The Fight for Relevance

By Michael Kempner

There was a time when banking transactions required more than a few thumb taps on a three-inch screen and when engaging with customers meant a phone call or an actual branch visit. There was even a time when you could attract new customers by giving away free toasters.

The current banking environment couldn’t be further from that picture—or more chaotic. With heightened regulatory scrutiny, new technologies, cybersecurity threats and the incessant expectations of hyperconnected consumers, community banks face enormous pressure to change how they operate just to stay afloat. But when it comes to building trust with their most important stakeholders, they’re still relying on the proverbial toaster to market their most valuable and, too often, unrealized assets—their brands.

Customers don’t want toasters, they want a relevant financial-services partner that consistently proves it understands their needs and demonstrates a commitment to grow with them. It’s no longer enough just to do business. You have to matter more to the people you’re doing business with.

This is especially true for community banks, whose success hinges on the ability to develop lasting personal relationships in the communities in which they operate. It starts by understanding not just how you can engage with them, but how you can help them engage with you. A strategic marketing approach gives banks the tools to distinguish themselves among a sea of sameness, gain a crucial competitive edge and, most important, build the trust of their employees, customers, shareholders and influencers.

While any strategy needs to be tailored to a community bank and its customers, there are several essentials to any marketing program today (and trust me, none of them include kitchen appliances).

Leverage your brand

At a time when banks are grappling with the changing face of the entire banking industry, they may not even be thinking about their business as a brand. Yet these intangibles make up 63 percent of a company’s market value.

A strong brand always starts on the inside. Think beyond logos and taglines. Start by evaluating your brand attributes and personality—have a consistent look, feel and tone. Do you have a recognizable identity that reflects the bank’s founding values, culture and commitments? Can customers instantly distinguish your bank from others just by looking at your website or ATM screen?

Showcase your brand in everything you do and say—every internal and external message, every component of your website and mobile app and every piece of marketing and advertising collateral. Make it all part of what your brand stands for, and consistently talk about it—via press releases, email communications, website updates, social media and so on. It can mean the difference between customer attrition and lifetime loyalty.

Get in the conversation

The banking sector has arguably been hit hardest by a degradation of trust, and in this new day of total transparency, consumers crave authenticity. People put their faith in people, not companies. They make decisions based on recommendations from their network of trust: friends, relatives, social media, bloggers. So while paid advertising still has its place in your marketing mix, a strategic media relations and PR program centered on earned media opportunities is critical.

To get in on the conversation, place a stake in the ground. Have a strong point of view on the issues impacting your customers, and position your leaders to frequently comment in the media. Supplement that with original content that further engages stakeholders and creates opportunities for them to get to know you and your brand.

Trying to articulate how a new and complex product suite works? Develop an engaging infographic that customers and media can easily understand and share. Have a team of subject matter experts eager to share their point of view? Start a corporate blog and become recognized as online thought leaders.

Be where your customers are

It’s a new world. 60 percent of people own three devices that they regularly use. The banks that don’t embrace the shift to omnichannel are not just at a severe disadvantage. They will become obsolete. To reach your stakeholders, have a consistent presence on the digital platforms and devices where they’re watching and listening for you. Are you still sending paper communications to people who only check email? Shouldn’t you be texting updates and sending push notifications through an online platform instead? Are you advertising on the local radio station or in the newspaper even though digital ad revenues hit a landmark high last year and digital media is expected to grow 16 percent this year? The real challenge isn’t reaching customers, it’s resonating with them.

That means not just having Facebook and Twitter accounts simply to check the “social media” box, but being strategic about how you use them. Frequency and substance matter. Regularly use the channels your audiences are using to engage with them on a personal level, on the issues that matter most to them. That’s where community banks have the upper hand.

Tweet and share articles that are relevant to the people you want to reach. Post pictures of your employees on Instagram. Use LinkedIn to circulate content and communicate with prospective customers and employees. Above all, consider social media a two-way platform that enables you to monitor customer comments and respond to service issues in real time, to listen to what your stakeholders are saying and to create intriguing, challenging and inspiring posts.

Embrace the millennial mindset

Millennials are transforming the banking industry from business model to mindset. The fastest-growing segment of banking customers, set to account for half the workforce by 2020, millennials are the future of banking—as customers and as the next generation of leaders.

One recent study found that millennials are the generation most likely to say that developing a relationship with their financial institution is important, but they are also the generation that most strongly feels that banks treat them like a number. At the same time, Scratch’s Millennial Disruption Index asserts that 53 percent of millennials don’t think their bank offers anything different than others, and one in three are open to switching banks within the next 90 days. Meanwhile, non-bank lenders and emerging technologies such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet are disrupting the lending and payment spaces.

For community banks, the challenge is understanding how to engage with millennials so they feel like valued partners. Banks need to have the technological prowess this generation expects from any service industry—offering efficiency, ease of use and the convenience of remote deposit capture, mobile check deposit and video tellers that are synched to the bank’s online platform. From a marketing standpoint, this means truly understanding and anticipating millennials’ needs to get the right message out, in the right place, at the right time.

In terms of attracting millennial talent, banks need to change the existing perception that they’re antiquated and stodgy, or that they don’t offer the same type of work environment that a tech startup preaches. Don’t be afraid to tout the aspects of your brand that harness the qualities Gen Y is looking for in the workplace: entrepreneurial spirit, work-life balance, access to senior leadership and commitment to a greater cause.

The company you keep matters

Position yourself alongside the reputable leaders in banking and across other industries. Attend community banking conferences, but also expand your reach to the broader business events on entrepreneurship, leadership and talent that increase your visibility to potential new customers, employees and influencers.

Affiliate with sponsorships that are right for your business and align with your brand essence. Look at the awards that you aspire to hold and the companies that are on the receiving end—what did they do to get there?

This same principle applies for your employees—the people who should live and breathe your mission and who will subsequently become your brand ambassadors. They are the people who will promote your brand without even realizing it, and eventually, your customers will follow suit.

No change—big or small—should compromise your ability to stay aligned with your mission and true to your core. Make it happen.

Michael Kempner is president and CEO of MWW Public Relations.