Nationwide Building Society had realised that media focus on the complexity of the UK market of more than 1,300 different credit cards was increasing, and the importance of transparent terms was growing.
The society decided to incorporate simple charging tables, called consumer boxes, in its literature - along the lines of those adopted in the US in the late 1980s. The aim was to make its credit card terms clearer and fairer to benefit consumers, and to push for the boxes to become standardised everywhere.
To raise awareness among MPs, the media and public about the lack of transparency in the credit card market. To highlight bad practice among providers. To present Nationwide as a leader in helping its customers and consumers to make informed choices.
Strategy and Plan
A two-pronged approach pushed the message to MPs on the one hand and the media and public on the other. Nationwide saw a lobbying opportunity in the cross-party House of Commons Treasury Select Committee's inquiry into credit card charges, interest calculation and over-indebtedness.
In October 2002, the society presented its consumer box idea to the committee's chairman, Dumbarton Labour MP John McFall. Discussions showed that credit cards were an issue the committee wanted to tackle, providing an opportunity to set an example on improving transparency. The committee announced the inquiry in May 2003.
In the run-up to, and during, the inquiry, Nationwide lobbied MPs and committee members. In February 2003, Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North (who is not a select committee member) initiated a Parliamentary debate on consumer boxes after discussions with the society. The society also gave evidence to the inquiry in July.
Nationwide then focused a media relations campaign at the trade press and personal finance pages of national newspapers between September 2002 and December 2003. It placed stories at the end of September using focus-group research showing how difficult a group of professional people found it to extract information a consumer box would include (such as interest rates and late payment fees) from six different credit card leaflets.
In October, the press team took the opportunity to exploit the story that Barclays chief executive Matt Barrett refused to use a Barclaycard because it was too expensive to convey the issue of fair charges to non-readers of newspaper money pages. It organised interviews with regional radio stations, pointing out that not all providers' charges were unfair and how consumer boxes would make them clearer. The Barclaycard story re-ignited interest in credit card conditions and generated half a dozen further national newspaper stories in November.
On 9 July, the day of the committee's ruling, Nationwide chief executive Philip Williamson appeared on BBC Radio 4's Today programme to discuss how transparency would help consumers in their spending decisions.
Measurement and Evaluation
Nationwide products topped the credit card category for six months in 2003 in financial services sector monthly media analysis from Press Watch.
Its approach to charges and its consumer boxes were mentioned 31 times in national newspapers including The Guardian, the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Mirror, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Coverage was positive on all occasions. It also received attention in trade magazines such as Financial Sector Technology, Personal Finance and Credit Today.
The mutual also notched up 22 interviews in the regional press in the wake of the Barclaycard story, including BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, Swansea Sound, Choice FM, Asian Sound Radio and Scotland's Forth One.
The Treasury Select Committee stipulated in its 10 December report that the industry must introduce consumer boxes by April 2004. Nationwide also claimed that applications for its credit cards increased by 61 per cent in the 12 months after it started its campaign.
'We had the furore triggered by the Treasury Select Committee inquiry and Barclays making faux pas like they were going out of fashion,' says Mail on Sunday personal finance editor Jeff Prestridge. 'Hats off to Nationwide for seizing the moment.'
Daily Mirror personal finance editor John Husband agrees. 'It was an excellent campaign, which proved very successful,' he says. 'Nationwide gets journalists on board and we end up championing the cause.'