Yesterday, on a cloudy day in Jakarta, a group of ANZ executives joined representatives from the Indonesian and Australian governments in launching the bank’s new logo, which will eventually be rolled-out globally, including in Australia later this year.
The logo — a stylised three-petaled lotus designed by M&C Saatchi — represents the trinity of Australia, New Zealand and Asia. In ANZ’s words, it is a symbol “of unity and growth which is relevant to our customers across the region.” Yet aside from the obvious reference to the bank’s aims of becoming a super-regional finance group — played against the backdrop of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s proposed sale of its Asian assets — it also appears to symbolise ANZ’s somewhat New Age past.
The lotus, after all, is one of key icons of New Age orientalism in general and theosophy in particular. Theosophy is an eccentric nineteenth-century quasi-religion started by Madame Helena Blavatsky, a bizarre spiritualist who claimed to be an initiate of a secret brotherhood in Tibet. To this day Theosophists celebrate White Lotus Day on May 8, the anniversary of Blavatsky’s death, meditating on the metaphor of the lotus, which, though born in the mud, gradually elevates itself through water and into the light of the sun.
While ANZ’s new symbol is admittedly a blue lotus, its three-petals would be familiar to many excited wisdom-seekers of Blavatsky’s ilk. In tantric literature the three-petaled lotus is, after all, the place “of swollen flesh” and receptacle of the “diamond scepter.”
ANZ’s Asia-focussed chief executive Mike Smith can hardly be called an orientalist of the Blavatsky variety, yet his predecessor was no stranger to the New Age, of which reinterpreted Eastern spirituality is a crystal pillar.
It was only in February 2007, near the peak of the financial sector’s bull-market, when John McFarlane explained his views on spirituality to the Financial Review. Crediting his personal development to a revered theosophical text, The Kybalion, McFarlane said he saw its hermetic principles as a personal guide. But although The Kybalion claims to be the teachings of an ancient Egyptian magician, it was more likely written by a trio of Western occultists and yoga enthusiasts in 1912.
In that largely forgotten interview, McFarlane went on to describe the book’s importance. Perhaps peculiarly for a banker he also opined that had the Egyptians, Mayans, Romans and Greeks “survived their warring destructive forces, [they] would have discovered the telepathic path.”
The Kybalion never became part of the employee initiation pack, but ANZ definitely acquired a New Age flavour under McFarlane. Sadly however, staff “breakout” programs and corporate meditation rooms failed to prevent the bank from the warring destructive forces of Tricom and Opes Prime.
It is not known if the creative types at M&C Saatchi were aware of McFarlane’s views when envisaging the design, but the lotus is a stamp of Smith’s era at the bank, a spokeswoman explained.
New Ageism and mystic theosophy are by no means bad things – they can in fact be quite fun – but for a bank trying to distance itself from shadow banking and other esoteric pursuits, anything outside the mainstream may not send the best branding message.
Luckily for shareholders, Smith looks to be a steady pair of hands, more focussed on the bottom line than the telepathic path. As a conservative banker of the old school, he is no doubt aware that if ANZ is to beat regional giants like HSBC and Standard Chartered, it will need a lot more than a s-xy New Age logo.