Always Advance the Brand
Marketing is about something more than the promotion of products and services; marketing should be about a relevant brand idea that transcends a product or service, a location, a season or a trend.
After 30 years of working within the banking industry, I have learned that there are very few departments in a bank that are busier than the marketing department. So many tasks are delegated to marketing, and the department always seems so active. However, the one question that every C-Suite level executive wants the answer to is whether the department is busy doing the things it should be doing and spending the bank’s money wisely. What should marketing be doing and accomplishing with these precious non-interest expenses of the bank?
Recently, I was being interviewed for a marketing journal and I was asked this very question: “What is the most important thing a marketing director can do?” To be honest, I really did not have to think too hard about the answer. Above all else, the marketing department (as a direct mandate from C-Suite leadership) needs to always be advancing the brand of the organization. At the end of the day, it is more important that the marketplace knows you exist, why you exist, what you exist for and what benefit you can bring rather than just knowing you have certain products, (which they probably already knew beforehand). The long-term value of the bank will depend upon the value of the brand.
A few years back, I saw this quote in an ABA publication: “My firm has identified ‘high performance’ banks as those that outperform peers in return to shareholders and market value added over cycles of three, five, and seven years. A common factor among these banks is strong brand management. High performance companies inject the meaning of their brand consistently throughout the entire consumer experience – across products, services and channels … strengthening brand value can increase market share, provide protection against competitors, and raise profitability.” (ABA Retail Marketing, Toni Langlinais, Accenture Ltd). In other words, high-performing banks always advance the brand.
In the banking industry, banks have a tendency to spend a lot of dollars doing marketing things. A lot of this marketing is very tactical and organized around community events (a necessity) and isolated campaigns related to products or services where the emphasis is primarily on the benefit of that particular product or service. When one campaign on e-services is complete, the next one on home equity begins. This pattern continues regularly with an emphasis on promoting products and services to the marketplace. There are two major problems with this as-needed approach. First, just promoting products and services just like every other bank possesses, only perpetuates the idea of your bank being a commodity. Second, there is no brand equity that is being developed, but rather just product promotions. All the results from the campaign have basically been accounted for, and the marketing department begins the process of thinking about the next campaign. Every dollar that was spent has received, in full, the return on marketing for the effort. While there is not a dichotomy between products, services and brand, there is a big difference between product/service promotions and brand promotions that inherently communicate products and services.
For every bank’s marketing department, the goal should not be to only advance a product through a marketing campaign but rather to advance the brand through the marketing campaign of the product. Starbucks sells lots of different coffees, teas and drinks. However, it is not just the cup of coffee that is being promoted (every gas station has coffee), but rather the entire Starbuck’s brand and experience that accompanies the cup of coffee (which takes considerable time and effort to build, and was not the result of a one-time product roll-out). As a result, Starbucks is building brand equity (and not just paying marketing rent) and creating greater value for the organization through every proposition to the marketplace. (McDonald’s always had coffee, but they chose to create an identity and a sub-brand around McCafe in order to promote the McDonald’s brand through coffee and other drinks, not just promote coffee and drinks.) The same brand focus should be emphasized by banks. We need to make it the goal of every marketing effort to make sure the brand is being communicated through whatever product or service is being promoted. We can still develop product promotions, but the difference is that we design every promotion around the idea of advancing your bank’s brand proposition through the product promotion. It’s not just getting a home equity loan but rather getting a home equity from ABC Bank, which is always about providing “real solutions” (for example). It is the “real solutions” branding language and look that carries the brand equity and connects back to the brand no matter what product is being promoted.
So, how do we advance the brand in all marketing efforts. First, a bank must step back and take the time to truly discover the brand of the organization. While leadership can have great insight into their own organization, it is going to be very difficult for leadership to have the objective skills to truly identify the brand. It is a lot like humanity; we all see ourselves in a certain way but, in reality, we are probably just a little bit to the left or right of how we see ourselves (and your spouse is usually more than willing to help you see that discrepancy!) Therefore, we need to listen to the voice of employees, customers and noncustomers (the marketplace) to get a true and honest understanding of the bank’s brand.
