Think Like a Brand, Not a Bank: Key Insights for Financial Marketers

Marketing and branding are two different things, but banks and credit unions often intermingle them. Two marketing pros wrote a book to help financial marketers learn more on building a brand — the right way.

Not many marketing books start out like an extended Haiku poem. This one does — three pages filled with short, quippy pieces of advice for financial institutions that need to rejigger their branding: “Beautiful brands are born from tension,” “Quit fighting fintechs,” “Be open to odd.”

It’s worth reading “Think Like a Brand, Not a Bank” for the marketing nuggets in its pages. One of them will likely prove valuable.

Banking isn’t really about banking anymore, the book’s two authors, Allison Netzer and Liz High, emphasize. Despite regulatory stipulations hindering innovation, banks and credit unions have to approach marketing just like any other company: build a customer experience people can feel a part of.

The book’s introduction uses Starbucks as an example, explaining how no customer would feel comfortable buying coffee if it turned into one big, fragmented experience: Imagine ordering a coffee with the barista, only to get taken to a back-room cubicle to talk to a “specialist” when you also ask to order a sandwich. (We won’t spoil the whole anecdote for you).

The idea? A company’s brand isn’t just a logo. It’s in the entire customer experience.

“One of the points in the book is brand is not soft and fluffy,” Netzer tells Jim Marous on the Banking Transformed podcast. “It’s not colors, it’s not logos. Because to sell brand-first thinking within your institution, you have to know your audience. You have to position and sell it internally before it goes externally.”

Forging New Ideas:

Branding used to mean color schemes and logo design. Now, it expands across the entire banking customer experience.

Although she wasn’t formally trained as a marketer, Netzer is well-versed in the field and a marketer by trade.

Banking Transformed Podcasts

She’s the chief marketing and strategy officer at Nymbus, but she has also spent time in marketing roles at Temenos, Kony, Texas Tribune and Dell and has served on advisory boards for Total Expert, Forbes and Marstone.

Her co-author, Nymbus executive vice president Liz High, is equally well-versed in marketing, but drawing from big-picture strategic planning roles at a variety of tech and consulting companies. Together, the two wanted to write a book that embodied what banking needs to fix most: the brand.

Listen In: How to Think Like a Brand, Not a Bank

Avoid the ‘Logo Land’ Trap

“There’s still a perception that brand equals visual identity. It’s your logo, it’s your color palette, it’s your website,” High tells Marous.

As an exercise, she prompts marketers to think about their favorite brand. Most of the time, when she asks people, hardly anyone offers up a bank or a credit union brand. And they hardly ever talk about what it looks like — only the experience they’ve had with the company.

“They talk about what they get from it,” High says. “They talk about how it makes them feel.” In other words, marketers need to dig into customer behavior as well as their own institution’s culture to really figure out what their brand is and what it means.

If financial marketers are focused solely on the look and the outward-facing persona of the brand, they’re living in what High and Netzer call “logo land”.

“You cannot build a brand from the top down. You’re building an identity at that point — you’re back in ‘logo land’,” High says. “For me, a brand starts with the audience that you serve, and you need to be building a brand around delivering something that matters to people.”

Bank Brands That Earn Praise

There are several financial brands that Netzer and High commend for their creativity and intuition in their marketing strategy. Umpqua, USAA and Florida’s Locality Bank are top of mind for them.

Umpqua is a particular favorite for the duo.

“We talk in the book a lot about product isn’t a credit card, product isn’t a savings account,” says High. “Product is the mission that your institution is on. Everybody loves Umpqua because, forever, they have been all about bringing their customer into an experience, not into a bank.”

Another good example is Locality Bank, which launched in mid-September 2021. Marous points out that, from the onset, Locality hasn’t been about its products. Instead, the products are an offshoot of the bank’s branding.

Locality’s founders knew their product was their mission: to serve South Floridian small businesses.

Netzer says that, instead of trying to be “the next best thing,” Locality’s team focused on the market it could do well in, without overstretching itself. “They’re not trying to be the greatest small business bank ever or take on X, Y, Z competitor. They know their market, they know the people in their market, and they’re just going to serve that market.”

A Sneak Peek:

“Traditional banks, however, seem to have a hard time with [simplicity]. They keep building and building until they build beyond what’s useful. When faced with the tension between complexity and simplicity, banks inadvertently favor complexity in an effort to offer everything to everyone.”

— Allison Netzer, Liz High in “Think Like a Brand, Not a Bank”

High cites USAA as another pioneer in the new branding game — primarily because its marketing teams are hyper aware of their target audiences.

“Everything they do is mission driven,” High explains. “They’ve also got some of the best products on the market, some of the best rates. They’ve got all of the foundation there, but they don’t lead with that. They lead with a deep knowledge of the military personnel and their families that they serve.”

Read more:

The Importance of Data Maturity

To think the way the leaders in the banking industry do is much easier said than done. Much of this depends on easy access to customer data. High says maturity in data is crucial if financial brands want to make a difference in people’s lives. This is where digital transformation comes into play.

“Personalization has to be much more than remembering your name or having a picture that means something to you on your homepage,” she says. “It needs to be about being hyper relevant when people are on a customer journey with you.”

Who Does What:

Marketing belongs to Marketing. But a bank's brand is a whole other entity — one everyone at an institution is responsible for.

Although measurement and analysis of data is crucial in this process, High adds that not all components of a brand are measurable. In fact, too much focus on analytics can obscure the purpose of branding. “Once you get very obsessed with performance metrics, you slip back into a marketing mindset rather than a branding mindset.”

Instead, banks and credit union marketers should look at data through a different lens — that is, as a way to initiate contact and understand what a customer wants. As Netzer explains it, data is what connects a bank’s mission and branding strategy with its marketing.

Marketing is a marketer’s role. But, branding is everyone’s job, Netzer maintains. “It’s not the marketers over here and the business analysts over there and never shall the two meet. Data and branding together is really where the magic happens.”

High agrees, adding that “a great brand has a sense of that emotional halo that sits around them, which isn’t measurable, but it can be felt.”

Read more:

A 5-Step ‘Think Like a Brand’ Solution

Bankers will have to read the book (which comes out end of August 2022) to learn the details about Netzer and High’s full five principles to branding success.

1. Do the Counterintuitive Thing
2. Embrace Tension and Create Contradictions
3. Cue the Remix
4. Product Isn’t What It Used To Be
5. Coach and Compose

But, just as any author would, Netzer and High have their favorite parts — which they shared with Marous. Netzer says her favorite is: “Do the Counterintuitive Thing.”

“The privilege of working in this industry is that so many people have been doing this for so long, and it’s easy to see that as a negative, but I think it can be a huge positive because you want to talk about the power of doing a counterintuitive thing,” Netzer says.

High’s favorite principle is the third, “Cue the Remix,” which she says is all about taking what an institution is already stellar at — what it specializes in — and maximizing that.

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