There are over 10,000 different retail financial institutions in the U.S., but most use one flavor or another of these 15 common brand themes. Some stress their benevolence and generosity, while others emphasize the practical value they deliver. Many banks and credit unions try to amplify subtle differences in their service models, but at the end of the day you’ll have to decide which one of the major camps you’ll want to plant your brand’s flag — speed, quality, service or price? — because it’s impossible to deliver on everything.
This theme is the most common in retail banking, especially among community banks and credit unions. These financial institutions talk about a deeper, more intimate relationship, where they take the time to “get to know you” and “understand your unique needs.” Promises involve more hands-on attention and face-to-face relationships, which should involve things like hand-written notes, personal phone calls, remembering people’s birthdays and making in-person visits, but seldom does. Example: Everywhere you look. Tip: Be careful trying to compete on service.
2. Local Community
This is a form of affinity marketing. The financial institution — usually having fewer than $1 billion in assets — is aligning itself with the strength and pride associated with a geographic area (a town, city, county or state). This theme taps the “buy local” and “keep it local” nerve which can resonate particularly well in rural or isolated communities — “a locally-owned institution, run by locals for locals.”
These financial institutions talk about how much they care for the community because “it’s where we live and work, just like you.” They often dwell on themes of cooperation, teamwork and togetherness — helping one another out to improve things for everyone. They present themselves as a neighborhood bank with local knowledge, a place that isn’t run by Wall Street types a thousand miles away.
If you’re going to brag about how you take care of the community, you had better back it up with more than words. That means being generous. Very generous — with your financial institution’s time, manpower and money. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and go deep…more so than your competitor down the street who’s playing the same tune as you.
3. Customer Advocacy
There are many banks and credit unions who promise to act in the best interests of their customers or members. They promise to listen to people’s concerns, understand their issues and give objective advice, a strategy known as “active listening.” This type of financial institution tries to do what’s right on a personal level, as well as at an organizational level (see also, “#11 Integrity”). You can take this direction a step further and give customers democratic control; give them a voice. Let them vote on things. Create an ombudsman. Establish a customer advisory council.
4. Smart Money
At its core, this is really a theme centered on “financial education.” It’s about helping people make wise financial decisions and live financially healthy lives. This can be done on an interpersonal level with savvy staff delivering a highly consultative experience , or more broadly by offering generalized financial tips and advice. Live workshops, seminars, newsletters, blogs and online libraries are often associated with this strategy. Examples: SunTrust, Harris.
It’s all about saving consumers money, providing tools and tips to help people save more. It’s hard to pitch credit and lending offers to this audience, especially when you’re telling people how important it is to live within one’s means. (Note: This approach could also be viewed as a subset of “Financial Education.”)
Access to branches, ATMs and/or online/mobile channels is the primary theme here. Examples: BofA, with its ubiquitous branch and ATM network, and TD, “America’s Most Convenient Bank” with extended store hours. Unless you’re a multi-billion financial institution with the resources to invest in some serious infrastructure (whether that be bricks or clicks), you probably won’t be able to compete using this strategy. Note: Embedded in this theme is an implicit promise that banking experiences will be “fast and speedy.”
7. Price Leader
There’s nothing sexy about taking a financial institution’s brand in this direction, but there’s nothing wrong with it either…if you can pull it off. Competing on price is tricky because margins are razor thin. This is usually a “volume business” requiring sound fundamentals and a culture of frugality. There is no room for fuzzy social media experiments, no fancy branches, no frills and not very much — if any — innovation (hint: you need a killer CFO). At least the value proposition to the consumer is clear: rates and fees — the bottom line. These banks and credit unions will often offer things like bump rate CDs and best-rate guarantees. Note: If you’re talking with customers about things like fees, you are training them to be price sensitive.
8. Overall Value
Some financial institutions bundle everything up and call it their “overall value.” They say things like, “We deliver good solid value. We’re not the cheapest, but we’re not the most expensive either.” Nothing is super-spectacular — not the rates, not the products, not the service. Ask them what makes them different and they’ll say, “It’s a combination of alllll these things.”
