Five Brand Strategy Rules for Banks to Accelerate Growth

'Trusted and local' isn't a strong enough brand message to keep a community bank or credit union top of mind in today's digital-centric market. A brand marketing strategy, built on a foundation of five principles, will deliver consistent long-term growth.
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Over and over again, across industries, the brand that is top of mind and physically available is the one that wins every time. If you’re a community bank or credit union, even a larger regional one, you can’t outspend the megabanks. But the digital landscape today does not require you to outspend across all customer groups — you can do it very effectively if you update your view of the value of your brand.

We work with a lot of community financial institutions who don’t do much advertising. Why? “It doesn’t work.” “There’s no ROI.” (We’ve have heard this from banks less than $50 million in assets all the way up to $3 billion). Offers are a race to the bottom of fees (unless you’re buying customers or members, which comes with its own problems!) Ads without an offer make you sound like every other financial institution; bigger banks are everywhere and there’s no way you can out-advertise them.

As a result, many banks and credit unions either avoid digital advertising entirely, or run an ad for a few months, don’t see results and move on.

The lack of results is because they didn’t take a brand-centric approach to their advertising — they simply started running ads and sat by the phone. But with the average consumer seeing around 10,000 ads per day, simply running ads no longer works — your ad must be different (while still making you feel like a bank) and memorable. And the key to doing these two things is through your brand.

This does not necessarily mean a full rebrand — it can be a refresh, or even just as simple as adding some new colors and fonts to your brand guide. But it must be done with a scientific approach — finding colors, fonts and brand elements that are in line with financial institutions overall, but differentiated in your service areas.

In the past (even just ten years ago), branding meant things like:

  • Product, Price, Placement and Promotion
  • Differentiation
  • Unique Selling Propositions
  • Persuasion
  • Education

But with the proliferation of digital advertising, these things are no longer the full picture. Today’s most successful brands are those that can become and stay top of mind, and are easy to find and work with.

Banks and credit unions should be distinctive, rather than just differentiated. They must understand their competitors’ brands (both locally and digitally), and seek to develop brand assets that are distinctive and unique, without being so unique that they don’t feel like a financial institution at all.

Upgrade Marketing:

Banks and credit unions can no longer be just differentiated, their marketing must also be distinctive.

Today’s best brands follow an evidence-based approach, and focus on things like:

  • Top-of-mindedness
  • Distinctiveness
  • Evoking an emotional response (e.g. feel-good stories of how you’ve helped customers)
  • Relevant associations (around your community/service area)
  • Memorable messages

So, how do you create a brand strategy that will actually help your bank or credit union grow? Here are the five rules:

1. Make it Easy to Bank With You

Be present where they are — online and in town, sure — but more specifically, on social media, with a mobile-enabled online banking experience, on Google when they search for banking terms, and so on. Know your customer and understand their habits — all your other brand-building counts on this foundation.

2. Be Distinctive to Get Noticed

This is done by having a menu of brand assets that can be leveraged for brand-building anywhere it needs to happen. The more variety you have, the more you’ll be able to be memorable in any situation.

Brand assets are things like:

Colors — either single colors, the way you combine them, or designs
Sounds — a jingle, using similar music styles/background music in your branded assets, voiceover styles
Typographic — taglines, fonts, certain words
Shapes — symbols, swoops, brand marks, illustrations
Human — spokespeople (your local loan officers and other customer-facing roles), celebrity (not necessarily Michael Jordan, but even a well-known local figure or shop that can endorse you or give a testimonial).

3. Be Memorable

Don’t just be “trusted and local” like every other community bank or credit union. If you’ve been successful with the Be Distinctive rule, you are already well on your path to being memorable. But being memorable also brings in emotional elements — telling a heartfelt story, showing the positive impacts your financial institution has had, making people laugh, showing your bank’s human side. Your message must provide value and be something people want to watch — not something that feels like an ad.

4. Be Consistent

Brand marketing is not a short-term thing — it’s a continuous activity that needs to be nurtured, adjusted, and optimized. Create and maintain the presence that you can sustain. Don’t aim for ten posts a week on social media if you can’t keep up that pace long-term. Similarly, don’t run a four- or five-figure per month campaign for a short time and then stop the ads. To build a brand, it’s far better to spread your existing budget out and keep ads going longer, than to do a huge splash on a short campaign.

5. Stay Competitive

Your competitors will see your new brand elements, and likely change their course as well. They may launch new campaigns, do a brand refresh of their own, or start advertising in new places or at a higher frequency. Keep an eye on them — you may have to adjust course! Brands adapt and change over time.

A Note on Budgeting

Many community banks and credit unions today still spend millions building and renovating branches to physically enter a new market, yet recoil at the idea of investing even $10,000 on branding or digital marketing as part of their launch plan.

It’s not that you have to spend a lot — becoming and staying top of mind is not as simple as having a huge ad budget. But if you’re not where your customers or members are at all (on digital), you’re not making it easy to work with you or find you.

It’s not worth the investment in digital if you don’t have your brand sorted, but just the same it’s not worth investing in brand if you won’t also invest in digital. Both are parts of the same story and today’s brands need both to stand out and grow.

Frequently, many businesses (banks and credit unions included) have a new product to advertise and do the logical thing by spinning up a digital ad campaign. But, without the investment in brand, the tendency is to lean on the tried and true for your industry — and in banking we end up with “trusted and local,” rather than distinctive messages.

By creating your brand strategy and investing your time in it, you can create brand elements and messaging that rise above “trusted and local,” and thus occupies a spot in your prospects’ minds, whether they’re retail or commercial, deposit or loan.

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