Country Calendar shacks up with Hyundai, adding fuel to glue factory rumours for National Bank stallion

The first episode of the new season of Country Calendar screened on ONE on Saturday night and it was interesting for a few reasons: 1) it’s the 45th year of the show. 2) Hyundai is the show’s new sponsor, bringing to an end a long relationship with the National Bank. And 3) it seems to add some weight to swirling speculation that the National Bank could be gearing up for a much-discussed merger with the big, blue ANZ mothership.

Last week, we asked ANZ comms manager Astrid Smeele a few questions about the possibility of the merger, the reasons for chucking in the towel with Country Calendar and the security of the other sponsorships (namely NZ cricket) but didn’t hear anything back. We followed up with the PR gatekeepers today but no official answers have been forthcoming.

The NBR reported mysterious industry insiders as saying the phasing out of the National Bank brand is likely to happen within the next two months and that the National Bank’s marketing budget has now been redirected to ANZ. As per usual, the rumours were partially denied by the top brass, with the same “everything is on the table” line that’s been used for the past two years.

According to a National Bank source, the possibility of a merger does get mentioned occasionally but it’s been mentioned occasionally ever since the ANZ bought National Bank off British-based Lloyds TSB in 2003 for $6.9 billion, so, internally at least, “it’s no higher profile now than it has been for ages”.

With ANZ’s super-regional strategy in the 32 Asia Pacific countries it operates in being trumpeted when the bank launched its new Lotus logo in 2009, the fact there are two brands under the ANZ umbrella in the New Zealand market is something of an anomaly. The bringing together of the two will happen eventually in the hope it will lead to cost-savings, less bureaucracy and greater efficiency. But that has to be weighed up with the potential loss of business from National Bank customers aggrieved that their much-loved stallion has been sent to the glue factory (National Bank has a much better reputation for customer service than ANZ and if the decision goes ahead it could play into Kiwibank’s hands, although the NBR claims banks can rely on just five-ish percent customer churn when brands merge because it’s often seen as being too difficult to change).

Given DraftFCB’s big budget Dr Suess-inspired ‘For the Places You’ll Go‘ campaign was released last year and the use of the black horse and the green and black box was licensed again from Lloyds until 2014 for an undisclosed fee, it seems a strange time to close the doors on a premium brand and replace it with a largely unloved one that has plenty of work to do if it hopes to climb the customer satisfaction rankings. Still, after a recent management restructure that moved responsibility for the brands’  retail, business banking, commercial and agri businesses and the private banking segment of the wealth business to four regions (Southern, Central, Northern and Auckland), moves to share some of the same behind-the-scenes IT functions and ANZ’s sponsorship of the Rugby World Cup likely to see the brand dominating the banking landscape this year, perhaps it is a good time to lance this particular boil.

In Australia, M&C Saatchi has just lost the ANZ account after 14 years in the hotseat and it is thought TBWA\ is likely to nab the regional account. DDB has done some good work on the account in New Zealand since it picked it up and while TBWA\ Auckland has been hunting for a new banking client after it lost ASB to Droga5 last year, DDB managed to get past a similar stumbling block last year with one of its big clients after a stunner of a pitch meant it retained the Cadbury business, despite Cadbury’s global alliance with Saatchi & Saatchi.

As for Country Calendar, TVNZ research indicates the show was being watched more by what it described as ‘Kiwi battlers’ like farmhands, not the big rural decision makers. Interestingly, the show is also very popular with city slickers looking for some kind of connection to the country, so you can see why National Bank have subbed out on the deal, and, with a number of big car companies currently trying to eat into Toyota’s rural stranglehold, you can also see why Hyundai has taken its place.

Last time we wrote a Hyundai-related story, no-one returned our calls. And we haven’t heard from them this time either. But Country Calendar’s producer Julian O’Brien did say in a blog post that “Hyundai is a go-ahead company with a quality product and a very positive attitude to the people who work for and with them. That makes them an excellent ‘fit’ for us because we, too, aim for a quality product”.

It’s been a quality product for a while now but when the first episode went to air on 6 March, 1966, front-man Fred Barnes wore a suit, read out information about market prices and conducted an interview with the chairman of the Meat Board, all in the studio. Less than six minutes of the programme, a report on a Central Otago apricot orchard, was filmed in the field. When Frank Torley arrived to work on the show ten years later, the programme began to focus on a single topic each episode, going out into the field and putting farmers at the heart of the show.

After 35 years delving into other rural issues, the episode that aired on Saturday turned the camera on Torley himself, who is now a consultant producer. And he looked pretty damn sharp too, because, thanks to Hyundai, it’s the first series of the show to be shot in high definition.

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