The Care & Feeding of Marketing

By Karen M. Kroll

When Karen Hakala wrote the president of Norway Savings Bank with an offer to form a marketing department, she knew she was in for a challenge. Other than being a customer of the bank, which is headquartered in Norway, Maine, she knew little about financial institutions. She was working full-time in newspaper advertising and going to school at night and on weekends to earn her degree in leadership and organizational studies at the University of Southern Maine. Moreover, she noted, this was twenty years ago, when few community banks had strong marketing functions.

At the time, Norway Savings Bank had seven branches and $350 million in deposits. It now boasts 24 branches and $1.1 billion in assets. While some of the growth is due to a merger, there was a lot more at play.

So what happened in the intervening years?

Hakala’s bold move paid off.

Peter Montpelier, then president of the bank, called to arrange an interview and then offered her a position.

Hakala viewed education as an essential first step to succeeding in her new role. I really looked at different opportunities to increase my understanding of banking in general,” she said. That led her to the ABA Bank Marketing School. She enrolled in the program in 2004, and then took the CFMP exam the morning after the last day of instruction.

The exam is “all encompassing,” Hakala said. It covers bank operations and finance, along with marketing—all subjects bank marketing professionals need to understand to operate effectively. Armed with this knowledge, Hakala could build a marketing function that supports the bank’s strategic goals.

Elevating marketing as a leadership role.

“Bank marketers today are expected to know about and manage the bank’s brand, traditional marketing, digital marketing, social media, public relations, and communications, as well as have strategic planning and budgeting skills,” said Pat Weigel, president at Norway Savings Bank. “The ABA School of Bank Marketing provided Karen with a strong foundation in all of these areas.”

Weigel added that an employee with extensive industry knowledge—like that gained through the school—is likely to offer “broad-based thinking and solutions that may be outside the box.”

For instance, Hakala sits on the bank’s Asset-Liability Committee. While at the Bank Marketing School, she completed a bank simulation program in which she ran a fictitious bank from a finance perspective. That experience helped her gain “a big-picture perspective of loans and deposits,” she says.

When Hakala develops the marketing plan and budget each year, she does so with an understanding of the bank’s goals and the steps required to meet them. If the bank needs loans, she’ll know not to devote a great deal of time and money creating campaigns to attract deposits. “When I write the annual marketing plan each year, I’m able to allocate plans and budgets to help support the bank’s financial goals,” she says. “That takes the role of marketing to a strategic level within the organization.”

Adapting to a changing environment.                           

Many banks today are looking at ways to increase their non-interest income to replace the income lost in the current low-interest rate environment, Hakala noted. Her marketing plans reinforce that strategy. For instance, she researched a rewards program, GenGold, that’s tied to customers’ checking accounts. Participants pay a low monthly fee, and then receive discounts on numerous goods and services. Hakala also continually searches for ways to promote electronic statements and decrease the costs associated with transactional banking.

Hakala said that having a president and executive team committed to marketing is critical to driving the institution forward. She’s a member of the senior management team, and her budgets receive approval because of the support of the president, the board, and the senior team. “Everyone believes that marketing really does play a huge role here,” she said.

And she believes that the CFMP and Bank Marketing School helped prepare her for the challenge. In addition to the lessons themselves, Hakala connected with marketers from across the country. Because they compete in different regions, she’s able to reach out to them and obtain insight on promotional and marketing ideas without worrying that she’s aiding her direct competitors. This research would be difficult, if not impossible to carry out if her contacts were limited to other bank marketers within Norway Savings’ market area.

Norway Savings Bank encourages employees who exhibit potential for advancement, and are actively pursuing career goals, to further their education through opportunities like the Bank Marketing School, according to Weigel. For an employee new to banking, it would typically take about two years to gain the experience and skills that would allow them to benefit from the school, she said. Members of the marketing team—and possibly of the retail banking staff—are likely candidates for this school, she added.

Many bank marketing professionals could handle the exam without attending the school, Hakala said. But she added that they would miss out on an enriching experience. By interacting with classmates, the students get “a better, well-rounded overview of banking in general.”

Both Hakala and the bank benefit. “Educated employees bring critical thinking and communication skills to the table, which helps the bank grow and improve, and better serves our customers,” Weigel said. “Having experienced and educated marketers who understand the big picture of banking is critical to our overall success.”

Karen M. Kroll is a business and financial services writer and content marketer based in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Email: [email protected].