When Is It Time for a Rebrand?

By Marilyn Kennedy Melia

The only certainty is change, for everyone and everything.

Banks, though, have experienced more than their fair share of change in recent years—coming from every direction. To some, banking these days may seem like a matter of “survival of the fittest.”

But many institutions are “looking to thrive, not just survive,” says Tim Pannell, CEO of Financial Marketing Solutions. The path forward might entail a merger, a reassessment of the bank’s customer base and competitive positioning, new leadership, or simply a realization that a long-held brand is tired.

The concept of brand doesn’t simply define “the product or service that is delivered, but also how it is delivered and how that delivery is different from how competing brands deliver it,” explains Dawn Lerman, Fordham University professor and author of The Language of Branding.

Logo, branch design, website, customer service, products and advertising themes all work together to communicate brand. It’s expensive and intensive to rebrand, and results should last several years or more.

How do you know when the bank needs a rebrand?

While it’s nothing to be lightly entered into, rebranding isn’t n a process to avoid, either. But it does require the full support and commitment of leadership.

Moreover, don’t expect a “refresh”—which might be a simplified logo or new font style for a bank’s name—to accomplish what a rebrand can, explains Hunter Young, leader of the financial services division of the Mabus Agency.

Here, experts outline typical motivations for rebranding. Then, a look at how bank marketers can make an effective case for rebranding to leadership.

Recognize any of these rebranding triggers at your bank?

  • We’ve outgrown our old identity.

A bank broadening its reach into new markets—but with a name and image that is closely identified with a certain geographic area—is one example of the need to rebrand, notes Eva LaMere, president of Austin & Williams. Or, if the existing brand focuses on a particular customer segment (like retail) and the bank now also focuses on other areas (say, small business lending) then that’s another signal to rebrand, she adds.

Sometimes, an existing brand may simply have far outlived its shelf life.

When Troy Steensen joined Security National Bank (SNB) a few years ago, he “respected everything” about the 135 year-old Sioux City, Iowa institution. Still, he knew that its brand, in place for decades, was due for an overhaul. For one thing, the logo and scripted, shadowed lettering of the name was clearly old-fashioned and ill-suited for digital applications. For another, the $1.4 billion dollar SNB was in a different position than it was circa 1970.

  • We’re losing our competitive edge.

“Typically, banks come to us when they are losing market share or competitors have taken a large step forward in marketing their brands or products and services,” says Sean Tracey of Sean Tracey Associates.

“While these are times when a bank needs to step-up [its]game,” he adds, though only thorough research can identify the need and optimum timing for a rebrand.

  • We’re a new (merged) institution.

While the wave of banking M&A activity is one reason behind the current uptick in rebranding, an acquisition doesn’t always demand it, says Pannell. “Say, for instance, you’re a small bank in Mississippi and you acquire a small bank in Alabama. That bank might absorb into your existing identity.”

On the other hand, banks that merge often need “to create something new and special,” Pannell adds, so that customers and staffers embrace rather than resent the marriage.

Do you have a strong rebranding case to make to leadership?

With a price tag that can run into six or even seven figures, and with the profound impact a rebranding has on staff, customers, and potential customers, support for the effort must come from the top.

“Marketing officers don’t usually have a seat at the table” at the highest levels, notes Young.

But it’s marketing officers who first recognize the need to rebrand, and many have convinced the C-Suite using a two-pronged approach:

  1. Presenting a research-based argument.

Typically, a rebranding project starts with extensive surveying of customers, staff and the public for their current perceptions of the bank. From that research evolves the bedrock on which all rebranding is based: a way for the bank to position itself as a unique institution, offering a distinct customer value.

It’s a bit of a Catch-22, because to make the best case for a rebrand, you’d be better off if you had the type of data that doesn’t turn up until those initial exploration stages—when the rebranding has begun.

However, “a bit of research can go a long way to make the case,” says LaMere. She suggests “starting with desktop research to look at successful rebrandings and their outcomes, and published studies that quantify the value of a rebrand.”

“You could also implement a simple e-survey to customers to gauge their perceptions of the bank, to understand if perceptions match the bank’s current vision and growth path, or if there’s a disconnect,” she adds.

  1. Respecting the bank’s past success, but looking ahead.

Often, when leadership changes, a new CEO who is focused on a new vision is more amenable to a rebrand than someone a couple of years from retirement, Young observes.

With the tenure of the SNB leadership team averaging 30-some years—and SNB’s lead in market share, Steensen remembers “I knew I had to go about [the rebranding request]in a very strategic way.”

The bank did have a separate budget for surveys, and Steensen tapped that for conducting customer and non-customer focus groups as well as employee surveys.

As he suspected, SNB enjoyed an overall positive image. But younger adults saw SNB’s decades-old logo, suit-and-tie conservatism and less-than-cutting-edge tech offerings as a negative. But instead of trying to swim against the current, Steensen made his case in terms his leaders would appreciate. He looked at other venerable firms, like Coca Cola, and showed how they changed their logos every seven to ten years, to look relevant for the times.

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