From Fuzzy to Focused: Four Ways to Make Your Next Marketing Budget Shine

By Shelly Loftin, CFMP

Admit it. Your marketing vision for 2020 quickly faded to fuzzy before slipping entirely out of focus this year, didn’t it? You are not alone.

Deviating attention quickly to urgent priorities, like a pandemic, paired with quite a bit of economic uncertainty, often leads to shifting budgeting realities as well. As your bank prepares its 2021 budget, marketing and retail leaders have the opportunity more than ever before to reshape their strategies and build a more connected, durable brand designed to unify the customer experience and foster more creativity.

While some bank brands may have gained marketing momentum in recent months, according to recent research by Gartner, marketers will likely need to put aside the rose-colored lenses for more practical specs moving into 2021. Since marketing and training tend to be two areas often targeted for trimming expenses, prioritize and plan now for these budgetary pressures. Take this opportunity to strengthen the narrative in key areas that tend to be up for discussion during budgeting season.

Elevate and cultivate culture

The advantage of a strong company culture has never been more evident than in a time of crisis. The ability of community banks to keep employees safe, adjust work schedules, communicate with customers, maintain operations and streamline innovative projects to help teams manage this ever-changing situation has been remarkable.

Build a budget line item for cultural and employee engagement initiatives as a part of the marketing budget if it doesn’t currently exist or reside elsewhere. Develop a strong relationship with human resources and partner to increase employee engagement and ensure cultural inclusivity. Explore pooling funds to better communicate, engage and reward your workforce. Ensuring team members are well taken care of and given the tools to be brand advocates has never been more crucial.

If you don’t own internal communications or play a large role in the discussion of how to manage those critical messages, get proactive and make your case with your CEO as well as HR. Brand is more than a product, service, or look and feel. Elevating the culture in turn elevates the brand and those actions must be authentic, meaning internal and external messaging and timing are aligned. Secure resources in collaboration with various teams dedicated to providing direction and guidance to all who represent the brand—your bottom line will thank you.

Brand with purpose

It’s time to commit to building and aligning brands with a purpose other than shareholder value. Branding with purpose is not a new concept; financial services just haven’t focused on it. Emotionally connecting with consumers can involve feelings, often making some boardrooms uncomfortable so marketers shy away from the topic. Many passionate discussions on branding have been quickly dismissed by executives because measuring success—ROI—over the long-term isn’t as clear as other types of marketing initiatives. The truth is, we can do hard things, and we can prove to leadership there is value in emotionally connecting with a customer base that clings to your bank’s brand.

For a brand to be authentic and trustworthy, it has to have relatable meaning to both internal and external audiences. Overall brand purpose is different from a specific social stance and it is critical they work together and be consistent in order to build trust. If you personalize your brand on a community level, then miss an opportunity to take a stance on an important social issue—what message does that send to your employees and your customers? These types of situations are avoidable if we develop, build and maintain a brand with a purposeful center.

Connecting the customer experience

Focus on understanding, improving and connecting the customer experience. The customer experience in banking needs to be better both in person and online. Providing a superior customer experience in one channel and not the other is a missed opportunity, yet we often divide the organization into silos which then creates a disconnect. The pandemic has proven the need to align these experiences simply, effectively and transparently with a strong focus on support throughout various channels to help customers with products and services they may be unfamiliar with.

Determine a customer experience owner within the organization. The challenge in budgeting for this type of alignment is identifying the person or group in the organization who has ownership. The owners must then effectively collaborate so the call center, online chat team, social media response team and branch team are all speaking the same language. The economic consequences of the pandemic have increased the need for banks to improve efficiency in tandem with the customer experience. As a bank marketer or retail leader, determine where this lives in your organization and if that placement makes sense. If there is no home or dedicated budget line item, it is time once again to raise your hand. Aligning branding, culture, customer experience, product development (including digital, innovation, strategy, etc. if a department is dedicated to those) and retail should ensure a holistic view of the customer experience.

Understanding the complete customer experience landscape enables you to consider both thoughtful and efficient trade-offs and investments moving forward. Blending digital service technologies with traditional in-person operational approaches can help customers and team members feel more comfortable with unfamiliar technologies. Joann Marsili, SVP and director of marketing and digital sales for Fidelity Bank in Pennsylvania, shared one of her 2021 budgeting goals is “to invest in and upgrade digital tools that were glaringly missing in our customer experience during the COVID pandemic.” Given her unique view across the customer experience landscape, she is able to determine which technology investments make the most sense.

