Meow Mortgage


By Tanya Silverman

Photo by Lucie Provencher.

Even when foreign economic sanctions hit hard, a bank’s employees can always take measures to make domestic customers feel more secure when they choose to buy permanent homes in the mother country.

With cats, of course.

Russia’s state-owned Sberbank, the country’s largest lender, was placed on the EU sanctions list on Aug 1 for political reasons. Europeans are now forbidden to buy equity or bonds with maturity longer than 90 days. In September, the US followed through with similar measures against Sberbank (amongst other Russian banks).

The Moscow Times reported on Monday that Sberbank, in dealing with sanctions and its detrimentally affected capital base, is working to get money from pension funds and insurance companies. The bank’s president recently admitted that they needed to take “colossal” efforts in reorienting themselves to obtain funding from Russian sources. Bloomberg then reported Tuesday that the bank suffered “the worst quarterly rout in three years.”

Though the current business news about Sberbank paints a bleak picture (at least for what can be read in English), media outlets also shed light on its warmer, softer side: the Russian bank announced their plan to offer cats to customers who take out a home mortgage.

It’s a bit of banking meshed with a bit of folk tradition. The concept is based on an old Russian superstition in which it’s good luck for a cat to pass through the threshold of a home before the human inhabitants move in.

“Our wise ancestors had a reason to consecrate new homes by introducing cats into them,” Sberbank writes on their website. “In this action they tried to ensure that the household would live happily. To keep this tradition going and to help ensure our clients’ wellbeing, Sberbank created the Housewarming Cats delivery service.”

Are the bank’s employees superstitious?

Well, looking at their online listing of available cats, no black felines are included as they are considered to be bad luck in Russia. The 10 lucky cats they do offer include Caramel the Calico, Toffee the Siamese, and, for the allergenic customers, Kuzma, the hairless Sphinx. Some of them are pets of willing Sberbank employees.

Above the graphically advanced “Choose your Cat” catalog, there’s a short video that features two Sberbank employees driving around Moscow in a van that has a cat icon painted on its side, delivering the animals to different homes. Actors play mortgage customers who wait with wonder outside their doors for the pivotal moment when the furry-legged friend passes through the threshold.

Despite the widespread media attention it triggered, the Housewarming Cats delivery service is not a huge program. Cats are only available to customers for two hours to complete their service of passing through the threshold and sticking around for photo ops. They’re only offered to 30 customers who buy a mortgage over $116,000 up through Dec 14. Fifteen of these customers are limited to Moscow, and the remainder have to be in other parts of Russia. For such reasons, some label the Housewarming Cats a transparent publicity stunt.

BTR reached out to Sperbank’s press office to inquire about how the program is developing. After receiving an initial response, then sending back several questions that were carefully translated into Russian–then reminding them again–its representatives have yet to respond.

Sperbank also offers the online “What Cat Are You” quiz. When you finish clicking your answers and your feline personality is ultimately unveiled, Sberbank tries to use the result to plug their banking platforms. For instance, if you are a “cat orchestra”, they reason that your “versatile personality” requires a large apartment for you to exercise all your hobbies–yet if you’re a “stubborn cat”, it means you need your own apartment to keep to yourself. Both translate as the “perfect moment to buy such an apartment” and take a look at Sberbank’s lower interest rates.

Should cats be connected to the bank’s marketing interests? Should the animals be associated with mortgages or interest rates? Should modern banks try to play on traditional superstitions?

Would it be better for Sberbank to offer mortgage customers more lasting, material incentives, like a state-of-the-art electric kettle or blow dryer? Does the state of international affairs and economic relations have anything to do with Sberbank’s tactics, or are they just generally cat lovers who try to foster a more relatable public face?

For all that we can speculate about the workings of Sberbank, at least 30 prospective households can be entertained and wished luck while capturing cute pictures with the bank’s cats-on-loan.