The brand's head of marketing is working to rehabilitate its reputation and position it as a serious financial-services provider with global ambitions, writes Alex Brownsell.
Given Wonga.com's reputation for being a heartless payday lender, taking advantage of vulnerable, cash-strapped Britons, one might envisage its headquarters as a dark Gothic fortress, guarded by leering gargoyles. It seems somewhat incongruous, then, to find the business residing in a pair of Georgian townhouses overlooking London's Regent's Park.
Such a contradiction sums up the Wonga experience: exploitative 'legal loan shark', or innovative digital finance brand? The cheery blue skies and rainbows decorating its website also seem utterly at odds with the predatory image portrayed by its critics. What's more, the people who work there are not the cackling, Machiavellian villains one may be inclined to expect.
Take its lead marketer, Darryl Bowman, who is either a hugely convincing actor, or just a rather nice bloke. The mention of one number, however, quickly dispels his breezy disposition: 4214%.
This is the annual percentage rate (APR) for Wonga's short-term loans, a figure often used as a stick with which to beat the brand - and used 'dangerously and incorrectly', according to Bowman. Wonga's defence is that it freezes interest payments after 60 days, meaning that no one would ever pay 4214% in interest. The average interest payment figure, Bowman argues, is more like 16%. Yet, contention over APR lies at the heart of the debate about the brand.
Since being launched five years ago by entrepreneurs Errol Damelin and Jonty Hurwitz, Wonga has experienced a meteoric rise to prominence in the UK. Its instant-loan service, which lends first-time borrowers up to pounds 400 at a daily interest rate of 1%, has been used more than 6m times; it claims to have 1m active customers. The brand insists that, unlike other loanand credit-card providers, it is 'transparent' about how much its loans will cost.
The product may ruffle a few feathers, but it is Wonga's marketing - in particular, its sponsorship programme, including a recent deal with Newcastle United FC - that has led to the brand acquiring nationwide notoriety and a host of political enemies.
Having previously held roles at credit reference agency Experian and Lastminute.com, Bowman was hired three years ago to define a long-term brand strategy for Wonga. With take-up of the product so rapid, he has sought to help the brand 'grow into its shoes' by raising awareness through a series of ad campaigns. TV spots featuring the 'Wongies', a trio of elderly puppet characters humorously comfortable with technology, have been running for nearly 18 months, emphasising the brand's strapline of 'Straight talking money'.
'Our main objectives are to grow a brand, drive sales and educate people that you can have aspects of your finance from brands that aren't banks,' says Bowman. 'We also want to have a personality. The elderly are usually the most straight-talking people in customers' lives, and the puppets make it a bit more quirky and memorable.'
However, some in the industry question the ethics of running such memorable work. In a recent Adwatch review in Marketing, Richard Huntington, director of strategy at ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, argued that the 'effectiveness of Wonga's work is not in question', which 'begs bigger questions' about the morality of such a campaign being allowed to air.
'We have a broadcast marketing strategy,' replies Bowman. 'One of the unfortunate things about Wonga is that we decline 60% of loan applications, so, from a marketing perspective, we already attract more people than we want. You can only stop that at the point of loan application, through the website and the notices we display.'
Advertising aside, sponsorship has commanded the bulk of Wonga's marketing budget. …