Strategize Your Community Involvement

By Jim Gibbons

For bank marketers, community involvement can be a conundrum. On one hand, you have to give back, and you are delighted to do so as a member of your community. On the other hand, good marketers evaluate their success (and good CEOs evaluate marketers’ success) on the basis of transactions—generating more and better transactions, and cultivating relationships that yield more and better transactions.

For many banks, what passes for community involvement is essentially a pot of money reserved for sundry causes around town. The criteria often boil down to pet causes of key employees, customers, friends, and family. This approach to community involvement can drain precious marketing resources that could better be spent to generate transactions.

Here are some practices that can help you turn community involvement into a strategic, branded activity, and bring it into alignment with the rest of your marketing effort.

Create and promote a community involvement strategy.

As a good rule of thumb, there should be a strategy for every marketing activity in which you’re spending the bank’s money. Community involvement is no exception.

A good community involvement strategy needs to be connected to the overall brand and marketing strategies of the bank. It should contain budget numbers, objectives, and specific tactical guidelines. And it should be documented and public.

If your bank is accustomed to the “pot of money for worthy causes” approach, this may take some determination to sell internally.

Be disciplined about implementing the strategy.

Just as you would not buy an ad in a publication that was inconsistent with your marketing strategy (no matter whose niece is the ad rep), so you should be disciplined about never spending community involvement dollars outside of your community involvement strategy.

You don’t need to worry about whether something is a good cause (it may be). You just need to discern whether it is consistent with your strategic objectives. One great reason to have a documented strategy is that it gives you the ability to say no.

Own a cause.

Every good brand stands for something. As you are creating your community involvement strategy, it’s important to articulate what your brand stands for and make the community involvement investment to own that cause.

Here are a couple of examples:

Asheville, North Carolina has been a seasonal retreat and tourist destination for more than a century. Homes there are pretty expensive. Many of the jobs there are service jobs in the hospitality and tourism industries. Because of this, many people who work there find it difficult to live there.

One Asheville bank decided to become experts in programs and methods that helped people afford to buy houses. The bank was founded with the mission of helping neighbors buy and build homes and businesses. So owning the affordable housing cause was a natural extension of the bank’s mission. This made it very easy to define the types of efforts it wanted to support: affordable housing, financial education, projects with Habitat for Humanity.

Another bank on the Florida Treasure Coast built its service strategy on personal, entrepreneurial, neighborly, one-on-one relationships.

One way they expressed this in the area of community involvement was by owning the “good neighbor in times of crisis” cause. The bank made substantial and visible investments in providing shelter, food, and water to displaced families, and assistance to first responders in the event of hurricanes (or other critical events). This effort clearly communicated that this bank gets what it means to live (and be a good neighbor) in this part of the country.

Banks make this sort of investment at the expense of other community involvement opportunities (sports, arts, charities). They differentiate their brands by owning causes.

Invest in things that support your brand.

Develop the discipline of evaluating a community involvement opportunity the same way you would evaluate a media spend. Give yourself a list of questions:

  • How does this align with/support my brand position?
  • Who does this help?
  • Who (how many people) will know about this?
  • How can we use our media relations efforts to extend the publicity reach?
  • Who can we partner with on this?
  • Why does it matter to the community?
  • Can this be leveraged for transactions/relationships?
  • What’s my likely spend and ROI?

Again, if you want to be strategic about community involvement, avoid getting into the question of whether it’s a good cause. Instead ask the question, “Is it our cause?”

Engage your employees.

In a community bank, there are few things better for staff alignment than working together on a worthy (brand aligned) cause. If you have sufficiently owned and publicized your cause, you’ve probably attracted employees who have a certain commitment to that same cause. A project such as building a Habitat house or handing out burgers and bottled water to hurricane victims and first responders can create a bond around the brand like no ropes course or contrived trust exercise can.

Many community bank leaders say, “Our people are our brand.” And this is true. So, putting your brand on the ground, in the community, side by side with your neighbors, doing something that really makes a difference can be hugely beneficial in two key areas.

  1. It builds bonds within the bank staff.
  2. It creates relationships between bank people and folks in the community who care about what you care about.

Name something.

You probably have about a zillion opportunities to name things. Park benches. Stadium seats. Food courts. Lobbies. Gates. Scoreboards. Golf carts. Highway-cleanup efforts. But when it really comes down to it, what does that get you?

For a lot of community bank decision makers, there is always the impulse to participate in big things, to be seen as one of the players. This can actually be a trap. Think of it as a media proposition.

Would you buy three seconds, in the middle of a three-minute commercial break, in the middle of the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, just so you could say you advertised on the Super Bowl—that you were one of the players? If you did, you would be paying a premium per second, in one of the most cluttered advertising environments in the world, in a time when many people are tuning out (most Super Bowls are blowouts), and when a lot of the audience is intoxicated. Clearly, this would not be a good spend.

Yet, when you sponsor a lobby, entrance, plaza, or food court of a facility with someone else’s name on it, you’re helping to pay for someone else’s advertising. If you’re feeling charitable toward a cellular provider, software start-up, or ketchup company, go ahead. But it’s not likely to be what’s best for your brand.

Instead, look for something that fits the strategy. If you’re into youth sports, pick a ballpark where kids play baseball all summer. If you’re into health and wellness, sponsor a wellness program (facility) at a local hospital. If you’re into helping in times of crisis, sponsor a rescue helicopter.

It really comes back to owning something that associates your brand with a high-emotion, high-impact moment…in support of a cause you own.

Go big or go home.

This is a corollary to the idea of naming something. Associate with a few things that really matter, not a steady stream of things that will drain your resources, make little impact, and be soon forgotten (like business-card ads in every program for every high school basketball team in your service area).

Instead of sponsoring the least-known member of a bronze-medal team in an Olympic event nobody ever heard of (just because she’s from here), put together a coalition of general contractors who commit to restore a blighted neighborhood—and put your name on that!

It’s really not that complicated. Like the rest of marketing, strategic community involvement is not rocket science. It’s a matter of deciding what you stand for, and putting your money where your mouth is.

James Gibbons is president of Gibbons-Peck Marketing Communication, a full-service agency headquartered in Greenville, S.C. The company focuses on branding, digital strategy, and advertising for community banks. Email: mailto:[email protected].