The Plight of Johnny Utah: Why Bank Marketers Must Go Bold


By G.B. Veerman, Creative Director, Epicosity

Bankers could learn something from Keanu Reeves.

Okay, not from Reeves the actor, but from Johnny Utah, the character he plays in the iconic 1991 film Point Break—which, incidentally, is about a group of surfing, skydiving, generally hedonist bank robbers.

In a moment of high tension, Utah, an undercover FBI agent who has infiltrated the band of beach bum bandits, must confront a point-of-no-return decision: whether or not to jump out of a plane.

Utah’s nogoodnik pals have hauled him out of bed and into the back of a small, twin-engine turboprop aircraft, which is now high above the Pacific Ocean, the back door open to the sky. It’s their annual tribute to a departed friend. They hand him a parachute.

But Utah has never skydived before. And he knows who he’s dealing with. “Who packed the chute?” he yells over the noise of the engines and wind.

The thieves shuffle all their packs between themselves, and it’s not clear which one finally lands in Utah’s lap, but the FBI agent understands he’s in the middle of an initiation—and a test. He has to choose.

If he doesn’t follow his targets out the door of the plane, he loses a chance to get deeper into the gang or potentially blows his cover. But if he confronts his fear and jumps, he earns their trust. The only thing in his way is himself.

Out he goes.

The scene that follows is an exhilarating and beautiful skydiving montage that ends with a gentle, parachute-assisted splash into the ocean. It’s literally a baptism: Utah confronts his fear, crosses a threshold and climbs onto shore a changed man.

Which brings us to you: why haven’t you jumped out of your plane yet?

Confront Your Fear
As Point Break reveals, great things happen when you push past fear (thank you, Keanu Reeves). The problem for banks is that, in many ways, fear is a kind of organizing principle.

That’s understandable. The job is to manage risk—maximize gain, minimize loss. So, the discomfort bank marketers may feel at the idea of following Johnny Utah’s example comes from a deep, primal instinct that directs most bank culture: risk aversion.

Why would you leave the comfort and safety of what you know in bank marketing—what you’ve always done, what the standard playbook tells you, what everyone else is doing? And what exactly is the upside of being bold?

Here’s the thing: bank marketing isn’t the same thing as banking. We’re in a competition for attention. And the people we need to reach aren’t just predisposed to stick with their current bank; they’re in open rebellion against advertising across the board.

As if that weren’t enough, the modern media landscape has turned upside down. We’re competing against something much bigger than other banks now. We’re competing against the entire Internet.

That’s why, in today’s attention economy, boldness is mandatory. It’s a proposition backed by research.

The Science Is In: Boldness Wins

AdAge magazine recently reported on a study that discovered that the “biggest differentiator of effective marketing [is]bravery.” The article described research that compiled 6,000 campaigns and found that those that “skimped on courage” performed far worse than those that “swung for the fences.”

“The truth is,” reporter Traci Alford wrote, “if you want to create effective work, your safest bet is to take the biggest risk.”

To put it another way: playing it safe may be the most dangerous thing you can do.

Didn’t Keanu Reeves try to teach us that 30 years ago?

It’s been our operating system at Epicosity since we launched in 2008—a fairly bold year to start a business—and one of the key drivers of our success in FI marketing. Boldness is that airplane door; the choice is yours whether to jump through. Fortunately, with the right equipment and the right sky-diving instructor, it’s a perfectly safe undertaking. Thrilling, but safe.

That’s because boldness is not the same as recklessness. Ideally, it’s the opposite.

Strong, strategic messaging and creative decisions are essential to break the status quo in banking. But they can only emerge from a careful combination of strategy, data and craft.

And this should comfort bank leaders at all levels: when we embrace principles of communication that, to an accountant’s mind, may seem fuzzy—even scary—we can make boldness feel quite comfortable. Even normal.

Let’s be clear: Boldness can take many forms.

We recently launched a major campaign for a Wisconsin bank built around an unusual value proposition: happiness. The point was to cut right to the chase. We defined the bank, not by interest rates or products, but by the most primal benefit clients could expect: a good feeling.

It’s well established that people buy on emotion and justify with reason; it doesn’t mean that we neglect features-based selling or appeals to rational thinking. It just means don’t lead with it. In the case of this Wisconsin campaign, we not only tried to make prospects feel happy, we actually sold happiness. With light, whimsical headlines, illustrations and design (ex.: “Whistle While You Bank”), we were able wrap the main brand strategy, “Making More Possible,” in a more credible package. Hardly a radical proposition— but a bold break from the standard playbook.

In another example, one of our team members developed a campaign for a fintech company that offered small, rural banks—an extremely risk-averse audience—a software package that required a seven-figure investment. The solution? A direct mail campaign featuring actual 8-track cassette tapes relabeled and boxed with a simple message: “In bank software, there’s no such thing as an oldy but goody.”

It was such an unusual departure (read: bold) from the expected pitch, that decision-makers actually kept the 8-tracks, and more: They opened the door when the client’s sales team came calling. The use of an obsolete technology to make a point about fintech put a smile on the faces of prospects and became the most successful marketing campaign in the firm’s history.

The bottom line is that boldness is just a deliberate, unambiguous break with convention to disrupt expectations. And nowhere is it more important than in a bank’s actual brand.

Break Free of the Generic Bank Brand
Few business categories cling to the old brand playbook quite like the financial services industry. No surprise: sticking with what you know is the safe way to go. Culturally, it’s consistent. But the plays in that book prove the law of diminishing returns: everyone’s doing the same thing.

Smiling young couples. Smiling old couples. Keys to the new house. Keys to the new car. The same claim that “our people make the difference” that the banks across the street, up the street, and down the street make. Interest rates in flashing neon. Yawn.

When we see marketing decisions like these, we see tactics without strategy. We see generic brands. But there are only three reasons you might want to attempt something a little more audacious. A strong brand:

  1. Makes it easy to buy
  2. Makes it easy to sell
  3. Increases the value of the business

The challenge to thinking about brand is that, while it has concrete application and material value, brand isn’t a physical asset. It’s a psychological one. Again, the kind of thing that makes accountants squirm, but here’s reality: Goods and services exist in the real world. Brand exists in the mind. It’s the sum of every exchange an organization has with its constituents—from customers to employees to vendors to the press—in every arena you can imagine—advertising, logo and identity, website, office design, hold music, support, community giving and more.

Every bank marketer is in charge of a brand, whether they see it that way or not. What matters is how strategic your thinking is as you manage those exchanges—starting with the choice to lead by fear or bravery. It’s a choice that distinguishes the remarkable from the generic.

A friend of ours summed it up best with this observation: “If you don’t stand out from the crowd, you simply are the crowd.”

To some, that’s a scary proposition. To others, it’s simply smart business. That’s why Epicosity offers a webinar to a select few financial institutions every winter to understand the how and why of brand differentiation.

If safe is the most dangerous thing you can do in bank marketing, what are the methods and means to swing for the fences—and if you hit it out of the park, how do you keep the streak going? Our intent is to arm you with the principles and best practices we deploy—a combination of intelligence, craft, and an executive mindset—to stand apart and grow.

But really, the most fundamental secret is to take that first step: confront your fear, make the decision to be bold, equip yourself with the right gear and the right partner, and jump.

When you do, like Johnny Utah, you’ll experience the thrill of soaring through some beautiful skies, and then some: You’ll feel the joy that comes with watching competitors squirm in their seatbelts.

Sign up for the Epicosity FI Brand Differentiation Webinar today.