The days when banks would give away toasters when customers opened an account may be long gone, but Russia's Sberbank has a purrfect gift for new mortgage borrowers.
The Moscow-based bank is offering a free "cat housewarming delivery service" to 30 borrowers who get approved for a mortgage.
Why a cat? According to my colleague Elizabeth Solomeina, a native of Moscow and a video editor at American Banker's parent company SourceMedia, the viral marketing campaign plays off a traditional custom for Russian homebuyers.
"When you buy a new house, you're supposed to let a cat cross over the threshold before anyone else goes in," Solomeina explains. "You have to let the cat go in first to bring you good luck."
The lucky borrowers who will get to take advantage of the service will have their choice of one of five cats to help christen their new homes though the cats are only loaners and are taken back after a two-hour visit.
The bank's video shows a van with a sign that translates "Cat Delivery Service" as it pulls up to a condo. Two strapping delivery men emerge, precious cargo safely in hand as they make their way to meet a couple waiting anxiously outside the door to their new home.
"Happiness and good luck have stepped into the house with the cat!" one of the delivery men exclaims in Russian.
The video continues with footage of other homeowners elated at their cat housewarmings. Solomeina provided a translation of the voiceover audio:
"Get approved for a mortgage with Sberbank and Sberbank will arrange for a cat delivery service just for you when you move in. Because cats bring luck to a new home, go to kotoservice.ru and choose the cat that will cross the threshold of your apartment so that you'll not only get a new home, but have happiness in it, too."
Sberbank, or "Savings Bank," traces its history back to 1841, during the genesis of the Russian banking sector under Emperor Nicholas I. During the Soviet era, Sberbank was put under government control as part of the State Labour Savings Banks system, but the political environment at the time massively curtailed lending activity.
The bank is now a publicly traded company, though its stock is majority controlled by the Russian Central Bank. As the country's dominant banking leader, Sberbank boasts a commanding market share, including more than 43% of retail deposits and nearly 33% of retail loans, as of the end of 2013.
But as new institutions have emerged in Russia's post-Soviet economy, Sberbank finds itself fighting a reputation as an entrenched incumbent, the remaining legacy of a bygone era, Solomeina says. The cat housewarming stunt is the latest in a series of advertising and marketing efforts designed to lighten up the bank's stuffy, stodgy image.
"Sberbank is a Soviet-era bank that's generally perceived as being a grandma-and-grandpa-type bank, and now they want to be cool," Solomeina says. "The creative director of the bank has implemented many new campaigns to help improve its image."
Sberbank's YouTube video received more than 450,000 views in less than three days proof, perhaps, that Internet cat videos are indeed a universal obsession. And even though cat housewarmings probably won't take off with U.S. mortgage lenders anytime soon, the rules for the promotion show one thing that banks in both countries have in common is a proclivity for long-winded terms and conditions.
Austin Kilgore is the editor-in-chief of National Mortgage News, a Collections & Credit Risk sister publication.