Chase Brand Chief: Why Banking Is Cool Now (It’s Not All About Digital)

There's no reason the ramp-up in digital banking usage that accelerated during the Covid period should lead financial institutions to think that branches are dead. JPMorgan Chase's plans still call for adding more offices to cover the U.S. map.

It’s the rare JPMorgan Chase earnings call when some analyst or other doesn’t bring up the 4,600+ branch network. “In the digital age, really?” is always the implied question.

While the bank is consolidating branches in some markets, it is also stepping up the pace of long-planned openings of new branches such that the megabank will have retail branches in every one of the lower 48 states by the end of July 2021.

In a recent industry video podcast, Leanne Fremar, Chief Brand Officer, said that “branches play a critical role for our consumers, who like to visit branches for certain things.” While much has been made about the aggressive growth in digital banking channels usage during the Covid period, Fremar says that increasing digital traffic and continuing desire to be able to visit branches aren’t contradictory.

For one thing, Fremar said, consumers see branches as an extension of their communities, not just a place to perform banking transactions, but, increasingly, as a place to seek consultation. As America continues to reopen, people want to be able to have contact with their bankers.

“People love their personal relationships with branch bankers and that’s something that we all maybe took for granted.”

— Leanne Fremar, JPMorgan Chase

When consumers connect with a banker who understands their circumstances and their life plans, the power of that association shouldn’t be underestimated, Fremar said.

While many also appreciate the flexibility and convenience of the Chase banking app, and while some of the preference for branches relates to older demographics, Fremar said it is important to understand that much of what goes on in branches now represents a different use case than what happens over mobile channels.

Serving consumers today “really is about a multi-pronged approach,” said Fremar during an interview on Ad Age Remotely, a series of video interviews with marketers. The company reported that in the first quarter of 2021 mobile users grew 9% to nearly 42 million and that migration to digital drove branch transactions down by double-digits. In addition, about half of new checking and savings accounts were opened digitally — up more than 10 percentage points over the first quarter 2020.

Beyond this, Fremar pointed out that the string of community branches that Chase started opening in inner-city neighborhoods in different parts of the country pre-Covid were specifically designed to bring financial literacy training to consumers in those markets.

“Our research data shows us that we need to be able to show that we are making financial education information and fundamentals available to everybody,” she explained.

Physical Presence Matters:

Chase is finding that maintaining branches in the inner city represents ‘boots on the ground’ to people in those communities.

The first such community branch opened in Harlem in fall 2019. Fremar says that in the wake of the events of 2020 Chase plans to pick up the pace of opening the community-focused offices.

Banking Goes Beyond Simple Transactions Today

Before joining Chase in 2018 Fremar was Executive Creative Director for two years at Starbucks and before that she served in the same role at Under Armour Women.

At Chase she is in charge of branding, creative, advertising, content, video, consumer insights and employer brand. She also manages internal and external advertising agencies and works with line of business marketers.

Fremar believes the role of financial services in Americans’ lives has changed. Once banking provided pretty utilitarian products and services, but she thinks that “consumers are interested in financial services and financial products like never before.”

“Financial products have become accessible and democratized. And they have become sort of culturally relevant and actually cool, which makes this an exciting time to be in this industry.”

— Leanne Fremar, JPMorgan Chase

To the degree that marketers like herself can position products and services as more than commoditized items, they can build “really sticky and lasting financial habits,” said Fremar.

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Can ‘Cool Banking’ Match Neobanks and Fintech Offerings?

Ad Age Assistant Managing Editor Jeanine Poggi asked Fremar how Chase could appeal to Generation Z and otherwise compete with the growing ranks of challenger banks and fintechs.

Fremar pointed to Chase First Banking as one way that the bank has been trying to meet the needs of Gen Z. Chase First Banking is a debit card designed to teach teens and younger kids good money-management habits through the Chase mobile app. Parents control the amount of spending freedom their children have with the product. This includes granting allowances and assigning chores and rewards that bring extra money. Parents can also monitor their children’s spending and kids can set savings goals. Chase introduced the accounts in fall 2020.

This financial health and financial literacy strategy marks a shift for the bank, according to Fremar. She added that other recent introductions by Chase are designed to compete with new players. P2P payments via Zelle continue to grow in popularity and the bank’s entry in the “buy now pay later” sphere, “Chase My Way,” is enabled right in the Chase mobile app. She noted that the app also provides access to credit scores and explains how to understand their significance

“Young customers are demanding these kinds of things from us,” said Fremar. “As a result, they’re making us better and we’re making better products for them.”

Putting Out the Brand’s Messaging

When asked about strategy for reaching consumers, Fremar made it clear that she rules out no channel — in fact, the more used and the more specifically each one is used for its strengths, the better.

“It’s all about mix,” said Fremar. “Right now, all media is interesting.”

Fremar said the pace of change in media is driving interesting twists in broadcast and other forms of TV, addressable media and podcast and streaming media.

In addition, Fremar said the bank has been using certain social media channels for some time and has explored newer ones such as TikTok.

Of specific interest to Gen Z was 2020’s “Show Me Your Walk” campaign on social. Recognizing that graduations were virtual that year and not taking place as students might have dreamt, the bank started a campaign that included several of its paid financial influencers demonstrating their walks and encouraging them to record and upload their own. Capping it off was participation by former President Barack Obama and other virtual commencement speakers brought in by Chase. There was a general version and another one for students of historically black colleges and universities.

The bank has also experimented with the audio social platform Clubhouse.

“We have a lot of senior leaders at Chase who are interested in pushing the envelope and disrupting things, and meeting customers where they are,” explained Fremar.

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