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Core Values: Do All Banks Really Believe the Same Thing?

What are “core values?”

Financial institutions often get confused about what the difference is between mission statements, vision statements and core values (see The Financial Brand’s comparison here).

Quite simply, core values are an organization’s philosophical ideals. One easy easy way to define a core value is to simply finish this sentence: “We believe in ___________ .” If it doesn’t work within this sentence structure, it probably isn’t a core value and belongs somewhere else in the framework of a brand strategy (e.g., you wouldn’t say “We believe in ‘friendly,'” because “friendly” is a personality attribute and not a core value.)

What do banks believe?

The Financial Brand studied the core values of 50 banks with assets ranging from the millions up to hundreds of billions. The conclusion? No matter how big, how small or where they are in the world, banks all pretty much share the same beliefs. Shocking? Not really. But there are a couple of surprises.

Here are the values most commonly listed by the 50 banks studied (you can find a similar analysis for credit unions here).

  1. Integrity – 34 banks
  2. Teamwork – 15 banks
  3. Excellence – 11 banks
  4. Commitment – 10 banks
  5. Honesty – 10 banks
  6. Respect – 10 banks
  7. Service – 10 banks
  8. Professionalism – 8 banks
  9. Customers – 7 banks
  10. Trust – 6 banks
  11. Community – 6 banks
  12. Loyalty – 6 banks
  13. Innovation – 5 banks

The most common core values cited by banks are depicted in the Wordle diagram at the top of this article. The more common the word, the larger it is (the colors don’t mean anything).

The average was 4.66 values per bank. No matter what the consultants say, there is no “right number” of values to have — not too many, not too few. Your organization is what it stands for and believes what it believes, however many things that may be.

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Ironically, one bank listed “staying true to our core values” as one of its core values.

Integrity was offered by over two-thirds of banks. Many make an effort to define the term, although most agree on the general principle, “It’s about doing the right thing.”

Most of the 50 banks’ core values were dull, uninspiring bullet lists that eventually all blurred together. But there were some interesting values that popped up once or twice: Agility, Creativity, Knowledge, Passion. But where are themes like Transparency? Accountability?

There are a few exceptions. Take Mulukanoor Cooperative Rural Bank in India for example. Its core values aren’t just shallow corporate cliches:

  • A belief in being true “sons of the soil”
  • A pride in a calling called farming
  • Help thy farmer brother, you are helping yourself
  • Self discipline and honesty
  • Complete transparency and accountability

Cornerstone Bank also receives an honorable mention for its unique Christian values.

Some of the more interesting core values comes from the failed financial behemoth WaMu:

  • Fair
  • Caring
  • Human
  • Dynamic
  • Driven

These are uncommon core values, and they were something WaMu tried hard to live out. Indeed one could argue that WaMu was perhaps too “Driven,” since it was their subprime assertiveness that drove them into the ground.

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Conclusion

If your core values include any from the list above, they probably aren’t doing much to differentiate you… if they are doing anything at all.

Key Question: If your core values are the same as everyone else, then what strategic role do they play?

Just like mission statements, financial institutions’ core values are loaded with bromides — safe expressions that executive committees  and boards can rally around without argument or struggle. Who could possibly object to “Teamwork?” Who isn’t in favor of “Excellence?” For many institutions, these kind of core values are pretty much hollow, meaningless corporate B.S., something The Financial Brand calls C.R.a.P.

Bottom Line: Core values are meaningless unless you…

  1. Use them to evaluate prospective employees,
  2. Measure employee performance accordingly, and (most importantly)
  3. Stick to them.

Homework

What would happen if there was a “Financial Constitution” for consumers — a Banking Bill of Rights — that laid out what people should expect from any bank: Integrity, Excellence, Honesty, Respect, Professionalism? If that standard applied equally to everyone at all banks, what would your core values be then?

Further Reading: How do you think banks’ core values compare to credit unions? Find out here.

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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Comments

  1. Scott Oppliger says:

    Good stuff. It’s not surprising to find that most banks have similar core values and thus, aren’t very differentiated from their competitors. It’s this sort of thinking that really makes you think about the nature of banking through the lens of differentiation. There’s not much differentiating most banks from each other, and when that happens you have a commoditized industry (which not many would argue that banking already is). It seems that those banks who are innovative in their approach will be most likely to form actual relationships with young customers who aren’t that interested in having a relationship with their bank.

