Why Most Financial Institutions Flop When Using Stories for Marketing

Just about every marketer would agree that a good story can be a powerful influencer. So why is it that so many efforts in banking (and elsewhere) miss the mark? Common misconceptions and failure to follow three simple, but essential, elements are the main reasons. One financial institution's example points the way to effective use of stories.

When you research financial institutions that use storytelling, you’ll find hundreds of examples of banks with a page on their website labeled “Our Story.” The sad reality is that about 0.01% of those pages are truly telling a story.

They usually feature a paragraph or two with details about when and where the bank was founded and how many branches and employees it has. But these are facts, not stories.

Several years ago, storytelling became a fad. Almost overnight, every marketer was talking about the power of stories. And because everyone wanted to be a storyteller, the term was stretched to unrecognizable lengths and slapped on every blog post, ‘About Us’ page, and ad. Suddenly, any copy that relayed background information or even product details was dubbed a story.

All this diluted our understanding of what a story is. Real stories hold to a longstanding narrative structure comprised of three essential ingredients:

  • Characters — people who want things.
  • An arc — a beginning (the “hook”), a middle that builds complications, and an end that provides resolution.
  • Change — A specific moment (or moments), after which things are different.

What’s Not a Real Story

The above points sound like a simple formula, and they are. Still, it’s important to reiterate what stories are not.

Stories are not rates, rewards, or statistics. A list of features and benefits is not a story. Anything that’s best conveyed as a series of bullet points is not a story. And a recounting of important dates and milestones is not a story.

The format of the popular word game Mad Libs perfectly demonstrates what banks and credit unions are doing wrong in creating their “story.”

wrong way to create our story

The following case study illustrates how one financial institution is tapping into storytelling’s true potential.

Amazing Results from a Customer Video

Bank marketer Loni Meiborg faced some serious resistance.

She wanted to use customer stories to highlight how Fortifi Bank, a community bank with $548 million in assets, lived up to its mission to “grow Wisconsin — one person, one business, and one relationship at a time.” The initiative didn’t have much support from management. To their thinking, bankers “could just get out and pound the pavement” to grow the bank’s lending business. Eventually, though, Meiborg got her shot and the “Growin’ Wisconsin” movement was born.

Fortifi filmed high-quality videos with a wide range of clients. Each one focused on telling the story of their business. One of the bank’s best videos is about a client called The Dog Den. It exemplifies the three ingredients of storytelling by helping people understand and care about the main character who undergoes a transformation that’s illustrated with a three-part narrative arc.

Bonus Point:

Besides being a great sales tool, Fortifi Bank’s customer videos are popular with bank staff, helping them see the results of the their work.

To call Growin’ Wisconsin a movement is no overstatement. Today, the spirit of the campaign undergirds not only sales and marketing, but all the bank’s community service and involvement.

When the Covid-19 pandemic put new videos on hold, Meiborg says employees contacted her to ask if they’d be making more — they looked forward to watching the customer stories because the videos helped them feel more connected to their work.

What’s more, the Growin’ Wisconsin stories helped lenders build relationships with current clients, who can use the high-quality videos to promote their businesses, and prospects, who usually knew someone from the videos personally. Fortifi reports the series has led to the bank receiving cold calls and even new customers.

To hear the whole story of Fortifi Bank and other institutions and learn more about the science of storytelling, download “Leading Through Story: What every bank needs to know about narrative and influence.”

Why Stories Work

Stories are powerful because they cause the listener to adopt the perspectives put forth in the narrative as their own. This is the definition of influence. And it’s possible because stories trigger three involuntary responses in listeners:

1. When we hear a story, we start constructing mental models of what’s being described. For example, it’s nearly impossible to hear a story about a castle without visualizing one. Stories cause us to build new worlds in our minds, and this helps us envision and internalize the reality presented in the narrative.

2. Stories depict change. Moments of change pique our curiosity and make us want to know how the situation will resolve. This tension — curiosity and our need to satisfy it — causes the body to release cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone. It causes listeners to pay attention, which is vital in the noisy world of banking.

3. People can’t help but identify with the characters in a story. When we’re engulfed in a story, we simulate the emotions of the character; we begin to exercise empathy. This causes the body to release oxytocin. Oxytocin creates trust. Trust incites reciprocity — the willingness to take real action in response to a story.

This is why stories, when properly constructed, work well both in marketing as well as in a broader business context, including building trust and confidence in an institution’s board.

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Key Requirement: Authenticity

The beauty of using stories to lead is that it can be done simply, by anyone. The full report delves into the tactics and techniques bankers and professional storytellers prescribe for uncovering and crafting impactful stories.

The most important consideration for banking leaders contemplating storytelling is authenticity. Banks and credit unions must have a strong sense of their identity — or a strong belief in what they’re proposing — for their stories to resonate.

For Fortifi Bank, authenticity means being undeniably Wisconsin. But whatever story you decide to tell, it should reflect who your institution is today and build a bridge to the future and culture you’re trying to create.

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