Ultimately, brand is what the marketplace feels about your organization (not just what the executive team or board thinks about the organization). Branding is the process by which the bank seeks to influence what the marketplace feels about the bank. Therefore, if you want to have a real, genuine, believable brand, you must first discover the brand by listening to the marketplace. What do they think and feel about you? Out of this brand discovery, there should be the development of a definitive brand promise that provides pre-transactional value to a horizontal and connected society that will make most of their decisions on an emotional level about a product or bank before they even talk to a bank.
Once you have truly discovered your brand, you will then need to define your brand. Each organization has a unique and distinctive brand, just like people are all unique and different. Therefore, you need to define the language of the brand (promise, vision, values, story) so that it is all aligned around a single concept, idea or word or brand essence. (We all know that Disney owns the word “magical.”) Then, dress the brand accordingly with the right creative structure for the brand (designs, style, colors, fonts, language) that is unique for your brand; ruthlessly guard that creative presentation of your brand in everything you do. (We all know an Apple product when we see one and touch one). The more consistent you are with your brand presentation and language, the easier it is for the marketplace to become more familiar with your brand and message. According to cognitive science, we are all inundated with up to 5,000 brand impressions a day. To stay sane, we put up preattentive barriers to block out the overload of information. It takes a minimum of 14 impressions to get over these barriers. Therefore, there must be both frequency, continuity and creativity to aid these impressions. Cognitive science also tells us that the majority of people’s decision making is made intuitively from “process one” of the mind. (See the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” for more insight.) One interesting factor about “process one” of the mind is that it cannot distinguish the difference between what is familiar and what is right if “process two” does not engage. In other words, we have a tendency to think something is right if it is familiar (unless analytical skills of process two are engaged). That is why we so easily say “yes” to familiar brands such as Apple, Coca Cola, Southwest, etc.
After defining your brand, you will then need to determine how best to deliver your brand. First, you will need to deliver the brand internally so that you can ignite and unite the human capital with purpose and passion for the brand message. In defining the brand of Southwest Airlines, everyone knows that the goal is to provide affordable domestic flights to Americans and have fun in the process. Southwest is united around a cause to make flights affordable and easy for Americans. That cause gives them purpose and energy as they advance the brand through the human capital. Purpose and passion lead to greater performance and a greater return on investment into human capital. Then, you will also need to deliver the brand externally. One of the major keys to this effort is clearly defining the target market. Not everyone can be your target market, and you can’t afford to develop a brand and marketing strategy to reach everyone. Therefore, reduce your efforts and increase your relevant marketing budget through a defined target market. Once you know who you want to reach, you then can begin determining what are the best tools to reach them. In our connected society that has conversations through communities and looks for confirmation before conversion, it will be very important to understand the world of online and social interaction so you can be a part of the conversation and a part of the community that is helping make decisions for people in a new generation. Your delivery channels will be important for delivering your message, and the very channels you chose will themselves communicate something about your brand.
Finally, it will be important for your bank to continue to develop the brand. In other words, every bank needs to have a strategy (with metrics) for brand sustainability. Marketing cannot be just an effort here or there, or a campaign promotion or an employee event. Your brand is the entire culture, and everything matters—from the buildings, to the training, to the products, to the IT, to the parking lots, to the signs. Your goal is to truly discover and understand your brand and then translate that into every aspect of the organization. Look for ways to continue to solidify that brand message to every single employee so they believe. Patrick Hanlon, in his book “Primalbranding,” says that branding is nothing more than a belief system. If you believe you belong, and if you belong, you become an ambassador. The more you develop and advance the brand, the more it impacts the overall performance of the brand, which results in greater value for the brand.
What does it take to create marketing that has brand at its center? More than ever, the most important thing a marketing director can do for the bank is to make sure he or she is advancing the bank’s unique brand, internally and externally, through everything within the marketing department. Inside and outside the bank, across location lines and bank departments, build the brand and keep it relevant, using the brand as the guideline for every prdocut or service promotion within the broader brand umbrella. Marketing campaigns that only advance a product and not a brand are not ultimately successful and may no longer be prudent without first considering its brand implications or missed branding opportunities. (Our current obsession with short-term balance sheet growth can make us myopic to long-term impact.) A true brand represents a consistent set of values and attributes that are recognizable to sustain any campaign requested of a marketing department. Successful marketing advances the brand so the brand becomes more familiar to the marketplace and becomes a more natural choice to the customer. You want to increase the equity of the brand over three to seven years, and not just promote products and services. Above all else, you must advance the brand.