How First Horizon’s Branding Strategist Pursues ‘Relevancy’ for Its Customers and Prospects

First Horizon's Paula Beale deploys ideas inspired from unexpected sources — including minor league baseball and TED — to deliver the message, 'When you need help with money, we're here for you.'

Banking brands face increasing competition for people’s attention, especially as opportunities for exposure multiply. How do you sort through all the platforms and channels without spinning your wheels?

Paula Beale thinks it’s critical to understand that branding is not just about what people “see.”

“Often people think ‘branding’ equals ‘logo.’ But the logo is an artifact of brand strategy,” says Beale. “Brand strategy is really about finding a unique position that you can take in your marketplace to earn opportunities with prospects and clients alike.”

Beale is SVP and director of brand strategy at First Horizon Bank, in Memphis, Tenn. As an example of how focus is important, she notes that when fintechs were new, they caused her anxiety, in addition to the usual competitors. (Beale has been with the organization in branding and creative positions since 1997.)

But she came to realize “There’s room in the marketplace for all types of financial providers.”

Beale cites a parallel from the world of sports, specifically minor league baseball.

America is rife with sports teams. First Horizon itself sponsors the Nashville Sounds, with stadium naming rights. But in discussing baseball brands, one that has taught Beale something is the phenomenon of the Savannah Bananas.

The Savannah Bananas today are a barnstorming exhibition team that has been called the Harlem Globetrotters of minor league ball. The team is known for antics on the field, including suddenly breaking into dance numbers, and for a basic uniform of banana yellow that looks as horrific as it sounds. (The uniform of their usual opponents, the Party Animals, is heavy on hot pink.)

After starting on fumes, initially as a collegiate summer league participant, says Beale, the Bananas have become so popular as an exhibition team that it is nearly impossible to obtain tickets.

The lesson for Beale from the Savannah Bananas: “There’s a place in the market for a range of experiences, whether it’s baseball or banking.”

Finding and Keeping First Horizon’s Brand Niche

First Horizon is the nation’s #32 bank at $81.2 billion in assets. Given current attitudes toward bank mergers in Washington, Bryan Jordan, chairman, president and CEO, recently told analysts that getting up to and past $100 billion will need to be done organically, not by acquisition. So recognition from customers and prospects is a high priority.

The challenge, according to Beale, is that many people simply don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about money.

“As a banking brand, what we want is to stay top of mind for when people do have a financial need. That need may not be what they woke up thinking about, but when they do have a need, they know they’ve got a partner who can help them.”

— Paula Beale, First Horizon

Overall, says Beale, “brand strategy is about making sure you are remaining relevant to your audience.” She says one of the benefits of fintech competition has been pressure to up the bank’s tech game while retaining the local banker feel that the bank already had.

Read more: How 5 Differentiated Bank Brands Work to Stand Out from the Crowd

The Emotional Aspect of Money and Banking’s Role

Two key elements of relevance are confidence and peace of mind, says Beale, with a dash of “joy” in multiple forms.

“You have to think about the emotional components that revolve around money,” says Beale.

Measuring relevance regularly is critical. First Horizon does its own “voice of the customer” monitoring, as well as leveraging proprietary third-party measurement.

Among the factors Beale and her team look for: How are customers interacting with First Horizon? What are they calling the bank about? What feedback are they giving?

A Lesson from the Regional Bank Crisis:

Looking back on the early 2023 financial crisis, Beale says she realizes how much the public wanted reassurance about things like deposit insurance, which for most marketers had until then been wallpaper no one paid attention to.

“It certainly became a proof point with our clients,” she says.

Read more: Is Being a ‘Regional Bank’ Now a Reputational Liability?

Punching Through for the Brand with Relevant Content

A good deal of First Horizon’s outreach relies on partnerships with external media producers.

For example, Beale says the bank wanted to find a way to help consumers get their financial houses in order.

The solution picked was to work with two experts whose specialties are organization and simplification. Clea Scherer and Joanna Teplin produce books, videos and more concerned with organizing, all under the title, “The Home Edit.” The bank engaged the pair to produce a newsletter about finances called “The Money Edit.”

First Horizon bank branding

Samples of First Horizon’s branding activities, clockwise from duo: Clea Scherer and Joanna Teplin of “The Home Edit” produce “The Money Edit” for the bank; a sample of the bank’s prize-winning “Let’s Find a Way” campaign; and a recent podcast in the bank’s “Bucket Listening” series.

“They’ve built an incredible business around something that people avoid,” says Beale. “So our thought was to bring their expertise to partner with our financial know how to enable people to organize their finances in a way that gives them control, and the confidence to make smart choices.”

Read more about First Horizon:

Expanding Customers’ Concept of the ‘Bucket List’

In a related vein, Beale says the bank found that people love contemplating their personal “bucket lists.” A video podcast series the bank sponsors is called “Bucket Listening.” The series, which is wrapping up its first season, focuses on how a bank customer is living “the bucket life.”

“We also ask them to talk a little bit about the role that the bank or one of our bankers has played in helping them live that bucket life,” says Beale. The customer’s banker joins them on the podcast.

Beale says the podcast is resonating with people. In its first year, it has received 15 million impressions and over 8,000 unique listeners. Guests have included sports figures, young entrepreneurs, among others. In celebration of Juneteenth, the podcast featured an interview with the leaders of Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum.

“This is our first try in podcasts,” says Beale. “Getting someone to spend 20 minutes with your brand uninterrupted is a real gift for a marketer and brander.”

Part of the appeal for the bank is the opportunity to bring some of the institution’s own personality to the podcast, Beale explains. While she says she wouldn’t reject sponsorship of an existing podcast, it would be hard to get the same personality by buying exposure in an existing podcast franchise.

Beale says generic content doesn’t cut it — the bank brander has to find out what is important to customers and prospects and tailor things to that audience.

One such audience is women. The bank, working with TEDWomen, part of the TED Talks combine, created a roadshow about honing women’s financial skills that it takes around the Southeast. The bank also maintains a series called Women’s Financial Superpowers, blog posts focusing on money.

Each blog finishes with a link or other tie in with First Horizon Advisors, the bank’s investment subsidiary. Part of what Beale especially likes about the blogs is how they take the viewpoint that women have financial management skills, including the ability to multitask and ask key questions

“I love that this starts with a really positive perspective,” says Beale.

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