Bank Brand in an Experience Economy

By Hunter Young

Banks can’t find their brand in the experience economy.

Bank brands are the worst. A few years ago, a group in the U.K. asked consumers what brands they’d like to sit next to at dinner. Facebook, Apple, Nike, and the usual suspects popped up. No bank brands at the table. More surprisingly, the same survey asked which brands respondents would argue with most at the dinner table. Microsoft grabbed first place, but still no banks. The later question said a lot more about the type of emotions bank brands cultivate within people. As the negative sentiment from the Great Recession has dwindled, banks don’t stir much of anything in today’s consumer.

Couple this emotionless relationship with the rise of the “total experience economy” where technology and ease of use create today’s “best brands,” and banks have found a home in the brand gutter. So, why do banks still fall back to the same old process when evaluating who they are, what they want to be and how to explain that to the larger market?

In banking, we use words like “service” and “friendly” and “caring” and “community” and “cutting-edge” and “innovation” and laa de frickin’ da. But, in reality we just spent a few thousand dollars to come up with synonyms for “customer service” and “solutions” and “goals.” Are we that vanilla or are we just approaching the exercise the wrong way?

The branding exercise.

Over the years, I have been part of 20+ “brand exercises” to help companies define or rethink who they are. Banks, entertainment companies, large pharmaceutical companies, law firms. I’ve been on both sides of the table: the agency and the client, the creatives and the company. I’ve accepted that both sides suffer from their own inherent disconnects, but still I’ve grown progressively cynical of the output from this “exercise” and actually find the whole charade quite amusing now. If you don’t know, a typical (and, I know, overly simplified) branding exercise goes something like this:

  • Company hires agency.
  • Agency collects basic information (e.g. interns Googling) about the business and possibly sends a survey to company employees.
  • Agency and company meet in a room and proceed to discuss the company using a few methods:

Method 1: “If you were a [object]…” A branding original from the earliest days of advertising. Use office supplies, cars, and other inanimate objects to elicit descriptive words for how the staff think about their company. Usually results in a mix of “we are old, but changing” or “we have some old parts, but we’re starting to make some upgrades” and other nebulous allusions.

Method 2: Draw. Literally asking people to draw and color. Draw your ideal customer, color something based what color your company would be, doodle because you are no longer paying attention or care about this branding session.

Method 3: The quadrant or spectrum. A personal favorite of mine where everyone marks where on a scale they think the company fits, and agency takes averages. Fun or serious. Cutting-edge or established. Upscale or accessible.

  • Agency takes research and flip charts back to the office and proceeds to plug in popular words from the meeting and use online thesauruses to create new words.
  • Two to three weeks later, agency delivers positioning statement and messaging document with everyone’s favorite buzzwords spread throughout. Something like…

We help people achieve more and become successful by giving them great advice and service, but still earning a reasonable profit because we believe in innovation and also you are not a number; you are a relationship and a client and we love our communities and believe in hometown values but we’re not the cheapest, but we are the best.

And then the big reveal. A new tagline: Banking on You. And Us. Together. Forever. One You. One Us. One Why.

  • Bank feels good. New “Bank on You” campaign comes out. Everyone feels like they’ve finally created something special.
  • Instead, they’ve created a campaign. And three to five years later, a new marketing person or executive repeats the process with new agency because company has “outgrown” the previous “brand.”

Exercising the wrong parts.

If you do the same workout every day, chances are you don’t see your body change very much. Muscles get complacent and the body adapts to repetition. The same applies to branding. You can’t change your makeup without giving your system a shock from time to time. You have to change the weights and the routine.

Adjusting the brand weights.

Your bank brand gets weighed down by a number of internal and external drags. There will always be regulation and compliance, but the larger weights tend to be consumer/market fragmentation, heritage or legacy, and misguided research.

Consumer (or market) fragmentation clouds the brand process for many banks. The moment your community bank leaves its original community and grows into a new town or moves from a rural to more metropolitan location, your ideals are challenged. I’ve heard so many “things are different across the river” conversations in banking. Yes, towns are unique, but there are many brands that permeate every town, small and large, so don’t let this fragmentation weigh down your thinking.

Heritage and legacy have longed plagued companies. Need a case study? See Sears. Banks are often old, but more than likely, you are not who you were in 1924. It’s OK to “throw it back” to the good ol’ days. Nostalgia is a powerful and wonderful sentiment. But it cannot define who you are today. Don’t discount an aspirational component to your new brand simply because the “older markets aren’t going to like it.”

Misguided research is the death knell of so many agencies. In the earliest conversations with their client, they are often getting piecemeal reports from various sources within the company. The agency then develops broad generalizations about the types of customers the bank serves. All of these assumptions are made from a matter of weeks’ worth of data collection. If there are two things I know about banking, they are:

  1. There is a ton of great data about the bank’s customers available.
  2. No one in the bank has the same information.

Don’t get overly ambitious about something you see in the data unless you verify with three other sources.

Changing the brand routine.

Branding should focus a company; it should help set the foundation for every message, ad, technology decision, and customer experience that falls under it. This affect rarely happens in many industries, but even less so in banking.

Heritage, reputation, and service are often the go-to bank brand foundations. But legacy can only take bank brands so far today. And “service” is too watered down after years of empty promises and the rise of online accountability through reviews, ratings, and consumer forums. We live in a world where many of the top brands are much younger than their established rivals. Being in the business for 100 years does mean something, it just doesn’t mean as much as it once did to the consumer.

When you want to rebrand or refresh your brand, take time before you engage any creative firm to talk through exactly what you hope to accomplish. A goal of “cleaning up our logo and getting a consistent, multi-channel look and feel” is very different than the “we’ve outgrown who we are and need to change the way we communicate to customers and the larger market.” If it is the later, don’t think you need an agency to immediately come in and run the show. Take the time to bring employees and customers together to discuss what the organization is, how it’s changed, and what needs to be better. And if this is truly a brand you want to live for many years to come, have a few creative companies take their best shot at it. Why limit yourself to one group?

Brand or deliver.

Before you start any branding endeavor, make sure you are seeking the right output. I fluctuate on how important bank branding is year to year. Not because of the importance of understanding who you are and what sets you apart. But, because, I don’t think banks accomplish much when reviewing and/or updating their brand.

In a commodity business, where 90% of competitors have nearly the same product set and essentially the same message about superior customer service, will branding set you part? It should, right? That sounds like an opportunity to me. But given that banks always seem to fall into the same routine, should they not shift their attention to out-executing the competition? Are the best brands today not simply the best customer experience companies that filled a timely need in the market? Think Uber, Netflix, Amazon. Do you know what any of these companies really stand for? Or do you just value the convenience and experience they provide that far outpaces any similar service?

It brings up a great debate today as to whether traditional branding really helps banks succeed. Yes, you need consistency in look, message, etc. But, beyond brand consistency, should your branding strategy be more a “customer experience” strategy? When will a bank come to the table and not only say, “We make banking easy,” but also devote multiple positions to ensuring that every customer touch point is perfected? When will banking COOs, CTOs/CIOs, CMOs, etc. work through a CCO (Chief Customer Officer) who has to approve each change based on what it will do to the customer experience?

In other words, when will banks stop branding and start delivering?

Hunter Young is senior vice president, marketing and digital banking, at First Bank, Southern Pines, N.C. Email: [email protected].

Hunter spoke about connecting data and analytics for marketing success at the ABA Bank Marketing Conference, which took place this week in Nashville.