Internal Branding: Banking’s Secret Weapon

By Chris Wallace 

You know when you walk into a Starbucks. From the furniture to the music, Starbucks stores have an atmosphere that is predictable and consistent. And more than that, the peopleformer CEO Howard Schultz called them “partners” instead of employeesmake a difference because they understand how their roles fit into the customer experience. 

Banks face a challenge in differentiationnot just in their names, products and even interest rates—but also in how they present themselves inside the doors. Apart from the few dozen Capital One Cafés, few banks have a distinctive customer experience that is also consistent across their footprints. 

Banks that want to set themselves apart in the minds of customers are missing a key piece of the puzzle: internal branding. 

The fundamental disconnect between banks and branding is the belief that brand loyalty can be achieved through external marketing alone. Banks spend a lot of time and money on marketing to position themselves with customers. They make promises and set expectationsbut promises don’t mean anything if they don’t match the customer experience. 

Experience defines banking 

Customers base their perceptions of a bank on their last point of contact with it, whether digital or human. Experience defines banking. All employees should be “acting the brand,” but achieving brand alignment internally is next to impossible if employees don’t understand or don’t believe in the brand’s messaging. 

Banks today are dealing with a tough set of circumstances. They struggle to find and retain entry-level frontline employees for call centers and branch locations. Their products and services aren’t usually simple or easy to understand. And they’re trying to serve customers who want both digital banking tools and the option of simple, effective human interaction. 

Think of it this way. A bank can build the best digital tools in the world and spend money advertising how convenient those tools are. But if customers encounter an unprepared employee even once or twice when visiting the physical branch location, it won’t take long for them to see the disconnect between promise and delivery. 

Before sharing brand messages with customers, banks must find innovative ways to engage their internal audiences. Too many are still using product training and emails to keep their representatives “on message,” but those tactics just don’t cut it. The problem is that most marketing initiatives happen to these employees, not with them. They’re told the “what” but rarely the “why.” Information is pushed out to the field, but it just creates more noise for employees who are already struggling. 

How banks can break the mold 

If you are looking to break the mold and set your bank up for success with internal branding, start with these five steps: 

  1. Change the goal

Stop just pushing information. Successful political candidates don’t just hand out their résumés and ask for a votethey inspire. They make people feel like they’re part of something. Similarly, banks need to raise the bar for how they involve their employees in customer initiatives. When you move your focus from pushing information to inspiring action, you’ll build a solid foundation for internal branding that just providing facts and checking boxes can never give you. 

  1. Listen first

Before rolling out a slew of new internal branding tactics, ask frontline teams what they think. Companies that create products without listening to customers tend not to hit their goals. The same is true of companies that try to mobilize their people around new initiatives without understanding employee perspectives or needs. The employee voice should be guiding your internal branding activities. 

  1. Build momentum, not expertise

Don’t try to make people perfect right away. No one can take a new concept and master it in one or two training sessions. Focus on one thing at the start, rather than trying to make your team digest everything at once. Did you launch a new digital banking tool? Great. Instead of training frontline employees on every single detail of it, have them start by asking customers whether they’ve tried the tool. If they say no, your people can encourage them to check it out. One simple questionthat’s it. Once your employees get comfortable with that, layer in more detail. Too much information is a burden, not an asset. Momentum builds confidence. 

  1. Reward effort, not results

Too many companies have learned the hard way what happens when they focus more on end results and not on the steps it takes to drive solid performance. Any time you ask your people to embrace new concepts and take new actions, be prepared to manage that change. Too much emphasis on delivering results can keep people from branching out and trying something new. Reward and recognize people who do step outside their comfort zones to support new initiatives. Encourage people to find innovative ways to engage customers with new offerings. 

  1. Try new tactics

This is the easiest step to recommend, but it’s the hardest for people to really do. Sending more emails won’t be enough, and brochures won’t compel people to action. Before doing anything, ask yourself these three questions about the tactics you are using for internal brand engagement: 

  • Is the tactic new? 
  • Is it going to grab attention quickly? 
  • Will employees understand the call to action for their role? 

If you want to try something new but you’re scared of the cost and the challenge, look at how expensive it is to keep doing what you’re doing. How much are you spending on training time, lost productivity, and printed onesheets? To engage your people to represent and promote your brand, stop equating different with harder and more expensive. Different is differentand that’s exactly what they need. 

Internal branding is just as important as sharing brand messages with the outside world, especially for banks. You’ll never find internal brand alignment without a clear vision of what you’re aligning to. Engage employees with your brand visionand rally them around that single idea to help them deliver your brand promises and an excellent customer experience. 

Chris Wallace is the president and co-founder of InnerView, a marketing consulting firm that helps companies align their brand and product stories with their customer-facing teams. 

Tags: brandingbrand ambassadors, training, employee engagement, employee communications