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The 11 Cs of Breakthrough Financial Brands

Here's everything it takes to build, grow and sustain a truly breakthrough brand in retail banking.

Subscribe TodayFirst, before we begin, let’s agree on what a brand is. Almost everywhere you see the word brand, you can replace it with the word “reputation.” Basically, your brand is what you’re known for. So if a brand is your reputation, then “branding” is the act of creating and managing your reputation.

That’s why a “brand” represents “trust.” You see, when you have a reputation and you are known for something, people can “trust” you to deliver a certain experience. This means your brand is the same thing as “your promise.”

Key Questions: Do you know what your organization’s brand promise is? Do you know what your institution is known for? Do you know why consumers trust you? Do you know what people expect you to do and deliver?

1.) Clarity

The first C in the 11 Cs of branding is clarity. Breakthrough brands have clarity.
They know exactly who they are and exactly what they stand for. But when you ask any financial institution what their brand is about, you’ll likely hear themes such as “service” or “value.” These are usually just hollow corporate clichés masquerading as brand positions that everyone can agree on, that everyone can feel good about. “Service” and “value” sound good? Who can object to concepts like those? But such broad themes don’t really provide any brand clarity.

( Read More: Your Service Is Not What Differentiates You )

Having brand clarity boils down to this: Can you answer this question?

We are the only ones who _________ .

What is your answer? The truth is, most financial institutions get stuck right here, on the first C of branding: Clarity. Until you can finish this sentence, you’ll continually struggle to build a brand that brings any clarity to your organization — and what it represents to consumers. That’s why the three most important words in branding are:

Focus, focus, focus. First, you have to focus on a ‘Who.’ Most financial institutions define their target audience as “all people ages 18-55.” That’s like saying we target everyone with a pulse and a wallet, and it does little to give you any brand clarity. Breakthrough brands are built by concentrating on a specific, narrowly-defined audience and meeting their unique needs. Second, you have to focus on a ‘What.’ You’ve got to get a lot more specific than saying “we offer financial services.” That’s not a strategy. That’s a category, and it’s a cop-out. Does your financial institution have expertise with small businesses? Do you specialize in consumer lending? When you’re focused on a ‘Who,’ it makes it much easier to figure out ‘What’ you should be offering them.

Reality Check: In branding, you can’t have enough focus. You’ve got to get specific. You can’t ever be all things to all people. Instead you should aspire to be a few things to a few people.

( Read More: ‘All People Ages 18-55′ Is Not Your Target Audience )

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2.) Compelling

People have to really want your brand, not just need it.
They must have what you offer because they believe that no other substitute will do. That’s what compelling brands are all about.

You can take everything you could possibly ever say about your organization and graph it out. Take everything you have ever said about your organization — in ads, brochures, in the press and in person — and map it out. On the X-axis, you can take each aspect of your organization and place it on a scale ranging from “identical to the competition” on the left, all the way over to “no one else in the world does it” on the right.

On the vertical axis, you determine how important each item is to people. You may be one of the top 100 employers in the area, but that’s not really important to most consumers. They don’t really care; they aren’t going to chose you because of it, so it has low relevance.

This is the “Antes/Drivers” graph devised by McKinsey many moons ago, and this is what the basic grid looks like:

Antes vs. Drivers: Finding Relevancy and Differentiation for Your Brand Messages

In the lower-left quadrant, you have what’s called “Neutrals.” These are things that most people don’t care about, and it doesn’t matter anyway because your competitors could say the same thing about themselves. Some financial institutions still say silly things like “first order of checks free.” Big deal, you can get those anywhere, and besides, no one writes checks anymore anyway.

In the upper left corner, we have “Antes.” These are things that – while very important to consumers — do nothing to set you apart from the competition. They are called “antes” because they are they chips you have to throw in the pot simply to play in the retail banking space. Financial institutions might brag about being “accurate” or “trustworthy.” That’s great, because trust and accuracy are important, but if consumers can’t trust you to keep track of their money then it’s a non-starter. Trust and accuracy are antes — chips you have to throw in the pot just to play.

