Finding the Right Partner for a Rebrand

By Marilyn Kennedy Melia

Bankers are well acquainted with due diligence. Every lending and investment decision demands it.

And as a regulated business, banks must thoroughly vet the cost and reliability of any third-party vendors they hire. That includes rebranding agencies.

“We had the help of our procurement team [within the bank],” says Dawn Morris, EVP and chief of digital banking and marketing for First Horizon National Corporation, a name that its two subsidiary banks—First Tennessee Bank and Capital Bank—will adopt in late 2019.

But typical due diligence is just the objective aspect of selecting a rebranding partner. The subjective side of the equation involves the collective instinct of the bank’s senior management, marketing director and board members on whether a particular firm has the right style and expertise to advise the bank appropriately. And that is an equally crucial element.

Just as the aim of rebranding is to express a bank’s unique positioning, each bank will have its own approach to selecting a partner.

Still, there are some broad similarities. Here, some insight distilled from what several bankers have generously shared.

This article is the second in our exclusive series about rebranding a bank. Click here to view the previous article:

When Is It Time for a Rebrand?

What firms make the short list?

“Our agency selection process might be considered typical,” says James Nesci, president and CEO of Blue Foundry Bank in Rutherford, N.J. “We reviewed a list of potential providers, created a request for proposal, narrowed the group and held in-person interviews. Upon completion, we reviewed work product and checked references.”

Since a rebranding partner takes an intimate dive into how a bank is viewed by both its customers and non-customers, non-compete agreements are common. “While the bank can look at the work of a branding firm, the only way to truly know [if it’s worked for a competitor]is by asking the agency for a list of clients,” notes Tim Pannell of Financial Marketing Solutions.

Although Blue Foundry selected a firm that specializes in bank rebranding, Nesci believes that a financial specialty isn’t strictly necessary for a successful rebranding. “You could go either way,” he notes.

The advantage of a financial specialty, say executives of these agencies, is their familiarity with rolling out a new brand through an extensive branch network, and with bank regulatory issues.

At First Horizon, “we talked to several firms and had conversations on what we wanted to achieve,” explains Morris. “We did a weighted scorecard to judge the attributes we were looking for.”

First Horizon settled on a firm that specializes in businesses experiencing disruption across any industry, usually from online incursion.

“We landed on the strongest partner that came through,” says Morris. “You can learn from other industries being disrupted.”

And because one of Blue Foundry’s objectives at the outset was to replace its prior name, it made it a priority that a partner must also have history of developing effective new names.

What do firms charge for what they do?

Branding firms commonly describe their work in two phases. In the first, there’s intensive research probing customers, non-customers and employees for their views on the bank. Then, using that insight, the branding firms and the bank craft a creative strategy, which might include a new name and logo. Depending a bank’s size, firms say the first phase can cost from roughly $70,000 to mid-six figures.

The second stage is the implementation and roll-out of the new brand. That typically involves changing the bank’s website, signage and the myriad forms and documents that populate any bank.

It also includes a plan to introduce the brand to employees, customers, shareholders and the public.

Sounds intense? It is, and the second phase can last a year or more. Some firms charge a percentage of a bank’s asset size for this second stage.

That’s a typical process, but not the only one.

Shanda Trautman, senior vice president of marketing for Old Missouri Bank, came to the institution four years ago from a branding firm, and was confident she could direct a tailored approach on a rebrand.

She used the bank’s existing ad agency, especially for social media content that could capture younger customers’ attention. But she also brought in a firm for help with a new mission theme and logo—elements Trautman says are crucial—because, “you use that as a guidebook for everything else.”

“But the project management was all in-house,” adds Trautman, referring to the logistics of executing the changes.

Who are the decision makers?

While a marketing director might make the case to top brass that a rebranding is necessary, a small team of executives is often involved in selecting a partner—and approving the major elements of a new brand—with the CEO often having the last word.

However, typically, every functional area is touched by a rebranding, and soliciting input from key players is not only courteous, but practical.

At Atlantic Union Bank, which recently joined several differently-named institutions under the Atlantic Union moniker, the process was driven by EVP and Chief Marketing Officer Duane Smith, shares John Asbury, CEO of the Richmond-based bank.

Smith notes that “an internal team of about 20 people” were asked for input on decisions impacting their department.

‘Will you be compatible, honest partners?’

It was just “minutes into” an initial phone call with a potential partner when Troy Steensen, marketing director for Security National Bank in Sioux City, Iowa, felt he landed on the right one.

“I brought up our logo and asked if it needed to be changed,” Steensen remembers. The frank response: “I have no idea; you just called me ten minutes ago. I know nothing about your organization, the community, your brand,” was the kind of objective assessment Steensen wanted from a partner.

Rebranding executives agree that their job is to present truth—however difficult it may be to hear.

After all, adds Nesci, it would be counter-productive if the findings from surveys and focus groups were massaged to be more palatable. “They must give you back the unvarnished truth,” he concludes.

Marilyn Kennedy Melia is a banking and personal finance writer based in Chicago. Email: [email protected].