Four Things Your Brand Must Be

At the heart of every brand rests a promise, a certain experience — good or bad — that people can count on. Some branding experts call it a “brand promise.” Others call it a “brand essence.” Or a “brand position.” You could even use the throwback term “Unique Selling Proposition.” Call it what you want. Your brand has one, whether you’ve defined one formally it or not.

If you think you have an idea about what your brand stands for, here’s a short quiz you can take to see how compelling it is.

1. Is your brand differentiated?

Is your brand position something unique to you, something that only you are known for, and none of your competitors?

Of all the components fueling a strong brand, differentiation is the most critical. Most brands fail this first test because they say their brand stands for something like “service” or “value.” If everyone else is saying the same thing, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best.

Tip: If you say “trust,” try again. Brands, by their very nature, embody “trust.” When you’re brand is known for something, that means consumers can trust you’ll deliver a predictable, reliable experience. Moreover, trust is the bedrock of every financial relationship, so forget about positioning yourself as the one who is “more trustworthy.” Trust is something you can only earn through your actions, over time.

2. Is your brand relevant?

Do consumers really care about what your brand stands for? How important is it to them? Does it benefit them? Why should they care?

“Value” and “service” may be very important to people, but they are themes so ubiquitously used by your competitors… nay, used by everyone — from plumbers to car dealers to supermarkets — that you cannot successfully differentiate around them.

Tip: You can have a highly-differentiated brand promise that you can credibly deliver on, and people still might not care. You have to strike a nerve. The best way to accomplish this is by (1) listening to a (2) narrowly-focused audience so that you can (3) understand their unique needs.

3. Is your brand credible?

Do you walk the talk? Can consumers really believe you can deliver what your brand promises? Are you capable?

Tip: If you’ve found a direction for your brand that is both differentiated and relevant, you’re on to something, even if you aren’t able to deliver…yet. The good news? You’ve solved the hardest riddle in branding: finding something people care about that your competitors aren’t doing. The bad news? The execution of a strategy meeting these criteria is no picnic. You’ll need all departments — operations, training, HR, IT, lending, compliance and marketing — to work together to build the infrastructure. The result is worth the effort. Don’t be discouraged.

4. Is your brand irreproducible?

Is your brand difficult — if not impossible — for competitors to copy? If one of your competitors started copying your strategy today, how long would it take them to catch up?

Tip: You’re looking to build something that either your competitors can’t credibly deliver, or something that would challenge them so much — logistically, financially, or otherwise — that they won’t even bother. Who wants to try to outmaneuver a brand like Apple, Google or Virgin?


If you answered “yes” to each of these questions, your brand is rock solid. It’s quite likely your brand is contributing significantly to your bottom line.

If you answered “no” to any one of these questions, you still have some work to do. If your brand isn’t differentiated, then you have to ask, “What can we do differently?” If your brand isn’t relevant, you need to go focus on an audience and find out what really drives them. If your brand isn’t credible, you need to either change your marketing messages or your service experience, because the two don’t align. And if your brand isn’t irreproducible, you need to push yourself further and faster than your competitors could ever imagine.

Jeffry PilcherDon't miss THE FINANCIAL BRAND FORUM — April 15-17, 2019 in Las Vegas. Join 2,000+ of the best and brightest in banking at the world’s most elite conference on marketing, CX, data analytics and digital transformation for the financial industry. Banks and credit unions that register now SAVE $870+ and get a free upgrade to a GOLD PASS, and PAY NOTHING until next year! REGISTER NOW!

This article was originally published on November 18, 2009. All content © 2018 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.


  1. Jeffry, these are all great points. I appreciate how clear and straightforward you’ve presented them here.

    As I read this, I thought about some of the answers we might hear from marketers and executives. I like how you’ve presented the second question: Is your brand relevant? You’re not asking ‘are your products relevant?’; in our experience many think that simply offering financial products and services equals relevance. I would add a 4th point to the three you’ve included under ‘is your brand relevant’: 4) take steps to accommodate the unique needs of that narrowly-focused audience.

    To your fourth question, it seems that many are relying too heavily on products that differentiate them from the competition – thinking that, at least for a while, this is enough. The problem here is that financial institutions are notorious for, and really good at, copying products and services from the guy down the street. Instead of focusing on products (which are easily reproducible), I like that you’re asking people to think of their overall brand. That said, if the brand is too reliant on one product, there’s probably reason for concern.

  2. Great insights Brady. Thanks for sharing. You bring up a good point about targeting a narrowly-focused audience. Here’s an article from The Financial Brand’s archive along those lines.

  3. David Kexel says:

    How do you avoid creating a brand so narrowly focused that it only appeals to such a small segment of consumers that it is not large enough to sustain your business? The challenge is creating a brand that is meaningful to a large enough segment of people to support your business without becoming too generic. Any thoughts on this?

  4. Good question David.

    It sounds paradoxical, but brand builders need to find the biggest niche possible. How focused can you become while still having an audience size suitable to grow and sustain your organization?

    Instead of thinking about demographics like age and income, it helps to think about people’s personalities and lifestyles, and align your brand accordingly.

    – People who are passionate about green and environmental issues
    – People who want the best price, guaranteed
    – People who believe in keeping it local and supporting businesses in their communities
    – People who hate banking and will do just about anything to make it easier, less sucky and take less time
    – People who like “doing good” — supporting non-profits and charities
    – People who like dogs
    – People who love doing everything themselves (DiY)
    – People who seek a lot of input and advice before making decisions
    – People like single moms and working women who shoulder the burden of a family’s finances but don’t have the knowledge they need

    You could probably build a successful financial brand around any of these audiences in almost any market in America. So why don’t more financial institutions do it? Because it’s scary, it’s hard and it takes a lot of work. It’s much easier to add an Investments division, or acquire a smaller financial institution down the street.

  5. David, this diagram might help make the process of branding seem a little easier.

  6. Brady Walen says:

    David, you pose a great question. And while I appreciate Jeffry’s response, I would argue that it’s not simply about finding the BIGGEST niche possible – rather, finding one that is BIG ENOUGH to sustain your business.

    You may decide to pursue a niche that isn’t very large in terms of number of people, but a group that still offers a profitable opportunity – this may include people who are more likely to buy certain products, those that carry a certain balance, those that use a certain number of products, those that are likely to have a certain percentage of their business with your institution.

    The tough part is determining the threshold of ‘big enough’.

    This is why a solid understanding of the market and your customer/member base is so important. Looking at both demographic and psychographic, or behavioral, characteristics begins to reveal opportunities to pursue certain niches. It can be difficult, and it is a departure from a traditional approach, but as competition becomes more aggressive and consumer choice increases, financial institutions must consider a new approach – one that’s clear, focused, offers real value to a specific customer/member base, and meets the points Jeffry outlined above.

  7. BIG vs. BIGGEST vs. BIG ENOUGH. Semantics… We meant the same thing Brady. I certainly didn’t intend to imply that one should go find the biggest niche they can possibly define, then serve it. There are other considerations, some of which you mentioned. My point was that you have to balance “niche/focus” with “sustainable audience size.” You can’t focus on such a small niche that you won’t survive, no more so than you should say we serve all people 18-65.

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