In the lower-right corner, there are points of “Distinction.” These are aspects of your organization that – while differentiated and truly unique to you – do little for your brand because they don’t drive consumer decisions. A bank or credit union might tout that they are “$1 billion in assets,” for instance. Or “one of the top 20 best places to work.” Heck, they may even be “innovative.” All these things could be true, but consumers don’t care.

But where you want to be is in the upper-right corner: “Drivers.” These are things you can say about your brand that the competition can’t, and things that are of high importance to your audience. A few credit unions pay annual dividends, with some members earning tens of thousands of dollars. Now that is something that is both unique and relevant.

You can distill all this down simply this way: What are all the things you do best? Now where do those things intersect with what consumers really want? If your competitors aren’t very good at those things, you’ve found your branding sweet spot.

3.) Courage

Great brands have courage. You have to be brave and bold if you’re going to take a stand, to stand out, to stand for something.

As Bill Bernbach, a legend in the advertising industry, once said, “Safe advertising is the riskiest advertising you can do.”

Think about that. “Safe advertising” isn’t really safe at all. “Safe advertising” is not how breakthrough brands are forged. “Safe brands” do not get noticed.

But fear grips those working in banking. It’s an industry defined by its adversity to risk. Compounding the problem, our basic human instincts tell us that fitting in with the herd is the best formula for survival. This stuff is in our DNA. If you’re a homo sapien, you learned — through the last ten thousand years or so — that it’s smart to stick together, that there is safety in numbers, that it doesn’t pay to stand out and get noticed… because that’s how you get eaten alive. It’s this basic primordial psychology that cripples many executives with fear. They hate change.

This is why heads nod around the conference table whenever senior management explores a “safe” brand position like, “We can be the premier provider of world-class financial services where customers come first.” But consensus is one of the scariest things in branding. If everyone on your management team is in complete agreement, you are probably playing it too safe.

Reality Check: The intrepid and fearless need to be prepared. When you stand out, you are going to get hammered. This is the price you will pay for having a breakthrough brand. You will take arrows along with the accolades.

( Read More: 10 Of The Best Banking Brands To Watch )

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4.) Controversial

Great brands are polarizing. Some people love them, others hate them. Remember, breakthrough brands don’t try to be all things to all people.

There’s an old adage in the direct mail industry, that says you should shoot for a 2% response rate. This is a outmoded metric from yesteryear. These days, you need to be wayyy more aggressive.

You need to make 2% of the audience mad.

“Why???” you ask. “Why on earth would I want to do that???” Because no one ever gets noticed by trying to please everyone all the time. The only way you’re going to cut through all the clutter is by making some noise and ruffling some feathers along the way.

Reality Check: If you build a brand around tailored messages that appeal to a specific audience segment, then obviously some of the messages aren’t going to resonate with everyone.

The truth is, we see over 3,500 brand messages every day. We live in a brand-saturated world. That’s why every aspect of your financial institution has to stand out — particularly your marketing and advertising.

5.) Character

Apple is known for its sense of style. They’ve almost entirely built their brand around their personality. They are hip and innovative. They are cool and contemporary. Friendly and approachable. This is their brand character. Some people call them “brand attributes.” Some call them “personality traits.” Whatever you want to call it, all great brands are oozing with character. After all, no one likes being around a dull, boring person… and it’s the same thing with brands.

In the insurance industry, GEICO likes to represent their brand character with a gecko. He’s friendly, easy-going, practical, and speaks with a British accent (which, in turn, implies he is smart, polite, educated and affable). And Progressive Insurance has used a fictional sales agent Flo in TV commercials for nearly a decade to define their brand character. She’s perky, enthusiastic and upbeat. She’s helpful and sincere.

You don’t need a pitchwoman like Progressive’s Flo nor a mascot like GEICO’s gecko. You don’t have to invent an imaginary spokesperson for your brand — that’s not the point at all. But you do have to be aware of your brand’s personality — understand its true character — in order to become a breakthrough brand.

