1. Conduct a Brand Audit
Your brand is everything your financial institution does and stands for — products and services, customer service, branch appearance, marketing messages, employees… even your restrooms. Any one of these details can make or break your brand, which means you need to monitor them regularly and audit them regularly.
A brand audit is a performance evaluation for your brand. It gives you the information you need to make the changes that will result in a stronger brand. You need to examine every aspect of your brand and experience through consumers’ eyes. Wherever you look, ask yourself these questions:
- If this was the first thing I saw/experienced here at our financial institution, what would my impression be?
- What are we saying about ourselves to consumers?
- What are the messages — the marketing drumbeats — that consumers are hearing us repeat? Are they meaningful?
- What kind of image are we projecting?
You need to be thorough, and review everything. Call your contact center and request some information through the mail — how well does that process work and how long does it take to receive materials (if ever)? Take a look at the marketing collateral in your branches — how much of it is on display, how it is presented, is there a consistent and cohesive look or does everything seem disjointed and cluttered?
You must be brutally honest. It isn’t easy hearing criticism and learning about your organization’s shortcomings, but it is information that you desperately need to know. It’s not about pointing fingers and assigning blame for what isn’t working. It’s an opportunity to see where you excel and improve where you don’t.
If you think of your brand as a strategic roadmap, a brand audit will tell you whether you’re on track or not. You need to know if you’re heading in the wrong direction, and hold your organization accountable.
2. Apply the “Be’s” of Branding
For branding to be successful, you must make it the central part of your business strategy. But how does that work on a practical basis? Here are a few suggestions.
Be sincere. Consumers today crave authenticity. You must communicate what is real and authentic about your financial institution. Don’t tell consumers how you have “great rates” if they aren’t among the most competitive around. Many financial institutions like to tout their “great service,” when there isn’t really anything notable about how employees behave (a smile and a warm hello are basic table stakes).
Be consistent. One of the greatest challenges with developing a brand is maintaining consistency. But great brands are consistent across all delivery channels. Being consistent refers more than just your look and feel. It also applies to the experience. Are you delivering the same experience from one touchpoint to the next? Are you saying the same things and expressing a consistent message in different media channels?
Be focused. Building a brand isn’t just about having a big vision wrapped around a grand theme. Every little detail matters; they either build your… or not. That means you must your brand focus on everything at your financial institution — from branch design to employee attire and telephone greeting. To build a brand effectively, you need a razor-sharp focus and laser-like precision. One exercise you can use to test your brand’s focus is to ask people, “What is our organization about? What makes us special, different and unique?” Then compare the answers. Executives may say one thing, your staff may say another and your customers may say something entirely different.
Be intentional. Great brands don’t just happen. If you don’t invest resources — both time and money — into your brand, it will not grow. Effective branding takes disciplined leadership, from the top down. How can your organization be deliberate in how it builds its brand when the branding function is relegated down to marketing (who frequently gets their budget slashed)? If your C-level executives don’t discuss your brand regularly at strategic planning sessions, you will never build a powerful brand.
3. Build Your Brand Around the Three Groups That Own It
The most successful brands today align their brand strategy and experience around their leadership, their employees and their consumers. You build a strong brand around those three groups, because all three own a portion of your brand.
Consumers. If you are leading the brand and your employees are living your brand, your customers or members should love your brand. With a great brand, the target audience should become your strongest advocates. You don’t want satisfied consumers — you want loyal brand disciples. The best brands today are “tattoo” worthy (think Apple and Harley Davidson). Ultimately, how consumers feel about your financial institution determines your brand’s overall value.
Executives. As a management group (board, senior team, mid-level managers), you must lead your brand. You set the tone, the direction and the vision for what you want your brand to be about. Successful brands always grow organically, from the inside. If your institution’s leadership team isn’t concerned about your brand, employees will pick up on it… and behave accordingly.
Employees. As front-line staff, your employees must live your brand. Their daily one-on-one interactions with consumers play a critical role in how your brand is perceived and experienced. One poor employee experience can destroy years of goodwill and work you’ve done in other areas. Your employees own the daily delivery of your brand. They are the look and voice of your brand on the frontlines. More on building your brand through employees next.
4. Develop Brand Standards for Your Staff
You can have the best products in the world, the best service in the world, or the best tagline in the world. None of that matters if your employees don’t know what to do with your brand. Training is a good first step, but you also need a brand guide — a written document detailing every aspect of your brand identity and how your staff can be the embodiment of it.
Your brand guide serves several purposes. The ultimate goal is to grow and protect your brand by helping staff make connections between your strategy, your products, your logo, your promise and where they fit within all of that. A brand guide explains how — and why — your employees should live the brand, providing practical instructions on how they can consistently introduce branding elements into their daily work.
The way your employees greet people, the way they answer the phones, the clothing they wear should all be addressed in your brand guide. And you’ve got to get specific. One of your brand standards might be for staff to give people “a WOW experience.” What exactly does that mean? What does it look like? Define that in your brand guide and offer tips on how employees can deliver that experience. Your staff cannot be a living, breathing example of your brand if they have to guess at their expected behavior.
5. Conduct Mystery Shops to Identify Brand Gaps
In a mystery shop, someone poses as a potential customer to investigate how your organization performs compared to competing banks and credit unions interact.
The truth is that many financial executives don’t have an accurate picture of what’s going on. They tend to have a glorified view of the service their institution provides, while simultaneously seeing competitors as weak and inferior. Many financial institutions brag about their “superior customer service,” when in fact their service can frequently be average or even lousy. Banks and credit unions like to see themselves as “the good guys,” and demonize the competition. But a mystery shop might reveal that they are the ones with superior service, and you’re the one who needs some work.
Other banks and credit unions in your area are typically just as interested in superior service and performance as yours, and they have invested similar amounts of time, money and training in branding to realize that. Simply assuming that others lag behind because you work hard to provide superior service is a recipe for disaster.
In order to thrive and succeed, financial institutions must embrace branding audits and mystery shops. Learn from the results — both positive and negative.
Mark Arnold is president of On the Mark Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in branding and strategic planning. Mark is an acclaimed speaker, brand expert and strategic planner helping financial institutions achieve their goals with strategic marketing insights and energized training. You can download Mark’s complete guide “30 Ideas to Build & Live Your Brand” for free by clicking here.