A fresh look at bank marketing and bank branding
Why is it that bank marketing all sounds exactly the same?
It’s as if they all share a single brand.
From slogans like “Your Trusted Partner” to promises of “Superior Service,” it’s hard to distinguish one bank’s marketing campaign from another.
This phenomenon raises the question: why do bank brands all say the same thing?
We will explore several key factors contributing to the uniformity in bank marketing, including regulatory requirements, risk aversion, consumer expectations, and the desire for broad appeal.
By understanding these influences, we can understand the underlying reasons behind banks’ seemingly homogenous marketing strategies. (Read our recent blog on Big Challenges for Banks here.)
The banking industry operates within a highly regulated environment, subject to strict oversight from government agencies and financial authorities. These regulations impose guidelines and restrictions on how banks communicate with customers.
To comply with these requirements, banks often use standardized language that focuses on legal compliance and avoids making specific claims or promises that could potentially mislead consumers.
Consequently, generic phrases and messaging have become prevalent across the industry, leading to a perceived sameness in bank marketing.
Banks are inherently risk-averse institutions primarily because they manage and safeguard customers’ funds. This risk aversion extends to their marketing strategies as well.
By using familiar, conservative messaging, banks aim to create a sense of stability and reliability. They prefer to avoid innovative or provocative marketing approaches that could potentially alienate or confuse customers.
The focus on safety and stability becomes a common thread in bank marketing, reinforcing the perception of uniformity.
Consumer expectations play a crucial role in shaping bank marketing messages. Many customers perceive banking as a serious and important matter, where trust and reliability are paramount.
As a result, banks tend to mirror these expectations in their marketing efforts to resonate with their target audience.
Banks use similar language and imagery to meet the consumer’s need for reassurance and familiarity.
They rely on tried-and-tested approaches that have built trust and credibility over time.
A Desire for Broad Appeal
Banks cater to customers with diverse backgrounds, interests, and financial needs. Banks often adopt a middle-of-the-road approach in their marketing campaigns to appeal to this broad audience.
By avoiding controversial or polarizing messaging, banks aim to position themselves as inclusive and accessible. This drive for broad appeal leads to the adoption of generic statements and slogans unlikely to alienate any particular group of customers.
Consequently, the resulting marketing messages tend to overlap, reinforcing the perception of similarity among bank brands.
So what? Is any of this news to you?
We attribute uniformity in bank marketing to a combination of factors that influence the messaging strategies employed by financial institutions.
Regulatory requirements compel banks to use standardized language to comply with legal guidelines.
Risk aversion pushes banks towards conservative messaging, emphasizing stability and reliability. Consumer expectations for trust and familiarity shape how banks communicate with their audience.
Lastly, the desire for broad appeal encourages banks to adopt generic marketing messages that avoid controversy and polarizing statements.
While the uniformity in bank marketing makes it challenging for individual brands to differentiate themselves, it is essential to note that banks possess the brand width to think differently.
It all depends on how badly they want to win.
What qualifies us to comment? Who are you anyway?
Is Stealing Share a specialist in bank marketing or bank branding?
That is a great question. And the answer is a resounding NO and a resounding YES. Call us right now. How can that be true? Stealing Share is a new kind of bank branding agency.
Stealing Share went rogue. We are turning our back on old pat answers. We have deep experience in rebranding and relaunching bank and credit union brands; we have successfully done this for 30 years.
But never call us a bank branding or marketing agency
Why? Simple. In that same period, we rebranded many other companies not in the financial industry.
Our brand strategists work in every category—insurance, consumer packaged goods, beer, quick service restaurants, medical device companies, and logistics.
Our experience includes government, investment services, associations, automotive, transportation, and almost every category you mention. So. We never classify our work based on category experience like another bank branding agency.
We have ONE expertise.
Stealing Share is an expert at changing and influencing human behavior. That is our skill. And we apply that skill set in every project. You need us BECAUSE we are not a bank branding agency.
We are not stuck in a rut and continually spit out the exact dog-eared solutions. We jump into every project with vigor and curiosity.
If you need a specialist in banking brands rather than a fresh perspective, that is good news for your competitors.
So where are we now? A bank market study...
You know the issues facing you. Just call us. We can help.
We don’t pretend to know what your brand needs right now.
But we know how to find the answers. But that is the easy part.
If someone gave you a list of all the hurdles and obstacles to stealing market share in your category, you would have many ideas for fixing them.
The hard part of any rebranding is identifying the problems.
Stealing Share grew tired of platitudes. We cut to the chase. And we have a few tools on our bench that no other bank branding agency has.
We own our own research company
And we use them. So should you. But fielding research that’s the easy part. Creating the study and asking the right questions— well, that is our art.
We have a new take on branding.
We believe it should be persuasive. Your brand should actively engage and attract your target audience. We call it brand persuasion, and you can read about it here.
We also created a tool to predict changes in behaviors. We call it Behavior Modeling, and it is incredible.
You might want to read about it here. These skills are more important than being a specialist in bank marketing or branding.
Look, the financial services market is changing relentlessly and quickly.
