What’s the Story with Bank Histories?

By Kate Young

In 1931, a banker from Albion, Neb., drove his Packard to a bank in Lincoln to take out a short-term loan of $200,000 in cash. He chauffeured the cash home in a footlocker strapped into the rumble seat of his car. Back in Albion, he stored it in his bank’s vault for three days before returning it to Lincoln. That was just long enough for him to offer a peek of the vault drawers, crammed full of cash, to a few of the local farmers who’d been skittish about the recent spate of bank failures. Rumor quickly spread that “Big Jim” Fox had everyone’s money safe and sound. And that’s what kept his bank afloat through the Great Depression.

True story? Hard to say. It came down through Big Jim’s daughter and her siblings. They, like the bank, are long gone by now, and there’s no clear way to confirm the facts.

However it transpired, that bank’s Depression-era survival had far reaching consequences for the town and its people for generations to come. But really, how often do folks ponder the impact of the disasters that never happened? Or examine the aggregate benefits of hanging in there during tough times?

Is anyone taking notes?

At last count, close to 5,500 FDIC-insured institutions were operating in the U.S. Each one has its own unique story—one that weaves together the reasons for its existence, the character of its leaders, and the ways it has molded the community and lives of the people in it.

But not every bank has a written history. Taking on a project like that requires time and money. At a time when many banks are focused on the future with a sense of urgency—and taking a hard look at ROI for marketing expenditures—funding for historical research and documentation can be tough ask.

So when a bank does commit the resources to recording its own history, it’s worth paying attention.

How does a bank history project work? Why does it work? And how does all that fit into a marketing strategy? We reached out to banks with recently published histories and queried ABA Bank Marketing Network members for a better sense of what’s at play. Here’s what we learned.

“The medium is the message.”                                        

Because banking involves the interplay between finance and economic development, societal change, politics, cultural values, personal choices, and acts of God—storms, fires, earthquakes—there’s a story of interest for just about anyone. And a good bank history shapes itself to the needs of its intended audience.

A few examples:

  • The whirlwind tour. Anyone who’s lost track of time browsing Bank of America’s history and heritage pages knows that bank narratives can be dramatic. Taking a digital approach, the history looks back across 200+ years at the numerous banks that would eventually become part of the BofA family. And through a user-friendly collection of short videos and articles, it reinforces BofA’s position as a digital leader. Not only that, its panoramic tour of BofA’s “legacy banks” connects the bank—not unconvincingly—with the full arc of U.S. history.
  • The family album. When Dubuque, Iowa-based American Trust and Savings Bank wrote its history in 2011, it was designed as a limited-edition centennial gift to commercial and trust clients, the board and the family that owns the bank. As such, its historical focus is on the people who had led the bank over the generations. “The book has meant a lot to the prominent families and people in town,” says Peggy Hudson, EVP at American Trust. “We’re careful not to give the impression that we’re dwelling in the past,” she adds. But with its scrapbook-style layout and suede-like cover, “this piece is nostalgic. The people who want to look at the pictures and go down memory lane are the people who will want to be able to touch and feel it.”

  • The deluxe coffee-table book. In 2014, the Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh (since renamed Dime Community Bank) published The Last Bank Standing. Filled with maps, photos, timelines and artwork, it tells the history of not just the bank, but also the Williamsburg community in Brooklyn, N.Y. The title refers to the fact that, of the 20 Brooklyn-based banks that were chartered in the 19th century, Dime is the sole survivor. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that this high production value coffee-table book was published at a time when Williamsburg was one of the most famously trendy neighborhoods in New York, if not to say the entire country. By aligning itself so intimately with the community, the bank sends a pointed message to its increasingly affluent neighbors.

  • The researcher’s resource. Released this year, The People’s History of Renasant Bank takes a different tack. Drawing heavily on research by a University of Mississippi history professor—and exhaustive study of the Tupelo, Miss.-based bank’s annual reports—its look and feel is more textbook than scrapbook. Along with stories of bank leadership going back 114 years, it documents a consistent series of financial data sets spanning decades. With this book, Renasant seems to be staking its claim in the history of the region by providing an authoritative resource for future scholars. “No matter how digitized the world becomes, we will always commit to putting things on paper,” predicts JB Clark, Mabus Agency’s director of brand narrative and the book’s co-author. “And those things will carry some amount of legitimacy.”

Every bank history has multiple uses.

As one banker put it, “doing a history book is a heavy lift.” So many wait for a major milestone to take on such a hefty project—a centennial celebration, the retirement of a revered CEO, the ascension of the next generation in a family-owned enterprise. The resulting product makes a lasting and meaningful gift for bank leadership, major clients, and other interested parties.

Once the milestone passes, then what?

Any bank that’s been around long enough to hit a major milestone will have survived some major calamities over the years:  the financial crisis of 2008, the farm credit or savings and loan crises of the 1980s, bubbles, world wars, bank panics—and of course the Great Depression. Documenting exactly how the bank overcame these challenges is a gift to the bankers of the future.

It’s also a vital marketing message—and not just to customers. Clark notes that a history book also becomes “an internal marketing message that creates deeper buy-in” among employees. For Dustin Harvey, marketing officer at Iowa Trust and Savings Bank, the bank’s history book, The First 100 Years, was part of the hiring process that brought him on board. Twenty-two years after the book was written, it continues to serve as a tool for officer recruitment.

“People refuse to throw away books,” Clark observes—in contrast to a digital timeline that can disappear at any time. Committing the history to the written page “sets in stone that the bank is doing the right thing—doing well while staying loyal to your customer base.”

It’s an exercise in foundational branding.

Just don’t ask about the marketing ROI on a bank history. Whether it exists as a print publication or a section of the “About Us” pages on a bank’s website, a history can play a key role in defining a bank’s identity and values. That’s a critical branding exercise. But you can’t track an ROI on it.

“Banks have to offer parity products,” Clark says. “We’re regulated. So what’s the differentiation? It’s your story.” In other words, in order to attract customers to your bank, you first have to show them who you are and how you function through good times and bad.

John Oxford, Renasant Bank’s CMO, knows as well as anyone the importance of measuring ROI—but he’s quick to point out its limits. “You can’t measure culture, happiness, humility, understanding and empathy,” he says. “But you can tell it in stories of how the bank has handled itself throughout its history. I would call the ROI on this a return on integrity—hard to measure, but a story that needs to be told.”

Kate Young is the senior editor of ABABankMarketing.com. Email: kyoung@aba.com.

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