( Read More: 7 Tips to Find Your Brand’s Personality )

So here are a couple common branding exercises that will help you identify your brand’s character. First, what you’re going to do is imagine you could have any spokesperson — any celebrity, actor, hero, or even an entirely imaginary character like the Geico Caveman or Geico Gecko. If you could pick anyone in the world to be your spokesperson, who would it be? Who would you pick? Why would you pick them? Would you pick Oprah? Or Tom Hanks? Michael Jordan? What personality attributes do they have? And what does this say about your organization? You can begin to tease out your brand’s personality attributes by analyzing the character of your organization’s fantasy spokespeople.

You can do another similar brand analogy exercise with cars. If your brand was a car, what make, model and year would it be? And why? Is it a coupe or sedan? Maybe a family SUV? Convertible? Import or domestic? Are you safe, like Volvo? Or are you a bit more aging and conservative, like Chrysler? What kind of bells and whistles do you have? More importantly, what kind of car would you want to be in the future? Then take a look at how big the gap is between who you are today and who you want to be in the future.

Defining what you aren’t can also be a powerful brand-building insight. Make a list of the things you aren’t. For example, “We aren’t stuffy and bureaucratic Wall Street types.” Keep track of these statements and write them all down. Defining what you aren’t can be as important as defining what you are.

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6.) Credibility

Credibility simply means the organization delivers on its brand promise. It’s about doing what you say, and saying what you mean. In other words, your brand promises have to be believable.

Years ago, a bank ran an ad campaign that said, “Whoo hoo! A bank you’re actually excited to go to.”

“A bank you’re actually excited to go to???” Really??? Are consumers ever going to buy this kind of message? As the subjects of 3,500 brand messages every day, our radar is finely tuned to detect this kind of B.S. And yet, as part of this campaign, the bank made its employees get together in their branch lobbies at noon to shout “Whoo hoo!” Ugh… This kind of saccharine nonsense just isn’t credible. The agency who came up with the campaign knew it. The guy who wrote the ads knew it. Employees knew it. Everyone knew it.

Reality Check: When what you’re saying doesn’t jive with what’s really going on, you’re telling brand lies.

Your strategy and messages can’t say one thing while your actions and execution go another. Your words have to be consistent with your actions.

7.) Consistency

You have to be consistent from one day to the next. From one promotion to the next. From one channel to the next. From one touchpoint to the next.

Here’s a word of caution for your marketing team. Most campaigns are killed prematurely. Many of them are pulled precisely as they start to gain traction. You will get bored of your marketing long before the audience does. That’s a burden you have to bear for the brand. You have to stick with it. Breakthrough brands are built through consistency.

But consistency isn’t just about doing the same thing in your advertising. It’s also about doing things consistently from one channel to the next. From one touchpoint to the next. Being consistent in your words, your, actions, your ads, your products.

Take Apple for example (remember, they are cool, innovative and stylish). If I consumers see a cool ad for an iPhone, or are intrigued by a cool ad for an iPad, they expect to go buy it in a cool store. If Apple’s stores looked like the DMV (e.g., most bank branches), the company’s brand would not have the reputation it enjoys today. That’s because you can’t have ads that say one thing, and have a retail experience that says something totally different. That’s not how breakthrough brand are built.

Reality Check: Everything has to align. When your ads, your products, your branches and your actions aren’t all in 100% alignment, you are creating what Marty Neumeier calls brand gaps.

Brand gaps take many forms. A brand gap can be the difference between the image you project and the experience you deliver. If your words and actions don’t align, there’s a brand gap. If there’s any discrepancy between your strategy and your execution, you probably have a brand gap.

8.) Conversation

Another word for Conversation could be Communication, but great brands don’t just talk about themselves. “Conversation” is not about advertising — communicating. And it isn’t a synonym for “marketing.” It’s about fostering genuine two-way dialogue. Interaction. Engagement.

