Marketing to Small Businesses

By Jeff Gardner

Twenty years ago, Umpqua Bank (assets: $22.6 billion), Portland, Ore., gained recognition by changing the notion of what a retail bank could be.

It began by reimagining the business model of retail banking, doing so with an assessment of its position in the market and its size and resources.

Tellers were transformed into universal associates, and branches were remodeled and reopened as “stores.” The bank underwent a paradigm shift from retail banking—to just retailing (acting and operating like a retailer who just happened to sell financial products and services).

Since 1994, Umpqua has grown from six branches to 400+ locations and from $400 million in assets to over $22 billion.

But in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, banking became a different business and Umpqua had to adapt. Of upmost importance was the ability to attract and retain the more lucrative commercial market (businesses generating $500,000 to $5 million in annual revenue), a strategic growth segment for the bank.

However, as the post-recession rate and regulatory environment began to take hold, marketing budgets got tighter and staffing became leaner, and the bank’s secret weapon—its stores—now had to share the landscape with digital and mobile offerings, while vying for the attention of a more sophisticated and time-strapped business owners.

To find a solution, Umpqua went back inside the box to assess which assets it could leverage successfully to win with commercial businesses. In so doing, it quickly became apparent that the bank’s progressive brand and futuristic stores would not be sufficient to gain ground in the highly relational realm of business-to-business banking. Based on this, Umpqua took its store locations off the table and asked:

If all we had to win in this segment with our business bankers themselves, how would we do it and how would we scale it?

The answer to this question became the framework for Umpqua’s approach to marketing in the commercial segment, focusing on an approach that held to four principles:

  1. Make the banker “differentiate-able.”
  2. Help the banker make a statement, not just a sale.
  3. Business partnerships are exponentially more important than advertising partnerships.
  4. Invest in creating share-worthy experiences; scale through social media and word-of-mouth.

Through this new paradigm, Umpqua began rethinking all aspects of its business bank marketing to develop programs and promotions that centered around its people, it’s approach to business prospecting, it’s partnerships with other businesses and its efforts to turn local businesses into a channel through which to build the brand.


First, the bank’s marketing team became involved in the hiring and recruiting of its business bankers, rewriting human resources job descriptions and using human resources advertising budgets to make the search for top talent noticeable by the very businesses that those hired would be looking to build relationships with.

By leveraging an existing resource in a new way, the marketing group was able to turn a routine job search into a public statement about the kind of bankers that Umpqua makes available to small businesses. The approach also helped job descriptions become shared more often on LinkedIn and other professional sites, where not just bankers but business owners are paying attention.

Best of all, the use of budgetary dollars already allocated for position recruitment became a marketing asset with a $0 net cost increase for the bank.



The second area of focus was in helping Umpqua’s bankers stand out through nonconventional sales tools that tell a story about the banker—not the products they sell.

Rather than revamp its business banking materials, Umpqua opted to discontinue 70 percent of its product collateral and focus, instead, on a way of customizing topical information easily and inexpensively. Using an ink pad and custom-created stamp inscribed with a simple but compelling “HMMM INTERESTING” caption, business bankers could literally “brand” useful articles pertaining to topics of interest for prospective business. A digital stamp was developed for branding Web articles, news stories and white papers for e-mail distribution.


The simplicity of the tool and the customized connection it allowed Umpqua’s business bankers to make with prospects helped drive an increase in memorable engagements with prospects, and helped position the bankers and knowledgeable experts. The cost of the tool was next to nothing, but allowed more expensive options such as newsletters and other content-driven tools to be retired.

Another approach to help “Brand the Banker” was the bank’s “Ice Cold Leads” program. The approach celebrates and leverages the universal awkward nature of the “cold call.” Using Umpqua’s popular ice cream trucks, business bankers would arrive at an office park, manufacturing hub or medical practice during lunch time and personally deliver “cold calls” to the businesses in the area.


Since 2012, an estimated $20 million originated from or leads that were generated as part of the ice-cold calling program.


Local Spotlight

More important than marketing tools, Umpqua’s ability to develop relationships with prospects, referral sources and in the community at large has been a large part of its success in attracting commercial business.

Rather than spend marketing budgets to tell prospective businesses how important they are to Umpqua, the bank sought a way to get businesses to advertise how important Umpqua is to them. This approach lead to the Local Spotlight program, a service that offers prospective businesses the means to showcase and sell their merchandise inside a bank location.

The business is promoted in store, online, on social media and in some cases, via traditional advertising channels—all at no cost to the business. Inventory is sold using the bank’s treasury management solutions products, with all sales revenue going back to the business owner.

Spotlight Events are also part of the program, giving Spotlighted businesses a forum to hold networking events at a bank location, reaching out to their partners, suppliers, referral sources, business customers, etc. to discuss various topics, and introduce their contacts to Umpqua Bank.

Participating businesses promote their partnership with the bank through social media and at their own place of business, and refer their suppliers, vendors and other business partners to inquire about the program for themselves.

To date, Umpqua has had over 200 businesses partners in the program, with participating businesses joining the bank at a rate four times higher than prospective businesses who do not participate.

Catalyst Series

For entrepreneurs whose specialty is selling ideas, services and consulting, Umpqua created the Catalyst Series, a forum for local thought leaders who are pushing the boundaries and shaping new categories of commercial and social good.

The program focuses on the sharing of ideas, not products, with emphasis on successful business models that can help other businesses differentiate themselves from the pack. The program strategy focuses on creating self-perpetuating resource for generating digital content to attract businesses with great connections and drive referrals.

The bank provides a fully furnished evening event and mixer, presenting the entrepreneur as the keynote guest, and then filming, editing and publishing the event live through social media and later through YouTube. A limited number of seats are made available, garnering a sell-out exclusiveness to create additional buzz.

The content created is owned by the bank and the entrepreneur, giving them a digital-ready promotional tool to help further promote their business idea or philosophy, while introducing Umpqua to a whole new realm of business owners and prospects.


In 2012, Umpqua entered the Seattle market with 15 new de novo stores, with emphasis on serving local small businesses. The strategy required the bank to become quickly embraced by the local business community, driving profitable business accounts to help off-set the capital investment of the store builds.

From this, Umpqua developed the “We ? Seattle Business” program, a 10-week contest aimed at enticing local residents to write a love note to the favorite Seattle business. Seattle neighborhoods we’re segmented out, with the neighborhood that generated the most love notes receiving a $10,000 community grant and the top 10 most loved business receiving a $1,000 reward—as well as advertising in local newsprint about the business and their claim to be called “Seattle’s’ most loved business”—compliments of the bank.


Two-hundred-and-fifty Seattle businesses agreed to serve as distribution points where love notes could be picked up, with participations coming to a bank location to drop off their note—promoting the bank in the process. Love notes served as ballets, and we’re tallied and published on the campaign website each week, promoting increased competition among businesses and neighborhoods. Participants could also vote via text or Facebook.

After 10 weeks, over 70,000 love notes were collected, citing over 5,000 Seattle small businesses. Of the businesses that served as distribution points, 28 percent of these became bank customers within 90 days of the campaign. Brand awareness increased by 33 percent and the campaign received over 500,000 social media impressions as well as positive press by local bloggers and news media.


Jeff Gardner is senior vice president, director of marketing strategy, at Umpqua Bank, Portland, Ore.