If you can’t find anything special about your financial institution, you will likely end up here. There isn’t one thing that stands out, so you conclude that it’s about the “overall value” you provide. Beware: it’s probably a cop out. It’s a middle-of-the-road strategy — the opposite of branding where the whole point is to differentiate. As Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the UK once said, “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.” Differentiate or die.
9. The Antidote
This is a strategy built entirely around who you aren’t and what you’re not. “We’re not like those big banks. We don’t have any corporate jets or Wall Street bankers. We don’t gouge you with astronomical fees. We aren’t headquartered in Los Angeles.” Drawing a contrast between you and “the other guys” is a powerful marketing technique that has proven to be very effective, even if you never really ever define who you are.
10. Trusted Advisor
These financial institutions want to be seen as a trusted friend and financial partner, someone like your dad or grandpa who makes you feel comfortable because they “know their stuff” and are financially savvy. You look to them for advice. This theme became extremely fashionable in the mid- to late 90s.
These financial institutions vow to do the right thing. They promise to be honest and fair. They say they hold themselves accountable (to the community, to customers), which should translate to greater levels of transparency. They’re trying to say, “We’re the safe choice because we’re stable and solid, like a rock. You can count on us. We get the job done. We’re dependable. We do what we say.”
There are two ways to go here. (1) Lots of choices. It’s a free country and you should be free to choose the solutions that best suit you (see “#13 Flexibility,” below). (2) Few choices. Not everyone wants to think about their finances all day long. Why should consumers have to choose from seven different checking accounts? How about the “One Account?” Offering few choices can be a sub-strategy of “#14 Easy/Simple.”
Not everyone wants to order straight off the menu, like Harry “I’ll Have The #3” Burns, in When Harry Met Sally. Some people know exactly what they want and how they want it, like Sally “On-the-Side” Albright. Instead of saying, “Here, choose from this menu,” you let people know how accommodating you are. You can tailor a solution to their unique needs and situation. You are nimble, adaptable. You’ve empowered staff to make decisions. You can customize your products for each member. It’s the Burger King “Have-It-Your-Way” strategy.
The downside to this approach is that it can wreak havoc on your core DP system. If you don’t have a system that can handle build-to-order, pick-your-price products, you can end up with 10,000 different accounts.
In the end, this is really a strategy that’s all about saving people time — making banking a more streamlined, straightforward and intuitive experience. Financial institutions embracing the “easy” theme accept that banking is generally viewed as a contemptuous and frustrating experience; no one will ever “love banking,” no matter what you do. That means everything needs to be simple: products, website, account opening, instructions, disclosures, finding branches, etc. You want to help people get their banking done as easily as possible so they can get on with their lives. Just remember, making banking easy ain’t easy. It’s a zero-sum game where you shift the burden off the consumers’ shoulder and onto yours.
15. Online Self-Service
This isn’t so much a brand theme as a business model, but direct banks like ING, Redneck and UBank share brand themes that warrant mentioning. They convey a certain degree of hipness, and have a youthful energy that’s more commonly associated with entrepreneurial startups than banks. They promise a digital, self-service experience with speed, accuracy and efficiency. This direction appeals to do-it-yourselfers, digital nomads and those who prefer the convenience of technology over interactions with people.
- So which brand theme are you? What does your organization stand for? Does your bank or credit union fit in any of these categories? Or are you something different? Maybe a hybrid blend of more than one brand theme? (Hint: If you say something like, “Yep, we’re a combination of 2, 5, 6, 9, 11 and half of 13,” your organization probably has zero focus and lacks a clear brand strategy.)
- Is there a difference between what your organization thinks it is and what it really is?
- If you could start over from scratch, what kind of financial institution would you be and why?
If you really want to differentiate your bank or credit union with a unique, compelling, credible and relevant brand position, you’ll have to roll up your sleeves and do some serious soul-searching. The best brands find a theme or direction that isn’t already ubiquitously used by thousands of other financial institutions, or at least they find some new twist.
If you use one of these 15 common themes, you’ll have to apply your entire organization with gusto. That means 110% at every customer-facing touch point. You have to go above and beyond in order to stand out. If you don’t align every aspect of your organization around your brand, you’ll just end up being another commoditized “also-ran.” That’s what separates “great service” from “lip service.”