Reality Check: Great brands don’t talk at people. They talk with people. And listen.

Strong brands build communities — communities of fans and disciples that manifest organically. And for a handful of truly breakthrough brands — like Apple, Nike and Starbucks — these communities can turn into cults.

Reality Check: Think about social media. If your financial institution isn’t organically generating conversation about your brand among consumers in social channels, then you probably don’t have a strong, targeted and clearly-defined brand. If you want to have any success with social media, you have to have a remarkable brand.

If you have a great, breakthrough brand, people will do your marketing for you.
People enjoy talking about the brands they like. That’s the power of word-of-mouth. Breakthrough brands get people talking. But most financial institutions have unremarkable brands, so no one talks about them.

( Read More: 10 More of the Best Banking Brands to Watch )

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9.) Culture

Initiation. Give all your existing employees an introduction to the brand. Produce an internal branding campaign. Help them understand what the brand means. Teach them about the brand, what it stands for and how they can live it out.

Hiring. Screen potential employees according to the brand.
What good are your brand’s core values if you aren’t hiring employees who believe in those things? Say, for instance, one of your core values is “Teamwork.” You need interview questions that explore an applicant’s experience working in teams: “Do you prefer working in a team? Or are you more comfortable working independently? What size team(s) are you most comfortable with?”

Orientation. Once new employees have been hired, they need some sort of brand indoctrination. Otherwise how else will they know how to live out the brand?

Training. You know the expression, “Out of sight, out of mind.” The same applies to branding. If staff aren’t hearing about- and learning more about your brand on a regular basis, they’ll forget about it. This is where training comes in. No matter how much brand information you’re sharing with staff, it probably isn’t enough.

Evaluation. Employees must be evaluated according to the brand. You can’t tell staff that “the brand is the most important thing” only to evaluate their performance according to sales and new accounts. Take your annual reviews and personnel assessments and incorporate brand criteria.

Rewards. You must reward employees for on-brand behaviors. The only things that matter to employees are things that are measured… and then rewarded.

10.) Commitment

Congratulations! You have a baby brand! You’ve done the branding workshops, had the brainstorming sessions, clarified your promise, defined your character and captured it all in a distinct and compelling strategy.

Now the real work begins.

To thrive, brands require the same kind of attention as it takes to be a parent. It takes your time, your energy and your money. If you don’t give your baby brand these things, it will never grow up. It will never mature into a contributing asset in your organization. It will remain perpetually stunted, unable to do anything productive. Just like new parents entrusted with their first child, leadership teams are expected to nurture and care for their organization’s brand. Yet all too often, financial brands live their lives neglected and unloved, and die prematurely.

It takes a real, sustained, intense commitment to build a truly breakthrough brand. But sadly, do you know what happens to most branding programs? Most branding programs get tucked away in a binder, lost in a black hole somewhere. And then everyone goes back to work, doing exactly what they did before. Why? Because their isn’t a broad, institutional commitment. Branding is not just the marketing department’s responsibility. It is everyone’s responsibility.

You need to put “brand” on the agenda. Make it a topic your team is focused on. Your management team should discuss its brand-building efforts at least monthly. You need to establish a budget for branding – not a portion of the marketing budget, a new, separate budget.

11.) Change

To successfully pull all this off, it’s going to require significant levels of change around your organization. You see, branding is never done. You will never be able to say, “Well, check that off the list.” Constant change will always be required.

Great brands are always changing, always evolving.Often, you’ll have to make operational adjustments. Adjustments in HR. Lending.

Reality Check: Building a breakthrough brand is not for the faint of heart. It can be a Herculean effort, especially for stagnant legacy brands. It takes work — years of it, and sometimes decades. And that’s why there are so few great brands we truly admire.

Jeffry PilcherJoin over 1,500 of the brightest minds in banking at The Financial Brand Forum 2017 for three days loaded with the big ideas, strategic insights and latest innovations that are transforming the industry today. Hurry, the countdown is on! The conference kicks off May 17th. Don't wait, register now!

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