Playing the Long Game

By Mark Gibson 

Most marketing people excel at responding to crises or to changing situations, turning on a dime to quickly develop communications and programs. In short, we are in our element in the early days of COVID-19. Many of us are doing an admirable job keeping our customers and communities informed.  

But in the heat of the moment, are we able to keep our eye on the bigger picture, or are we allowing the current crisis to overwhelm us? Banks still have underlying business objectives and challenges that will be very real once we emerge on the other side of this crisis. What specific things can marketers do now and in the next few months to advance the ball so they are better prepared to achieve the bank’s strategic objectives once priorities shift away from the crisis at hand? 

This article will begin with a few critical actions you should be taking now, then will focus on three steps you should take over the next 90 days to keep your bank’s growth on the high road. 

Important short-term plays 

Keep customers informedMost banks have done a good job communicating about branch closures, remote access, and changing policies like increased debit card limits. You should continue to do this at least weekly. (Some doctors are communicating by email and video almost daily.)  

Many banks have gone beyond the basics in important ways. For instance, the evolving nature of government financial assistance is very confusing to both consumers and business owners. Take a cue from our accountant colleagues. Communicate factual information about these programs as it becomes available. Where appropriate, include a link to the actual government application for assistance. Your customers will appreciate that you are thinking of their financial wellbeing. 

Connect personally. The physical and financial lives of your customers are under threat right now like never before in our lifetimes. And due to social distancing policies, many of them are facing these fears alone. At the exact moment a personal interaction with a warm caring branch employee is needed, banks are being forced to shutter branches or make them available by appointment only. 

What can we do when our primary personal channel of contact is no longer available? First, in your communications (emails, website, etc.), try to be empathetic and communicate with your customers where they find themselves emotionally. Don’t just talk about policies and access. Demonstrate that you care and want to make sure they are OK. After all, many of these customers are over 60, are fearful and may be alone. 

Encourage customers to contact you by telephone. Provide their banker’s phone number and email. And where possible, have their banker or your call center reach out to them. After all, most of them are sitting at home, so it should be easier than usual to actually reach them. Ask them how they are doing and reassure them that we will get through this difficult period together. Ask them if they need anything and how you might be able to assist. 

Review your creative messagingYou and your team need to immediately review every piece of creative you are sending, to ensure the message and image reflects what is happening to your customers and prospects. This includes your automated email campaigns. I was reminded of this a few days ago when I received an email from my bank with an image of a tanned couple on a sailboat touting an investment product. The unstated message this bank was sending is that they either are oblivious to my current distress or don’t care about it.  

This does not mean you have to stop promoting products. It does mean you need to be thoughtful about what your customers are going through, and what needs they have at the present time, then select the products and messaging that is relevant to your audience right now. Otherwise, you will waste your marketing dollars and possibly even turn people away from your brand. 

Rally the team. We can’t lose sight of the fact that our bank colleagues are also living through this tumultuous period, and many may be working from home. Marketing can play an important role in providing frequent transparent communication to the troops, reinforcing key elements of the bank’s culture. Marketing can also take the lead with human resources in ensuring that employees are looked after, especially those who live alone. One best practice that is emerging is for teams to have audio or even video “checkin” meetings a couple times per week. This not only fosters better communication among those who are working remotely. It also provides that human contact for those team members who may be feeling isolated or lonely. 

Keep your eye on the ball 

Most health experts think we are in the first inning of a long game. That means you will have to shift gears many times in the next few months in response to shelter-in-place announcements, non-essential business closures (and re-openings), and corresponding bank service delivery changes. Marketers are in their element during times like these, responding quickly and making things happen! But as Steven Covey used to remind usWe can’t let the urgent day-to-day activities distract us from the strategically important tasks we need to be doing for our customers’ and organization’s long-term prosperity. 

Here are three actions you can take to help keep your department and institution moving in the right direction. 

Review strategic objectivesThe world inside your bank has changed just as fast as the one outside. The crisis has lowered interest rates, shrunk margins, impacted consumer confidence and buying habits and encouraged businesses to draw down lines of credit. If you haven’t already, connect with your business executives to revisit this year’s strategic priorities and growth goals. For instance, while many banks’ top priority in January was to grow commercial loans, their most urgent need right now might be quickly attracting lowcost deposits to fund those credit lines. As a marketer, you need to stay abreast of these changing priorities, so you are deploying your resources in the right direction.  

Build your brandDuring times like these, it’s natural for banks to pull back on advertising. That opens an opportunity for you to do the opposite. After all, with less competitive noise, your message is more likely to be received! Stand by your customers and communities and spend advertising and social media dollars to tell that story effectively. Review your brandpositioning strategy and make sure your communications align with it.  

Make sure every employee is well versed in all the wonderful things you are doing and encourage them to spread the word personally and in social media. Create lots of social posts they can share. I remember in the weeks following 9/11, most airlines dramatically reduced their flight schedules, but I was surprised that Southwest Airlines cancelled very few flights. Their management team said it was because the company was honoring a commitment to keep its colleagues employed. The unintended benefit: Competing airline passengers were forced to switch to Southwest and many never went back, resulting in a permanent increase in market share.  

What is your organization doing for its colleagues, customers and communities? Be sure the public knows what you are doing and why. 

Ramp uperformance marketing.’ There will be a temptation to reduce marketing expenditures as margins shrink. That’s why there has never been a better time to build out your analytical and direct response programs, so you can demonstrate that your marketing efforts are generating new customers, product sales and ROI. Now is the time to align your marketing efforts around your institution’s top priority, like deposit growth, and measure the results carefully so you can report back to business line managers.  

Let’s take deposit growth as an example. What are you doing to attract more deposit households to the bank? What is your cost per acquisition compared to what that household is worth to the bank? How are you using analytics to find existing customers with more deposits, and deploying targeted communications and lead generation to obtain those deposits? How are you using customer information to help retail bankers obtain the personal deposits of commercial customers? 

Now is the time, if you haven’t already, to educate senior management on how your marketing efforts are directly contributing to the bank’s growth. 

Preparing for next season 

We don’t know how long this ‘spring training’ is going to last, or when the playing season will finally start. What we do know is that we as bankers and bank marketers share something fundamental with our customers and communities right nowwe are all living in uncharted territory. We all need transparent helpful information about how to stay physically, emotionally and financially healthy. 

It has been heartening to see public health officials, governors and mayors rise to the challenge and provide useful and reassuring leadership. Like them, banks and bankers have a unique opportunity to provide essential assistance and value to our customers and communities. 

While we fulfill this vital role, it’s equally important that we stand with bat at the ready, so that when that first pitch is thrown, we are ready to hit it out of the park. 

Mark Gibson is senior consultant at Capital Performance Group, a strategic consulting firm that provides advisory, planning, analytic and project management services to the financial services industry. Email: [email protected]. LinkedIn.