Commit to resetting your customer experience priorities for 2021 along with the approach to customer experience measurement. Bank leaders need to ensure the right team members are at the table leading budget discussions on how to prioritize pieces of the customer experience to avoid duplicate efforts and disjointed communications. At the very least, suggest a cross-departmental team of retail, marketing, compliance, technology, call center and digital or innovation team leads to discuss the existing customer experience across channels and ensure the work is coordinated moving forward. Moreover, the CEO should expect customer experience improvement to be presented holistically, and it should be a priority moving forward.

Revenue generation opportunities

No matter the shift in the banking, or worldwide, landscape, marketing will be charged with prioritizing and leading non-interest income-generating activities. Those priorities likely will look different in 2021 than they do in 2020. Evaluating the right growth opportunities for your financial institution will be critical to setting up success in the “next normal.” Customer are reshaped by the pandemic, so how can we align growth opportunities with changing customer needs moving forward?

Explore new and existing product potential with a refreshed lens. Dig into how customer needs in your market areas have shifted and how your existing products and services could help. Take note of key gaps you could benefit from filling quickly, or products you haven’t yet strategically assessed for income potential.

Take payments as an example. Have you reviewed your overall payments customer experience strategy to determine if marketing can drive increased payment spend? Or are there additional features you could add on to debit or credit cards in order to drive adoption and spending? What about online or digital offerings to increase your chances of becoming the top of wallet card for customers e-commerce transactions? These are just a few questions to consider when assessing existing products to reveal experience opportunities waiting to drive revenue.

Increasing digital marketing spend is a smart move for most in the coming year; however, closely analyze new customer acquisition cost versus the cost of strengthening relationships with current customers. With the uncertainty of the current environment and the unease some customers may feel with digital tools, outreach to existing customers is critical to retaining profitable customers. “In times like these, you have the opportunity to move dollars away from things that are not adding value to the organization or your customers, and repurpose those dollars toward activities that fill the funnel,” says Mark Gibson, marketing practice leader at Capital Performance Group.

Explore strategic partnerships with agencies, fintech companies or other banks. This coming year may be perfect for considering stackable technology investments to directly impact a specific marketing initiative. Finding unique, innovative partners for these various initiatives could be a smart play moving forward as the pace of change continues to accelerate. Targeted fintech collaborations are an opportunity to achieve scale and capitalize on talent. In addition, a partnership done right provides the chance to design a differentiated customer experience with the intention of driving revenue.

Budgeting advice

Budgeting is as much an art as it is a science, especially with growing interdependence among business lines and departments. Most organizations may still budget line by line, because it’s all they know. However, the narrative supporting the budget is much more complex. The best budget, like the best marketing, is incredibly personalized and based around building the right marketing ecosystem so your brand, culture, customer experience, communication and technology are all beautifully aligned and the operational workings of your bank infrastructure are transparent to the customer.

Gibson recommends a cascaded approach to budgeting marketing efforts in the future, “… including differentiated brand building to raise awareness and preference, partnered with targeted digital ads and direct mail to get relevant messages in front of household and business prospects,” he says “If you stack those tactical marketing efforts with automation and measurement allowing you to partner with sales teams to increase lead conversion, you ultimately drive revenue.”.

The secret to success for Marsili from Fidelity Bank is to “budget from zero every year.”

“Budget each line of business, budget every activity,” she says. “Don’t lump-sum anything, so that you not only build a budget, you build your marketing and sales plan at the same time. If you are asked to cut the budget, ask which one of the initiatives management wants to cut. Show leadership that what you bring in is better than what you spend. And finally, don’t forget to budget and market for branding and digital sales. Branding is just as much a line of business as anything.”

Using the lessons learned from the past six months can help us build stronger workforces, better brands and banks that are more resilient for years to come. Marketing plays a pivotal role guiding brands and customers through these turbulent times and it’s critical to ensure your upcoming budgets are positioned to continue to build on the connections forged during this roller-coaster of a year.

For marketers who pivoted successfully and leveraged various channels in order to stay connected with customers and communities, new responsibilities should follow. Don’t hesitate to ask to take on those challenges and budget accordingly. For marketers whose organizations struggled to adapt and didn’t have a clear marketing and communication plan during this time of crisis, make sure the team learns the needed lessons. Understand the opportunities missed, look forward and step up to the role your organization desperately needs you to shine in.

A former community bank marketing executive, Shelly Loftin, CFMP, is SVP for retail banking, marketing, payments and lending programs in ABA’s Office of Member Engagement.