Is it Too Early to Promote Product?

By Mark Gibson

As more cities and states slowly open businesses and more people return to at least part of the normalcy of their pre-shutdown lives, bank marketers want to know: Can we get back to doing what we do?

The short answer is yes, but be careful.

After all, people need stuff right now, and stuff = products. The challenge is: The stuff they need has changed, and so has their mindset and expectation of brands. If you get it right, you win, like Zoom and Purell. If you get it wrong—well, let’s just say it might be career-limiting.

Not only do many people need financial help more than ever, but your financial institution needs revenue growth to counteract those loans that some people aren’t going to pay back. This is a really important topic for everyone. Bank marketers need to rethink their products and take a different approach. Now.

We will start with how the consumer and business owner’s needs and expectations have totally changed in the past 60 days, then we will discuss possible implications for your product line and promotions. Finally, we will lay out a game plan for getting advertising up and running, featuring both financial and non-financial brands which have successfully responded to the current crisis.

The changing customer

The powerful cocktail of a global health scare, business closures and social isolation have considerably changed peoples’ needs and mindsets. Some of these changes are temporary, while others may persist much longer. The important thing for a marketer to realize is that this crisis is affecting different people very differently. Many Americans have lost their jobs, at least temporarily. That may create similar money issues to a small business owner who was forced to close for 60 days. Similarly, the needs of someone fortunate enough to work from home may be in a similar financial situation to the many health care workers and other essential workers who are on the front lines each day. But the mindsets of these four groups are likely to be extremely different. And you can’t communicate with them or sell a product until you understand how they are thinking and feeling.

Fortunately, there is a lot of good research becoming available almost every day. For instance,, the real-time market research platform, is doing a free series of consumer behavior surveys that have great insights about the general population. It’s a good starting point for you as you navigate the changing landscape.

One key insight uncovered by Suzy is that people have high expectations for brands post-COVID. Cleanliness and delivery options are to be expected, but 49 percent of consumers want “new products or innovation for the new world.”

So, consumers want innovative products. Guess what? They are ready for you to advertise and tell them about those products with more promotions and offers.

Another finding from Suzy is that brands should be demonstrating a higher social purpose during the pandemic. This fits perfectly with most community banks’ missions of standing behind their customers and supporting their communities. But how are you demonstrating it right now?

Another trend is simplicity and taking care of basic needs like cooking or taking care of the family. Fancy vacations and sports cars are out; back yard cookouts and pick-up trucks are in.

The final broad change is a sense of uncertainty for the future. Most of us just don’t know how long this virus is going to hang around, and what impact it’s going to have on our lives.

But for most banks, it’s not enough to connect with the average client. You also need to give thought to who your target audience has been and whether that needs to shift. Then you need to do a bit of quick research to understand how the crisis has affected them specifically. It may be as simple as talking to a few of them or reaching out on social media. But you need to do it. That allows you to tailor both your message as well as your product and value proposition to real needs they are experiencing. More on that next.

Rethinking your product

Bank marketers tend to get wrapped up in their own products, like checking accounts, savings accounts or home equity lines of credit. But that’s not what people are buying. People are trying to do a job or solve a problem, and these financial products are a means to an end. That’s why we have learned to emphasize benefits rather than features.

The challenge we all face right now is, because the world has changed so dramatically, the financial jobs or problems consumers are trying to do or solve have changed too. We can’t talk the same way about our products as we did a few months ago. And, in fact, we may need to emphasize different benefits or entirely different products.

During times like these, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of Philip Kotler’s three levels of product. Banks, like manufacturers, craft an “actual product” to deliver a “core benefit.” But most products also have an “augmented” layer that includes service (think relationship management), delivery (mobile banking) or other differentiating enhancements.

This is important because people aren’t really buying a checking account (the “actual product”), they are buying a secure and convenient way of paying bills and storing their cash.

And it’s especially important now because consumers’ and business owners’ lives have been turned upside down, and as a result the core benefits they are looking for have very likely changed.

For instance, banks want to sell consumer loans, but the core benefit many consumers are looking for now is a lower monthly payment to help them deal with lower incomes. Several perceptive banks, including Truist and Wells Fargo, have identified this need, and have quickly begun marketing unsecured debt consolidation loans (the “actual product.”) The core benefit is a lower monthly payment. The “augmented product” could be no payments for the first three months, which are the months when consumers on furlough have a real cash crunch.

Getting back ‘on the air’

Now that you have clarified your target audience and determined what problems they are trying to solve, you are ready to develop and run some advertising featuring that product solution. As always, this involves two major steps that are even more important now: developing the message; and figuring out how to deliver it effectively.

Developing a message that resonates—here is where your research on your target market comes in handy. What are they thinking right now? What are they concerned about? What are they spending time doing? This will allow you to talk about your product solution in a way that has context in their lives today. Beware falling into the trap of “We’re all in this together” or “Thanks to all the first responders.” That was so March or April. People have moved on and your message needs to as well. Do some message testing with your target, even if it is on the street—socially distant of course!

I love this Progressive spot. It’s clearly aimed at people who are working from home and can relate to a Zoom call gone bad. Through humor, Progressive weaves in its key message that “you can save when you switch.”

If you are like most of us, you don’t have the budget you thought you did in January. Plus, the pandemic has made certain media channels a lot more attractive, while others are almost radioactive. That means you probably need to be very targeted and cost-effective in your choice of media. A great place to start is with your target audience(s). Are they working from home? Then TV, digital display, search and possibly even magazines and newspapers might be appropriate. Are they going out to an essential job every day? Then outdoor and radio might be a better choice. Media habits have changed significantly over the past two months. Be sure to revisit how your target audience is consuming information, news and entertainment in the post-COVID world.

Regarding media, there are some bargains in terms of the level of viewership compared to cost. For instance, digital newspapers and local TV viewership is up, but ads are down, so costs are way down. Many major advertisers have pulled back, which leaves plenty of room for a clever nimble bank marketer like you!

Consumers and business owners have more financial needs than ever. Your institution needs new revenue. And most people are ready for organizations to promote their wares. It’s up to you to find out where your customers are and promote the right product to move them in a better financial direction. Less competition and a willing audience. What are you waiting for?

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. He can also be reached on LinkedIn.