Community bankers learn to create a story that defines their corporate brand

Oct 31, 2016

By Judith Sears

bankers together at LEAD FWD

Brainstorming Branding—Community bankers talk about effective branding during a workshop by a marketing agency Adrenaline Inc. at September’s ICBA LEAD FWD Summit.

Two iron facts seem to define and limit community banks’ marketing efforts: a lot of well-financed competition, and a highly regulated, commoditized marketplace.
At ICBA’s recent LEAD FWD Summit in September, one workshop, presented by Adrenaline Inc., a marketing agency in Atlanta, challenged bankers to use better storytelling to break through this dilemma.

If storytelling seems like a weak weapon to wield when facing off with megabanks, consider the case of the ubiquitous Seattle coffee company Starbucks. Hot coffee is easily made at home and is sold by convenience stores, gas stations, diners and nice restaurants. Yet, by creating and delivering a unique atmosphere and customer experience, Starbucks created a distinctive brand that has won throngs of daily customers.

Community bankers can learn from Starbucks, the Adrenaline presenters explained. They can find the most compelling way to tell their customers the experience they will provide. “We want bankers to think differently and understand the importance of brand storytelling,” says Sean Keathley, president of Adrenaline.

The branding pyramid

In the LEAD FWD marketing workshop, Adrenaline executives outlined a hierarchical pyramid of sorts for corporate branding. At the bottom of that pyramid is branding based on product or service features; for example, this would include an advertising message that explains four different kinds of coffee or the different capabilities of a mobile banking service.

At the feature-based level of branding, competition is tough, especially in a market or industry where products and services are essentially very similar or mostly the same and where all companies say the same things about their products, Keathley says. In these markets, price pressure quickly comes to bear. Sound familiar?

The middle of the corporate branding pyramid is branding based on customer benefits. The benefits could be fast service or bankers who know your name, your circumstances or your business. This level of branding is more effective than the features level in that you’re at least recognizing how the customer uses your company’s products and services and what the customer values, Keathley says.

Still, benefits-based branding may not sufficiently differentiate your community bank. Good customer service, for example, is claimed by lots of institutions, and even though everyone wants it, it’s not an exciting concept. “Customer service, as a thought, doesn’t inspire anyone,” says Gina Bleedorn, executive director of Adrenaline.

The top of the corporate branding pyramid—and the key to telling a good brand story that achieves results—is formulating a unique idea that the customer can experience, Bleedorn says. “Instead of branding your bank as having ‘good customer service,’ say, ‘banking that’s got your back’ or ‘passionate banking for you.’ Those are ideas that people can feel something for,” she explains. “That’s what we mean by getting to the top of the food chain. You take service and turn it into something emotive and ‘ownable’ by the customer.”

This fairly simple idea is not necessarily that easy to do, as community bankers attending the LEAD FWD workshop discovered. They were split into random groups of about 10 and charged with developing a brand story for a fictitious community bank. The groups brainstormed to find their single, big idea.

LEAD FWD participants“All community banks believe strongly in what we offer our customers, but having a defined message that resonates with the community and draws new business can be a struggle,” says Shon Davis, chief operating officer at San Luis Valley Federal Bank in Alamosa, Colo., who participated in the workshop.

“That exercise was an eye-opener,” agrees Jacob Beydler, vice president and chief financial officer at Morgan Federal Bank in Fort Morgan, Colo., who also attended the workshop. “It was a group activity, although it was difficult getting focused on how we would differentiate ourselves from other banks, which is what all community banks struggle with every day.”

Finding a focus

The struggle to find a focus is a common challenge in successful corporate branding, according to Bleedorn. Many banks go astray by attempting to include the kitchen sink of all things good into their brand, she adds. “Banks tend to want to say everything and describe all of their products and services, but sometimes determining what not to say is even more important than determining what to say,” she observes.
“The biggest challenge for bankers is distilling their thoughts into a single idea.”

Gradually, workshop groups discovered how to pull together several specific offerings into a single, broad, but powerfully memorable and meaningful concept. “Once we got started talking and collaborating with all the different ideas, it was really fun and came together easily,” recalls Alexis Henderson, an agriculture loan officer with Success Bank in Bloomfield, Iowa.

Several members of Henderson’s group served community banks that have developed various financial literacy education programs, such as teaching high school students good personal money management skills or hosting conferences on financial topics for local businesses. This group identified financial education as a potential element of a strong branding differentiator.

“We wanted to add the mindset of community advocacy and being a value-added experience for our clients.”
—Jeremy Reynolds, CBI Bank & Trust

What the workshop group needed to add in developing a branding message around the concept of financial education was the focus on the customer experience. “We wanted to add the mindset of community advocacy and being a value-added experience for our clients,” recalls Jeremy Reynolds, Washington County market president for CBI Bank & Trust in Washington, Iowa, who participated in the group’s exercise. Eventually, the group decided on “Educating the Community” as its single, big branding message.

After the workshop, the participants agree that identifying one unique idea that encapsulates a positive customer experience for a community bank isn’t easy. But they also say they learned that if community banks can hone their ideas around distilled stories, that will go a long way in helping them stand above the crowd of other financial service providers.

Judith Sears is a writer in Denver.

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