CEO Q&A: Brand Presence for Community Banks

An excerpt from a conversation with Tim Marshall, president and CEO of the Bank of Ann Arbor in Ann Arbor, Mich., on creative marketing and community bank branding. Listen to the full interview on the ABA Banking Journal Podcast.

Q What is your bank’s vision for the community banking customer experience in your market, and what’s driving the way you communicate with them?

A The basis for how we execute upon our brand message is associated not with who we said we were but with who the community said we were. It really boiled down to a very simple phrase: “Bank of Ann Arbor helps.” We didn’t create that “helps” moniker on our own. It was primarily from all of the feedback that we got from the community, so from my perspective it was not because we told people, but because people told us, and that’s been very important in this branding evolution.

How we developed the brand to be executed upon was to be different. If somebody else is doing it we certainly didn’t want to do it, and we saw such a cesspool of sameness as we looked at how banks were trying to deliver a message. We just never felt that we wanted to join that rhetoric of sameness.

What we wanted to do was send messaging that created a feel, so that people could feel our brand and could embrace our brand, more through their perspective than from our perspective. That allows us to be unique and deliver a very different message that has very little to do with us and a lot to do with the communities that we serve.

Q Can you tell us about some of your community partnerships and how they differentiate Bank of Ann Arbor in your market?

A As we’re more successful, we are going to give back more dollars to help the communities that we serve be a better place to work, live and play. As an example, last year we gave to more than 200 nonprofit organizations that are doing their best to lift up communities, one person at a time, to create a better environment for people to be successful.

Corresponding closely with the commitment to the community is the commitment to our brand and our commitment to our people, and to hiring people that can deliver on our brand messages. All these things working together have helped us to be a very high-performing institution.

Q Bank of Ann Arbor has been recognized as a top workplace. What are your tips for making Bank of Ann Arbor a really exciting place to work and for ensuring that the whole team is on board with the vision and the program?

A If you stand with what our clients and the communities told us—that we’re an altruistic organization—then it’s incumbent upon me and our senior management team and our board to develop an organization that is truly altruistic. The energy that we’ve been able to create through developing a high-performing, altruistic organization has been very successful, and we do some unique things. When we remodeled and added to our downtown facility, we added a third-floor deck. We’ve got a craft beer dispenser for our colleagues to use after work. (Of course, I have noticed a few people out at four o’clock in the afternoon on a beautiful day knocking off just a little bit early, which is fine with me.) We’ve got a full gym; we’ve got a yoga and Pilates studio. We pay for gym memberships for our employees as part of our award-winning wellness program.

Q Speaking of having fun and creating a place that people like to be part of, I’d love to hear a little bit more about Sonic Lunch, the granddaddy of bank music events.

A Twelve years ago in the dead of winter, I got our senior management team sitting around a conference table, talking about a vision to create a free summer concert series for the benefit of the community. The number of eyes crossed and the look on people’s faces—”we’re talking about what again?”

It was about trying to create an event that would last over the course of the summer. It would be another example of Bank of Ann Arbor giving back to the community. It’s worked out exceptionally well. We’re now in our 12th season, our colleagues absolutely love it, the community loves it, and it’s just so much fun every Thursday afternoon at noon to go to the Liberty Plaza and see one of the performers that we’ve invited to come perform at Sonic Lunch.

Q One of the other fun things about Bank of Ann Arbor is the creative presentation of the brand message—branded items in this unmistakable bright green color, with clever messages written on them, just like on your billboards. What’s driving the creative expression of the brand through your design?

A We’re fortunate to have a longtime relationship with Ernie Perich, an exceptionally talented and creative individual. One of the things that he drove home to me 14 years ago was: “Simple is not bad.” People notice our billboards—people notice our brand messages—because they’re simple: they’re quick, they’re fast and they attract your attention. A lot of this gets back to how it’s not about us, it’s about them. It’s about creating a brand that people can feel and can embrace.

I think about the campaigns that we’ve done for when Michigan went to the Final Four or when Jim Harbaugh was introduced as the head coach—these are opportunities that we can take full advantage of that nobody  else can. I can’t imagine somebody sitting in New York City or Dallas is thinking that the University of Michigan just hit that last winning basket and they’re going to the Final Four—but guess what: Ernie Perich and Tim Marshall are thinking about that immediately on a Sunday afternoon, and we’re delivering a brand message by the following Tuesday. Billboards are up, radio commercials are cut and we’re being opportunistic.

Q This past spring, you got some attention for some billboards in East Lansing congratulating Michigan State on its Final Four appearance and cheering them on. Did that cause any consternation in your home market in Ann Arbor?

A The highest percentage of people recognized what we were trying to accomplish—again, being altruistic. We’ve been the first to recognize our hometown team at every opportunity through sponsorships, advertising and congratulatory messaging and it just seemed like it was the classy thing for us to do. That’s notwithstanding some of the commentary we got from the “True Blue.”

A few years ago we said Bank of Ann Arbor will be open on Columbus Day because Columbus is in Ohio [where Michigan rival Ohio State is]—just going out there taking a little bit of a risk and creating conversation.

Q Is that the red line for you? No congratulating Ohio State?

A That is. I’m sorry to all my banking friends in Columbus but that will never happen.


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