Why Financial Marketers Struggle Getting ‘Persona’ Strategies Right

Banks and credit unions usually struggle to define branding personas and then use them to guide their marketing. Why? Because they proudly defend their position that 'We serve everybody in town'. But using branding personas effectively means you can't serve everybody. In fact, you shouldn't even try.

If your financial institution is struggling to develop and/or implement personas, you’re not alone. There’s a reason so many banks and credit unions flop in these attempts.

By definition a buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer, based on market research and real data about your existing customers. When target personas are appropriately and accurately defined, your marketing communications will be highly targeted, more relevant, and increasingly effective. This leads to more engaged and profitable relationships. That’s the textbook definition and reasoning for what a persona is and why you should use them.

Now here’s what a decade of experience has taught me about the development and use of personas in the financial industry: Most banks and credit unions aren’t very good at it. For starters, personas aren’t clichéd stereotypes, nor they represent entire generations of people. “Millennials,” for example, is not a well-defined persona. A persona may consist of people born as Millennials, but having a birth date that places you within a 10-12-year age range of others doesn’t automatically mean you fit in a common persona group.

Second, personas in the financial industry fail because they usually only describe current customers (or members, in the case of credit unions). Some personas should also be defined to represent the person who is your ideal brand advocate, because they will not only be profitable, but because they believe in the same core values as your financial institution.

Ideal personas are not only the type of people you want as customers or members. They are also the type of people you want to hire. Think about it. If you’re trying to attract a certain type of persona in your branches, then you should have those kind of people in your branches and on your board of directors.

( Highly Recommended: ‘All People Ages 18-55’ Is Not Your Target Audience )

Financial Marketers’ Biggest Mistake in Creating Personas

“If your institution isn’t ready to offer an absolutely stellar digital experience, then ‘Digital Debbie’ should not be one of your ideal personas.”

Banks and credit unions assume that because everyone needs financial products and services that everyone fits as one of your ideal personas. This is the biggest mistake they make. Not every consumer is supposed to fit into an ideal persona group.

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that some people may not be a good fit for your financial institution. You may have two or three ideal personas that fit only 70-90% of your customers and members. And that’s OK.

If your institution isn’t ready to offer an absolutely stellar digital experience, then “Digital Debbie” should not be one of your ideal personas. You need to be realistic. Simply offering Remote Deposit Capture and a marginal mobile app doesn’t make your institution the ideal place for the digitally savvy and dependent to conduct their banking. While you can offer adequate digital services to “Branch Bob,” who may use them a couple times a week, you’re not positioned to be placing a high priority on “Digital Debbie” because she depends on her devices to be synced and pushing her notifications at a moment’s notice.

Reality Check: In today’s environment, you can’t assume that everyone needs financial products and services in the specific ways you provide them. For example, major credit card issuers offer loans and high-rate savings accounts with greater digital access and a better digital experience than most traditional banks and credit unions can provide.

( Read More: Using Buyer Personas to Define Digital Banking Consumers )

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Five Tips to Create and Implement Personas That Work

1. Start at the beginning. Your ideal personas will be representative of the people who are right for your financial institution because they need your products and services and share the same core values. You must build the “Why” into your personas. This means you must be clear about your mission and core values. If you don’t have these defined, or if you haven’t updated them in a decade, it’s likely you’ll need to start there.

2. Use the right data for the right reasons. Your current data only tells the story of your history. It tells you who in the marketplace has found you to be a good fit as you are currently positioned or have historically been seen. But if that’s not who your institution plans to be going forward, don’t build your personas to align with that data. If you don’t understand your data or are not sure what your differentiator is going to be in the next five years, you’ll have to figure that out first.

3. Ensure (enough of) the personas you’re targeting actually exist. Let’s say your institution is located in a relatively poor community consisting of people struggling to make ends meet, but your new mission is aligned around environmental issues that would resonate with “Solar Sally.” Your new target persona won’t align with marketplace realities. Similarly, a rich community with the best school systems likely won’t include many people that fit the “Teacher Ted” persona, who is passionate about funding basic education programs. This is where some good old fashioned market research can come in very handy.

4. Put the personas to work. Once your personas are built, the marketing team should be building content and marketing messages around them. Staff should be trained on personas and how to use them in their day-to-day interactions with customers. It’s also useful to have personas identified in your core system, MCIF and CRM.

5. Measure how well your strategy works. And you should be reporting on and evaluating these efforts, to assess what is working and where improvements could be made.

( Highly Recommended: 7 Tips to Find Your Brand’s Personality )

Don’t Let ‘FOMO’ Destroy Your Brand Strategy

The “fear of missing out” on potential consumers — FOMO — screws up many financial institutions in their brand-building persona efforts.

Consider brands like Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas. Their ideal personas are athletes and people passionate about physical fitness. Do people who are not athletes buy their products? Of course they buy them! But these brands are not actively building campaigns and products for non-athletes. They attract people who are fans of athletes and people who aspire to be more physically fit because they focus on attracting people who are already athletes and people who are already physically fit.

Think about how those brands would deteriorate if they had FOMO on those people who choose to sit on the couch eating fast food all day and changed their marketing and product line to be inclusive of those people.

What if they further decided that since everyone needs clothes, they’re just a clothing and accessory line for everyone, not just athletes? They would self-sabotage the brand in no time!

And yet this is what most financial institutions are slowly doing. Especially community banks and credit unions that still offer the same products and services as everyone else, in the same way as everyone else, with the same “We’re for everyone in XYX County” messaging.

The Secret? It’s All About Values

Financial institutions must put a stake in the ground for their core values and the personas that are right for them.

A key point to understand about persona strategies: If you institution builds core values around environmental causes it doesn’t mean you don’t think education is important. It means you’re going to let another institution focus on the persona of “Teacher Ted.” You institution will be focusing on personas like “Solar Sally” who is building a net zero house and “Soon-to-be Solar Sally.” “Soon-to-be” is renting an apartment that she can’t put solar panels on, but she wants to know her money is being impactful in funding projects that are good for the planet.

See how these personas aren’t solely based on age and who has an auto loan but on values? That’s the secret!

Bottom Line: There is a direct correlation between your mission and core values as an institution, your marketplace, and the personas you define. They all need to be in alignment, or your brand will suffer.

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