Half of the observations we might make are not as accurate as they were 5 minutes ago.
Bank marketing. A world of hurt.
That is the world you face—a world of change.
What’s your greatest challenge and, under our guidance, your greatest opportunity?
Nothing is as it was. Banks and credit unions are traditionally quite conservative in their marketing.
We will give you a revolution and catch your world on fire. That’s what we do. This is who we are.
Our thoughts on banking are well documented. Reporters seek us as experts in your trade publications, news, and editorial.
When you talk to us, don’t ask about the international bank we just rebranded or the fast-growing credit union that asked us to do the first round of TV for them and the brand strategy.
This is unusual for us because we are not an ad agency in the same way we are not a bank branding agency.
We did a bank market study years ago
Since we conducted our original banking category market study, the landscape has consolidated into conglomerates gobbling up other conglomerates.
And COVID-19 has permanently changed what a bank is and how customers use them. Yet, in some ways, it remains the same.
The bank branding/market landscape changed today because acquisitions clarified the scenes. But little else has changed, including the poor advice from every other agency.
What has not changed is the stunning similarity of their messaging. All of them still market the table stakes.
They all sound and behave just like banks. At the top of the list is mobile banking.
But these innocuous benefits include having many ATMs, keeping your money safe, being convenient, and having online and mobile banking, along with low fees and better rates.
How can you keep up?
Bank branding and bank marketing table stakes don’t create preference.
And no specialty bank branding agency seems to understand this.
From the perspective of potential customers, bank advertising remains just noise that does nothing to make a preference.
The same is true for every single bank branding agency.
It’s all just regurgitation. Even by acquiring a unique brand like WaMu (which, in terms of attitude and tone, was on the other end of the spectrum from Chase), Chase remained “Chase What Matters.” It’s an overly clever line.
It feels written on Madison Avenue and by a “bank marketing” agency.
And is, therefore, not believable. In 2018, Chase switched to the theme of “Make More of What’s Yours,” which is at least about the customer, not the bank.
However, it’s simply the reason why you choose a bank, not why you’d choose Chase.
There’s no emotional element in it. Typical incomplete bank branding agency thought process. It’s like a fast-food restaurant saying, “We Have Food.”
That’s just a table stake. And table stakes are what you need to just play in the game and still take prominence among most all bank branding.
It was the same story with the Wells Fargo-Wachovia merger.
Banks peddle the same stories they’ve been speaking for decades.) In all the bank marketing efforts, we could only come up with one bank that tried to take advantage.
But no bank specialist agency saw that terrible time as an opportunity.
Banks play a defensive game
Imitating the market leader only helps the market leader.
It’s a truth in any industry. If you copy the market leader (because you say, “Hey, it works for them!”), you only help the market leader grow share.
Facing similar messaging, target audiences default to the market leader because there is no other choice.
Banks continue to wallow away in what they “believe” differentiates them: Knowing your name, being friendly, and being local.
Two things are wrong with this bank branding approach posited by every bank marketing agency.
First, it assumes that those that bank elsewhere find the employees unfriendly and treat them like a number.
Research tells us that nothing could be further from the truth. All banking is local, and the relationship is ALWAYS with your local branch.
Confusion among bank messages
Secondly, they confuse those values with the triggers that cause a customer to switch.
They are neither rare nor important as switching triggers. Opportunity still exists for a revolutionary bank branding effort.
The most significant players will continue to consider acquisition the only way to grow instead of doing the smarter and less costly chore of creating brand preference.
Stealing Share will continue to update it as changes happen among the brands.
More Trouble Ahead for Banks
Bank branding and marketing are in tough times. It seems all the messaging and positioning came from the same bank branding agency.
Indeed, the mortgage crisis has passed, and maybe the bank failures of the past months are in our rearview mirror, but the greed of shareholders continues to encourage short-term thinking.
Is another fundamental problem looming on the horizon? The answer is a resounding yes.
For one thing, banks face many different challenges than they were years ago.
What about safety? Does Safety have legs?
Safety, once a boring table stake, isn’t so boring. Getting your account hacked is fear. Having my bank fail.
It happens to people every day. Sometimes, it’s the bank doing the hacking. But safety is a slippery slope (read about our recent post on the last crisis).
Everything’s changed. And nothing has. Bank branding still lacks emotional context, with everyone using the same messages.
It’s just that those messages have changed. Reward cards. Mobile banking. Making things easier. All good values for banks to promote, but nothing that provides differentiation.
No bank differentiation anywhere.
We conduct marketing research all over the globe.
We evaluate brand meanings, preference, loyalty, switching triggers, and equity.
These are the starts to brand building – and the answers we hear are the same.
You would think those that claim to be a bank branding agency might do the same. The banking industry is in desperately bad shape. The bank branding out there today is all the same.
No major bank has differentiated itself from the competitive set. As you’ll see, how similar the messaging is between the market’s players is shocking.
Banks are satisfied with spending recklessly on ineffectual advertising.
This does nothing more than build a bit of awareness. It produces no preference.
