How Financial Marketers Can Break Away from Lookalike Brand Strategies

Banks and credit unions work at differentiating product features, but rarely do they do that for the overall brand. Instead they fall back on a set of boring core messages that every other institution uses, like 'Trustworthy' or 'Customer-focused.' Five questions will help you break out of the pack with an effective positioning strategy.

There was a great book published a few years back called “Positioning” by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It emphasized the importance and impact of companies taking a unique position in the market. The book’s examples are now outdated but not the core principles. Unfortunately the importance of positioning has been lost over the years, but the time is ripe to bring it back.

Positioning hasn’t been lost at a product level, where product management teams are perpetually seeking new ways to differentiate their offering with new features. But positioning at the company-level is much less prevalent. Only a handful of financial institutions have crafted a unique position in the market. Most of the rest share the same set of core messages. You could probably tick them off yourself: “Trustworthy.” “Community-focused.” “People-focused.” “Great rates.”

“Which of your competitors say they aren’t focused on the customer?”
— Andrea Olson, Pragmadik

Positioning is the process of how to best communicate your organization’s unique attributes to your target customers based on their needs, which provides the means to counter competitive pressures. It’s carefully crafted key messages and actions that build a distinct and differentiated brand. In short, effective positioning ensures that marketing messages help you clearly stand out, resonate with target consumers, and compel them to take action. If you’re not standing out, you’re not positioning.

How Positioning Loses its Way

Positioning is not an easy task, however, and many organizations lack the insight, drive, or capability to effectively position their organization. In the spirit of making safe decisions, many financial institutions follow what they deem as “successful competitors,” copying their key messages and offerings. Alternatively, some institutions get mired in their own internal perceptions and set their sights on emphasizing broad and generic differentiators, such as the widely used “customer-focused.”

Using “customer-focused” as an example: How are you different from your competitors in this regard? Do you simply believe and reinforce that you are just “better” than them? What does this really mean?

On the other side of the coin, what competitors say they aren’t focused on the customer? At the end of the day, this message is simply a belief and lacks any positioning proof-points.

If the institution is truly all about customers, what actions and strategies are you taking which illustrate this mindset? Which of those actions are distinctly different? If you greet your customers by name when they come through your door, this is nice, but sending a personal note and a grocery store gift certificate when your customer has a major life change (i.e., death in the family, moving homes, lost a job, etc.) — that carries weight.

How you translate your words to action is where positioning becomes truly impactful.

Crafting Your Brand’s Distinct Position

The art of positioning begins with understanding your institution’s true strengths and weaknesses. Many bank and credit union front-line employees, when asked about brand positioning behaviors, can relay only lofty organizational goals instead of specific actions. They know about customer-centricity as a concept or even a goal, but they can’t name specific behaviors that truly bring it about.

Similarly, a study conducted by Gallup among customer experience leaders in financial services found only 30% of them believed their front-line employees would be able to articulate what experience their organization is trying to deliver. While many institutions claim they are “customer-centric,” to make that positioning statement a reality in all levels of the organization requires a behavioral construct.

For example, if the managers of a bank or credit union are consistently late for meetings inside headquarters, it’s likely that other employees will also be consistently late or miss appointments with customers. So it is critical to be honest in evaluating your actual strengths versus aspirational ones. This truth becomes the foundation for your positioning architecture.

Consider a situation where Bank A has branded itself as a “community bank.” Its organizational goal is to create a sense of engagement with customers. Accordingly, all of its advertisements feature photos of local people and places. It sponsors and supports local schools, athletic teams and community organizations, which they prominently display in their promotional materials.

All good, but “community” has to manifest at a deeper level within the institution’s culture, and the heart of positioning is defining creative ways to do just that. To develop an effective positioning strategy, begin with the following five sets of questions:

1. In what areas (products, services, processes, technologies, culture, etc.) is our organization excellent? Where to we come up short?

2. How can we validate these assumptions? Do our customers have the same perceptions as we do?

3. Who are our top competitors and how are they positioned? Are their positions strong or weak? Why?

4. What positions in our marketplace are uncontested or weakly contested? What are the benefits and downsides of usurping one of those positions?

5. What position would be the most unique and capitalize on our greatest strengths? How would we translate that position into everyday action for all employees?

Once you define your position, be sure you don’t contradict yourself with policies and processes that run counter to it. One bank we worked with emphasized its positional focus on “service to the public,” yet when an employee wanted to support a community event, she had to complete a long application, make requests to headquarters, and argue her case to a decision-making team four states away.

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Positioning Shouldn’t be Complicated or Expensive

Strong brand positioning doesn’t have to cost very much. Behaviors require more creativity than money, but they all must demonstrate the brand via the employee. In short, it’s about having your brand come to life through positioning and subsequent reflective behaviors, not just formulating a traditional brand identity.

Here are some specific actions that can help turn vague positioning into something more meaningful and effective.

  • Contributing $50 to a customer’s child’s college savings account upon high school graduation.
  • Providing free co-working spaces, office supplies, Wi-Fi and coffee for small business customers.
  • Sending a personally signed get-well card and favorite toy to a customer’s child who is in the hospital.
  • Delivering groceries to elderly customers before a bad weather storm.

It’s time for banks and credit unions to reexamine their brands and reassess how they are creating a unique position. This not only helps provide direction for your organization’s culture and strategy, but also increases the effectiveness of your messaging efforts.

By having a clear positioning strategy, financial institutions can gain more impact through relevance, resonance and, most importantly, recognition. If you want to cut through the noise and grow your institution in a way that fosters deeper customer connections, it all begins with having the confidence to create a well-defined position.

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