Bank Brand in an Experience Economy

By Hunter Young

A few years ago, a British group asked consumers what brands they’d like to sit next to at dinner. Facebook, Apple, Nike—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 latter question said a lot more about the type of emotions bank brands cultivate. As post-financial crisis negativity has dwindled, too few banks 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. 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
As a veteran of more than 20 “brand exercises” to help companies define or rethink who they are, I’ve grown progressively cynical of the output from this exercise. It would be amusing if it weren’t so expensive.

Regardless of whether the agency asks “if you were a tree” questions or has you literally doodling on a white board, it will eventually come back with a 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. The bank feels good. Its new “Bank on You” campaign comes out. Everyone feels like they’ve finally created a special brand.

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.”

Changing the brand routine
Branding is bigger than a campaign. It should focus a company, setting the foundation for every message, ad, technology decision and customer experience that falls under it. This 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. Being in the business for 100 years does mean something—but 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 latter, 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 bank 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.

In a commodity business, where 90 percent of competitors have nearly the same product set and essentially the same message about superior customer service, will branding set you apart?

But given that many banks 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 of Uber, Netflix, Amazon. Do you know what any of these companies really stand for, or do you just value the convenience, experience and omnipresence they provide that far outpaces any similar service?

It’s questionable today whether traditional branding really helps banks succeed. Yes, you need consistency in look and message. But beyond brand consistency, should your branding strategy be more a “customer experience” strategy? When will a bank come to the table and not just say, “We make banking easy,” but also devote multiple positions to ensuring that every customer touch point is flawless? When will banking COOs, CTOs/CIOs, CMOs and other senior leaders work through a “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 SVP for marketing and analytics at First Bank, Southern Pines, N.C. He is a member of the national advisory board for ABA’s Bank Marketing Conference. A version of this article originally appeared on ABA Bank Marketing.