    Hint: advertising for services on your plasma’s or your website won’t cut it.

  2. Exactly Scott. If banks aren’t differentiated at their very core (i.e., core values), then you can start to understand why so many financial institutions look exactly alike. There’s only so many ways to slice the same strategy.

  3. Almost without fail publicly traded banks have proven that “increasing profitability at any cost” is the one real “core value” that they all share, exhibit, and focus on. Go read the bloomberg article about Ken Lewis where they discuss “The Plan”.

    If any publicly traded bank was really focused on something like “integrity” or “community” or “excellence” they’d have to be willing to shrink when competition becomes illogical/unprofitable — and CEOs of publicly traded banks abhor shrinkage like the plague. About the only bank that comes to mind which fits the bill is Westamerica Bancorp run by David Payne…so far, so good for them (they shrank). I’m sure there are a few others like WABC.

    But the vast majority of publicly traded banks just plain threw the “values” out the window so that they could keep up with the Jones Bank across the street in a constant effort to meet Wall St earnings expectations.

    As it stands now the “integrity” of banks and their mgmts is about zero (like WB and BAC for example), and any traces of “excellence” are invisible (hmm, WB again), and the “community” is getting smoked as a result (like Charlotte).

    I’ll be interested to see if your list of buzz words is different for the credit unions…the experience their customers have sure is, different, that is.

    (to be fair to WB employees there are a lot of great ones out there, including my banker, but the bank failed)

  4. @Lucas, @Corbin – Thanks for your comments guys. Both are spot on.

    @Corbin – I didn’t mean that core values = strategy. What I meant was that financial institutions all use the same blueprints… for everything. When everyone’s cooking the same dish using the same recipe, there isn’t going to be a lot of variation in execution — just subtle changes in flavor that will be mostly meaningless.

  5. Exactly.

    This, along with one of your previous posts on “Banks: Less differentiated than a bar of soap” highlight the fundamental problem with banks (ahem…and credit unions) from a core branding perspective.

    Banking and its counter part, credit union-ing have become commodity businesses. Marketing models, that offered some means to effectively position and differentiate, that once existed for the category have fallen by the way side and been replaced by a sales model. Looking at financial services marketing now it is all about convenience and service.

    The problem with that is that if I am use a bank or credit union that has a single branch, and it is next door to my house, it is convenient. And service, well, how do you prove good service? If service was such a driving factor in banking, why don’t more people switch?

    The values listed here only go to illustrate the homogenization of the banking industry. Integrity, Teamwork, Excellence, Commitment, Honesty, Respect, Service, Professionalism, Customers, Trust, Community, Loyalty, and Innovation should be applicable to most every kind of business. A hospital, a paper supply company, a construction company, even an exterminator could share these values. As a consumer, I expect businesses I deal with to have these values at their core.

    However, what is so bitter with financial services, especially banks in the recent months, is that there are very few that have lived up to these values, as Lucas mentioned above. I know from research, consumers feel lied to, disrespected, and made to feel vulnerable as a result of an industries poor decisions.

    Jeffrey, you wrote above, “There’s only so many ways to slice the same strategy.” The problem is, these values do not represent ANY strategy. In fact, because banks are so similar and all use these values (and marketing tactics) these are simply definitions of banks and credit unions as well.

    The real problem here is that banks try really really hard to copy each other. This constant imitation enables the market leader to entrench its leadership position more deeply and exacerbates the “vanillaness” of banking as a whole. If you boil it down to the bare minimum, I have no reason to choose a bank, or credit union, beyond convenience (and my own reluctance to switch because there is no real reason to switch).

    “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

  6. Love the article, I do have one issue, though.
    There are literally millions of banks worldwide. Not sure 50 can be a representative or statistical sample of all the various sizes, geography, etc. Other than that, this article is very well written and candid, not a very “bankish” thing these days!
    Will definitely be using this as a conversation piece around the conference table. Thanks!

  7. Taylor,

    Before I started publishing The Financial Brand, I was a branding consultant in the financial industry. I worked with around 500 different banks and credit unions during my career, and all but a couple had boilerplate lists of core values. It is this experience I have that prompted the writing of the article. So maybe you can consider the sample size to be more around 550 instead of 50?

    Jeffry Pilcher, Publisher
    The Financial Brand

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