Coronavirus & Bank Marketing: Striking the Right Tone

For the time being, financial marketers should 'ditch all traditional messaging,' urges an industry veteran. There's still too much stuff going out that's 'clueless.' Sales won't go away, but the words of the moment for marketers are 'How can we help?' That will set the stage for a changed world after COVID-19 where empathy will be key.

Financial marketers find themselves in unprecedented times. America faces not only a far-reaching health crisis, but simultaneously a period of economic turmoil that many have never seen before in their careers. It’s a double-barreled challenge exacerbated by social and business isolation and the bewilderment of going nearly overnight from widespread prosperity to broad worries over solvency.

Underlying much of what’s going on is fear.

“Fear is a powerful emotion that can shut us down or mobilize us to action,” says marketing expert Joe Sullivan. “You have to recognize it and take actions to move through it. This crisis is worldwide, hits all industries and seems far deeper than the Great Recession. People are going to be hurting a lot more.” In addition to the fear of getting sick or of being furloughed is the fear of change, fear of the future.

Sullivan, CEO of Market Insights, holds not only a business degree but also holds an MA in psychology, and believes part of the duty of banks and credit unions in this period is to ditch all traditional marketing for the time being. Now is not the time to be pushing product. Indeed, he’s called a client or two about things he’s seen on their websites or in their social media streams that right now seem clueless.

“No one wants to hear you drone on about yourself,” says Sullivan. More than ever, a financial institution’s “product” today is offering help.

“People want to know what you’re going to do for them,” says Sullivan. “In fact, they want to know what you’re going to do to improve their lives in the next 30 days — not 20 years from now.”

Institutions Must Reassure on a One-to-One Basis

“If I were running a bank or credit union, I’d be chucking all the traditional messaging right now, and I would set up an outreach program,” says Sullivan. This would be straightforward contact between a human at the bank or credit union and consumers and businesses the institution serves. Sullivan says the channel of choice could be a phone call or a Zoom video meeting. The important part is that an actual person is reaching out. Never has human connection been more important, in spite of growing reliance on digital channels.

Sullivan says staff handling the outreach should be asking three key questions:

  • How are you doing?
  • What financial issues are you facing and how can we help?
  • What are you doing to prepare for what’s on the other side of this pandemic?

“People need a message that you are there to work through things with them together,” says Sullivan. “They do not want messaging about what product or service they need. The industry is being called upon to show more empathy and compassion.”

“The important part is that an actual person is reaching out. Never has human connection been more important, in spite of growing reliance on digital channels.”

Sullivan has been making such calls to his own clients, and received one himself from his Chase private banker. The banker asked Sullivan much the same kinds of questions that the consultant advocates, and the pair spent about 45 minutes chatting. Sullivan felt taken care of.

He recalls a credit union he visited recently that has a slogan to the effect that “behind every member, there is a story.”

“Their whole culture is built around the idea that it’s their job to understand the story of every member,” says Sullivan. Every institution can adopt that thinking.

When institutions task employees to reach out, however, they should not go with the knee-jerk reaction to have everyone concentrate on the largest borrowers or people with the highest balances.

“I would be reaching out to say, 50 businesses that you suspect are struggling, and to consumers with low balances,” says Sullivan.

Marketing: What to Keep, What to Toss

Financial marketers have a ton of fresh work to do, including getting the word out about relief efforts and how to participate in federal emergency loan programs. But in the lulls, they may be wondering about their work beyond every day’s exigencies, and about their future role.

“There are a lot of things about the banking business model that will change — and for the better,” Sullivan predicts.

In an interview with The Financial Brand, Sullivan discussed setting the right tone for financial marketing now, how marketing and sales culture in banking will change, and what the future of financial institution branding may be.

Will COVID-19 end ‘sales’ in banking?

Joe Sullivan: I don’t believe the pandemic will take “sales culture” and “sales training” out of our vocabulary, but I’d like to start replacing the word “sales” with “help.” Banking hires people to connect with other people and should train them in the softer skills of building trust and showing empathy. Actually, that’s what makes sales happen, when someone trusts you.

We’ve got to take the whole idea of listening to the customer and the role of empathy and put it on steroids. The industry has given lip service to the idea of being customer centric and all that stuff, but bankers and credit union executives have to start asking, “Do we really know these people and what their needs are?”

I believe you can train for empathy. Employees have inherent characteristics and training can awaken those and related skills. We don’t want to throw out the traditional sales force — we can’t. But adding just one course on empathy to the “sales” training will help. Actually, a good part of empathy is active listening. The greatest gift you can give anyone is to make it clear they have been listened to and understood.

Will branding matter anymore in financial services?

Joe Sullivan: Yes, but it’s going to look different. Logos and color treatments are just a little piece of branding. True branding, at the end of the day, is what difference your organization is trying to make in the world. And that will change for some organizations. Brands have to recognize the pain points and opportunities to help in each market. While this pandemic is becoming universal, how it hits various demographic groups and areas will vary.

“True branding, at the end of the day, is what difference your organization is trying to make in the world. ”
— Joe Sullivan, Market Insights

One key point on branding: Banks and credit unions have to stop institution-centric communication that bears no connection to what’s going on in people’s lives. I look at a lot of banking websites and see so much of this.

And on Twitter, people don’t need to hear about your bank or credit union. They need to hear about how you can help.

Are some marketers going to trot out the same old thing with fresh paint?

Joe Sullivan: There’s going to be some “lipstick on a pig stuff.” But I think that there will be less tolerance for such “empty calories.” Millennials already had a preference for dealing with brands that stood for something. Brands don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

This is the time to establish the foundation of being there to help, a foundation of trust. People will still need specific products from mortgages to small business loans.

I don’t think altruism and being there to help will be a short-term thing. We’re looking at a lifestyle, not a diet.

Which generation right now needs the most TLC from financial institutions?

Joe Sullivan: Each generation has different, but serious financial issues going on right now. Take a Boomer who was a few years from retiring whose retirement plan has taken a battering. Or older Millennials who were hit with 9/11, the Great Recession and now COVID-19. Financial institutions will have to figure out an appropriate response to the needs of each group.

What do marketers do with strategic plans put together in 2019 — shred them?

Joe Sullivan: A plan is a direction you want to head in, but it must have the flexibility to bend and sway. There’s still a direction you have to head in, and that’s why I keep telling people to give some thought to what they’re going to do when we’re on the other side of this. Begin thinking now about what to do in what I call the “transformed economy.”

Some things won’t change that much. Many of my own clients are small and midsized community banks with a commercial focus on firms with annual revenues from $2-$10 million and that probably won’t change much. But those banks will have to rethink how they structure some deals and the amount of hand-holding those businesses will need is definitely going to change.

So there are tactical adjustments to be considered. And also recognition of changes that must be addressed in the plan.

For example, when this is over, people may not be coming back to the branch, or at least, to the lobby. Many are growing more comfortable with mobile apps, and that’s just fine. Consumer behavior with digital was on an exponential curve even before coronavirus. It’s only going to gather momentum.

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What else will be on the other side of the COVID crisis?

Joe Sullivan: During times of our greatest trials some of the best ideas were born. The Great Recession helped usher in digitization of banking and got the fintech industry off the ground. Look how that changed the financial world. And some business models that are not relevant anymore will finally be put to rest.

Personally, if a legacy out of this period is that the word “help” becomes institutionalized, that would be a really good thing.

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