Trust National Bank was a midsized Russian lender with a big problem. Created out of the remnants of Menatep Bank – a $29bn organisation that went bust during the 1998 Russian financial crisis and saw its former owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, imprisoned in Siberia – Trust wanted to increase its popularity and brand recognition.
As Dmitry Chukseyev, the bank’s vice-president of communications, recounts, there was just one man for the job. And that man was Bruce Willis. “You need someone stable, understandable,” Mr Chukseyev says, explaining why the bank decided to make the Die Hard star the face of a two-year campaign.
While Mr Willis cultivated a tough-guy persona in his most famous films of the 1980s and 1990s, he adds, there was always a character underneath the veneer that movie-goers could relate to. “In all of his films, Bruce is brutal but he’s doing it with a smile and a sense of humour.”
Never mind that the 56-year-old Mr Willis has no connection to Russia, let alone its banking sector. Since November, a series of billboard ads has run across Moscow featuring the star with tag lines ranging from: “Trust: it’s like me only a bank”, and “When I need money, I just take it”.
According to those behind the campaign, the association has worked. “Some people think it’s a mistake, some think it’s genius. But what I can tell you is that Trust, which was outside the top 20 banks in terms of awareness is now in the top five,” says Pierre-Emmanuel Mahias, chief executive of the Moscow agency Young & Rubicam and a consultant on the campaign.
Since its contract with the star began, Trust has also regularly ranked as one of the five fastest-growing institutions for both deposit and credit card growth, despite being only in the top 30 by size.
In Moscow, Mr Willis is one of a handful of ageing stars who are enjoying new face time despite quieter Hollywood careers. Sylvester Stallone appeared three years ago in a BBDO-produced commercial for local vodka brand Russkii Lyod (“Russian Ice”), while in recent weeks more than 400 Moscow billboards, some several stories high, have been plastered with the faces of Steven Seagal, Kevin Costner and Dustin Hoffman, to attract attention to a children’s charity concert in July where all three were expected to appear as special guests. (Mr Hoffman ended up pulling out of the event.)
An event by the same charity in December attracted the likes of Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn and Gérard Depardieu who clapped along to an unexpected performance by Vladimir Putin, the prime minister and former president, singing Blueberry Hill.
Hamish Pringle, author of Celebrity Sells, says Russian advertising campaigns present the perfect vehicle for former A-List stars who peaked before it became acceptable for big-name stars to do sponsorships in their home market – a trend that only took off ten years ago.
“The stars like Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and co. were before that era … Now that they’re not so hot most western brands probably couldn’t find a place to use them.”
Russian companies, he adds, “may simply not have the budget to afford today’s A-listers”, making older stars a more affordable option.
Mr Chukseyev says Trust decided to start working with Mr Willis after surveying hundreds of 25-to-55-year-old urban professionals in cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg, and asking them to identify male celebrities with whom they had positive associations.
Out of the stars – both Russian and foreign – Mr Willis was the best known, with 97 per cent recognition. Close behind him was Arnold Schwarzenegger then Jackie Chan, Mr Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mr Seagal. Brad Pitt came in a distant eight place, while Johnny Depp did not even make the top 10.
“Bruce is not like some of the new stars, but the new stars are not as well-recognised nationally in Russia,” Mr Chukseyev says. “Every Sunday there’s a Bruce Willis film on Russian television.”
The actors of his generation also help advertisers reach the coveted 25-and-over middle class demographic, who would have first seen Die Hard as students and consider Mr Willis to still be cool in his late 50s.
“Culturally we like strong types and assertive characters,” says Turkhan Makhmudov, managing director of BBDO’s Russian operations. “For a generation [that grew up] 15 to 20 years back, those were the symbols of American culture and American society for our public. We like to see them as the models of the western heroic man and masculine character.”
Perhaps no one embodies this macho character better than Mr Putin, who happily poses shirtless on fishing and horseback expeditions. His sex symbol status last year inspired a group of 12 female journalism students to dedicate a naked calendar to him, while this summer a separate group of girls launched a “Tear off your clothes for Putin” campaign ahead of his potential run for president.
“The classic picture of Putin is with his shirt off, wading through a swamp with a gun in his hand. You could tie a red necktie around his head and he’d be Johnny Rambo,” says Adrian Goldthorpe, a strategy partner at Hello brands and veteran of the Russian advertising market. “Most Russian women like this type of man and most Russian men aspire to be that kind of character.”
Oleg Yasenov, marketing director at Synergy, says the vodka group decided to work with the real Mr Stallone after BBDO suggested it choose a Hollywood star of Russian descent from a list that also included Natalie Portman, Harrison Ford and Milla Jovovich. Mr Stallone, whose grandmother was born in Odessa, was an easy choice, he says. “We needed to show physical and moral authority.”
In the commercial, Mr Stallone drinks Russkii Lyod and fights off thugs before the tagline appears: “There’s a bit of Russian in all of us.”
Working with such Hollywood stars is not cheap, Mr Yasenov admits. Trust was reported to have paid Mr Willis $3m to use his image in its ad campaign.
Mr Chukseyev, however, argues that for a once top-billing star the price tag was almost a bargain. “Look at the amount of money Hollywood spent to create Bruce’s mega star image over the past 20 years,” he says. “We think we actually got a good deal.”
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