There is no battling for customer loyalty based on traditional brand practices that create preference; as the chickens come home to roost, we can expect shareholders to hold these banks accountable.
They spent huge sums on advertising and will demand some return on that investment.
Consider the typical bank advertising (are the ad agency and bank branding agency the same entity?) you see daily.
Most advertise to gain access to a new customer’s considered set of banking choices.
They seek to create awareness in prospective borrowers and savers.
Then, instill in them a preference for a bank over the competition so that the bank can attract assets.
Banks are hopeful that a potential customer will leave their current bank, switching or adding, for example, checking accounts.
The thinking is that most banking customers consider their primary bank to be where they currently maintain their checking account.
Once the bank has your primary checking account, it attempts to strengthen that relationship by gaining more “share of wallet.”
They try to establish other types of accounts. Offering CDs, savings, securities, credit cards, and mortgages (gasp) to all personal and business loans.
What is it banks need to consider?
First, the science of stealing market share. This is the only reason to advertise in any mature marketplace (and banking is a very mature market).
This requires that you know and understand the answers to three questions about the target audience you wish to influence.
Do you REALLY know your target audience?
What constitutes the prospects’ belief systems? How can your brand best reflect the values and precepts of that target audience?
What is the highest emotional intensity in the category, often represented by a key-switching trigger?
Who does the customer aspire to be, and what are they most fearful of?
You will notice that the subjects of all questions are customers, not the bank and its services.
This is the foundation of bank branding. Because, in commodity markets, it is impossible to differentiate yourself based on product or service alone.
In other words, you can’t grow a bank’s market share by “out-banking” a competitive bank.
You need to instill the prospects’ self-description into the brand so powerfully that they are choosing an extension of themselves rather than a brick-and-mortar bank.
The key to successful bank branding is alignment with the prospect.
Banks only sell the process
So, what do banks (and obviously the bank branding agency they hired tell you today to influence loyalty and get target audiences to switch brands? Well, as you will see, they promise to listen to you.
They promise rewards, ATMs, competitive rates, friendly employees, convenient hours, and locations.
And now they promise you can do everything from mobile devices and that your money is safe.
These are simply descriptions of what it means to be a bank.
We have research to prove it
Research proves that most people bank online or through mobile. How do you measure one bank’s online/mobile abilities over another?
You don’t know until you sign up. How do you know if one bank is more secure than another?
The only way to choose now is through the brand. Otherwise, the market remains stagnant. For target audiences, a feeling of inertia sets in.
How banking customers choose
Location and convenience were once reasons to choose.
Without any demonstrable differentiation or preference, banks have traditionally invested in bricks-and-mortar.
Their asset deposit growth is only fueled by building more branches.
Therefore, growth is categorized into more locations (organic growth) and acquisition (fiscal growth).
Both, without brand preference supporting them, are disasters waiting to happen. Branches have become the most expensive billboards in your city.
More branches are not the future.
The bank’s most significant investment and main asset is real estate and construction costs.
Research demonstrates that customers, who have developed a minimal brand affinity with any major bank, hope they will never need to visit a branch or ATM.
They want to conduct their financial business with a debit card, direct deposits, mobile banking, and direct bill pay.
A bank’s primary asset quickly becomes its greatest liability.
Bank branches simply become an expensive and cost-wasting expense rather than a place for needed financial transactions.
All the investment in branch amenities, teller pods, and meeting rooms transformed the habitat of dinosaurs.
Have a little imagination (and empathy would help too)
It’d be nice if they could differentiate themselves from each other. Or if any of the other banks would break themselves from the pack.
For years, Bank of America stood as the Bank of Opportunity, which fit nicely with its name.
But today, Bank of America has little to say as “Market Leader” is not much of a
A bad category speaks of opportunity to the savvy
The ability to impress customers with convenient locations and spiffy lobbies is becoming less and less critical, especially as technology improvements allow customers to never go to the bank.
The banking industry needs a new and more vital brand strategy to deliver importance.
Importance connects directly to how much the brand reflects and speaks to the customer. And not how much the brand speaks about the bank.
Who is to blame?
Are banks responsible for the brand mess they are currently in?
They are responsible for thinking that “if you build it, they will come.” And every bank branding agency digs in the same old mud.
That same thinking is leading them to more problems very soon. If they continue to behave and market themselves as commodity banks, the target audience will continue to think that way until a competitor wakes up and wins. When that happens, the other banks will fight for the crumbs. Banks need a new brand promise.
A brand promise that is a reflection of who the target audience aspires to be. And positioned against the competition. The problem now is that the players in the market say the same thing. So they are not positioned against anybody.
Take the test
Is it as bad as we have said? Take the test. Take any bank you can think of and insert its name here-
- (Insert Bank Name Here) has many ATMs.
- (Again) has convenient hours and locations.
- (Once again) has mobile banking.
- (One more time…) has friendly employees, online banking, credit cards, gives you more, really wants my business, and has competitive rates.
These times are an opportunity for any bank that can get out of their own way, but they must be willing to change.
Soon, it won’t matter if banks are not willing. Change is already coming.
Change has come.