followers, President Trump attacked the retailer for treating his daughter “unfairly.”

L.L. Bean Inc. was caught in the middle of a public relations headache earlier this year when one of its board members defended her financial contributions and support for Trump on television, triggering a thank-you tweet from the president — and threats from some consumers to boycott the brand.

And after a wave of criticism from Trump opponents, Uber Technologies Inc. chief executive Travis Kalanick stepped down from the president’s economic advisory council.

“In this marketplace, you’ve got to be careful with a somewhat political message because of who you are alienating on the other side,” said Marty Donohue, a partner and creative director at Full Contact, a Boston ad agency.

Some companies tried to gingerly step into the political fray with their Super Bowl advertising.

Anheuser-Busch built a commercial around Budweiser creator Adolphus Busch’s immigration story. Then the company spent several days explaining that it never intended the ad to be a political statement, pointing out that it had been filmed months before.

Airbnb’s Super Bowl commercial was more direct, featuring a diverse group of faces under text that said, “The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”

While Eastern Bank might disagree with the Trump administration on certain policy issues, an Eastern spokesman said the ads are not meant to be anti-Trump.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

While Eastern Bank might disagree with the Trump administration on certain policy issues, an Eastern spokesman said the ads are not meant to be anti-Trump.

Still, banks in particular have sought to avoid controversy when it comes to their marketing, sticking with feel-good themes of customer service or the basics of mortgage rates.

That’s mainly why Eastern decided to take a different approach, emphasizing its work on social issues as a way to stand out from the crowd, said Rivers, who took over as chairman and chief executive of the bank in January.

Eastern, with assets of about $10 billion, has never been shy about its support of liberal causes, but has never emphasized them to this extent.

In 2010, Eastern Bank bought Boston’s Wainwright Bank & Trust Co., which had a long history of supporting the gay and lesbian community. Eastern Bank signed an amicus brief asking the US Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.

The bank has backed transgender rights in Massachusetts. And its employees participated in the Women’s March earlier this year under an Eastern Bank banner.

It’s also based in deeply blue Massachusetts, where Trump received just 34 percent of the vote and where a liberal message may be more welcomed, Donohue said.

Most of the bank’s customers are likely familiar with its past support for such causes, so the ads shouldn’t be jarring, he said. And the bank is hoping the campaign will attract new customers who share its political viewpoint.

The bank tested its message multiple times and showed the advertising spots to employees, some of whom are Trump supporters, Rivers said.

“As with anything, there may be some people who don’t like it,” Rivers said. “It’s our story; it’s not made up.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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