What Can Bank Marketers Learn from High Fashion?

By John Oxford

In 1985, a little known clothing designer needed a boost to get his new menswear line brand noticed. At the urging of his financiers, he called up one of the most famous ad men at the time, George Lois. Lois asked him what he wanted to do and the designer said he wanted to take a model out on the beach in the Hamptons, put him in preppy menswear and take a beautiful photograph.

Lois responded, “You’re crazy! You’ll never become known unless you spend millions and millions of dollars. You won’t stand out from the competition because they are doing something similar.” Substitute the little-known designer for most bank brands and—just like the conventional fashion marketing approach of putting a model on the beach in clothing—bank marketing tends to look and feel an awful lot alike.

If you don’t think so, visit YouTube and search bank commercials. Could you replace the closing logo with any bank logo and find the commercial about the same for any bank brand? Does your bank’s commercial have strong handshake, open-for-business signs, a young couple and an older couple shot—and a clean teller row with smiling faces? Perhaps you decided to take a chance and have a drone shot over one of your branches, or the city or countryside that matches your market, as the flowing feel-good John Tesh-style music fades away. You go, you risk taker, you.

If you are still doing print ads, does your copy talk about trust, your people and being part of the community? Do you have bankers that look ready to set a screen in a basketball game with a suit on? Do you talk about how old you are? About how, as times change, you can be there for your clients every step of the way? How you have amazing clients that testify to how great your service is for them?

Much of this same messaging and styling now bleeds over into social media, digital and web—where banks can interchange a logo on their ads and no one would likely know the difference.

Now let’s state the truth: these are all the correct things for banks. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with any of this. It is very comfortable brand messaging, especially in a conservative industry that is bound with product parity and regulatory restrictions.

But as a bank marketer, if this stings a little and hurts your feelings, welcome to the pity party! As I type this, I’m feeling the exact same shame-of-sameness as you. Guilty as charged…for many years.

By now you’ve likely nodded to the narrative of a lack of differentiation in bank marketing, and are wondering: how do we move away from being just another “model on the beach”?

First, start thinking like a brand and stop thinking like a bank.

Banking is a commodity, and we can rightfully assume the general public understands the basics of what a bank does. No, that doesn’t mean stop financial literacy or your efforts to bank the unbanked. Those are super important. However, you have something unique about your brand. (If not, you need to go find it.) Take a fresh look at yourself as a brand and try to forget being a bank for just a moment.

In this, realize your brand has certain innate traits that set it apart. For example, our bank, Renasant, is cool, fun and southern—as we are based in the south (duh). Our tagline is “Understanding You” which represents our empathy towards our clients.

Now before you roll your eyes, here is how we set ourselves apart with our brand: We create content that is cool, fun and southern that reinforces our brand’s personality and connects with our regional audience. And we do this without talking about products or people. And most of the time, we even do it without photos of handshakes or open-for-business signs. Mind blowing, right?

Examples of this can be found on our content site, and—more specifically to our brand traits of being southern and fun—with content about southern football and life in the south; cool—with content about cool things people are doing; and empathetic—with content on our community service (we couldn’t escape these stories). Find your brand message and own it.

Secondly, realize you have more channels at your disposal than any other time in human history.

Not being able to afford TV ads might actually be a good thing when you can just take your message to “the people” through social and digital channels. All of your content can be sliced and diced for the audience of each medium. And while you’re at it, strip the audio and written copy to create audio and blog messaging as well. With all the modern channel options available, one piece of content can be served up many different ways. Find your audience channels and own it.

Finally—because my college communication teacher said you can only get three ideas across in a content piece—my third point: you’ve got to take some risks to get noticed. It can be humorous like First Bank of Denver, Colorado’s messaging, or get-it-done cool like Minnwest Bank’s “DOers” campaign, or original personal banker branding like Natalie Bartholomew’s Girl Banker. “Dare to be different” is a cliché, but one that banks usually dare to avoid. Find your differential risk tolerance and own it.

To reiterate: Act like a brand and not a bank in finding your brand message. Take advantage of the channels available to your content. Take some compliance-approved risks to set yourself apart from that homogeneous First Community State Trust Bank on the nearest street corner.

Oh, and who was that little-known clothing designer? None other than Tommy Hilfiger. You remember, the guy who rushed to the top of the fashion game in the early 90s with a big crest logo on the lower left side of his shirts and fancy nautical themed garb. He took Lois’s advice and passed on doing the model-on-the-beach shoot. Instead he chose a word play “hangman” ad on a billboard in Times Square that—although it seems bizarre by today’s marketing standards—was seen as courageous and daring at the time. It accomplished the attention he needed to set him apart from what was expected by the marketplace.

If you want to know the full story of what Hilfiger did to avoid the sea—or in his case beach—of fashion sameness, check out this story, which inspired this article. And listen to the Marketing Money Podcast, where we take an even deeper dive into the Hilfiger story and the legendary myth that all banks are the same.

John Oxford is director of marketing at Renasant Bank and co-host of the Marketing Money Podcast.