Branding is a tremendously difficult task, and a doubly-difficult one for financial services firms still reeling from the Great Recession and the global PR debacle that followed.
Compared to most banks, the US Congress comes out looking like Mother Theresa. So a bit of rehabilitation is in order, starting with, of course, branding. Banks need to embrace safe and comforting concepts like "security," "reliability," and "trust," all while adhering to brand management concepts that transcend specific industries. With that in mind, here are six steps for developing a strong financial brand:
- Know your customer. Intuitive, yes, but always an exercise worth revisiting. If you're a hedge fund catering to multi-million dollar clients, your brand will differ from a local community bank. For the former market, clients need to feel like they're part of an elite cadre of like-minded individuals. The brand should reflect exclusivity, professionalism, and hyper-seriousness. For the latter, a small-town "mom and pop" feel is more applicable; clients should feel part of a warm and cozy community. (Teaser alert: if you want to see how this plays out in the real-world, skip to step six.)
- Articulate how you are different. Anyone can create a marketing effort that reflects a "warm and cozy community" vibe - just throw in a smiling postal employee, a friendly neighborhood market-worker filling a grocery bag, and the obligatory golden retriever puppy. But what makes your financial services firm different than the others? Why yours and not the one two doors down? Is it cheaper rates, better service, examples of tangibly "giving back" to the community?
- Understand how clients view you. We've previously talked about the dreaded branding disconnect, when customers view your firm in a way that differs from what you imagined. Sometimes it can be bad, especially when social media users on sites like Yelp collectively alter how consumers view your brand in the marketplace. Sometimes, however, it's good. Stay attuned to what clients are saying - perhaps they're picking up on areas for opportunity that never occurred to you.
- Actions and data matter. The Great Recession has made it extremely easy to be cynical towards banks. Here's a typical example. You're sitting watching television and an ad for a broker comes on with the words "Trusted advice since 1923." All very well and good, but why didn't their vaunted experts see the greatest financial calamity since the Great Depression coming? Where was their wonderful "advice" prior to that epic collapse? Their words are meaningless. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, actions matter more than ever. So dig up the data: did your typical investment client actually see their portfolio remain stable during the downturn? Better yet, did they see a net return on investments? Talk incessantly about what you got right and then...
- Look at the banks who are doing it right. Every year, the Financial Times looks at the top brands in the world. Not surprisingly, the list has very few financial services firms. But it's useful to study the brands of the firms that did make the list. The top scorer, believe it or not, was a Chinese bank at number #13. The most identifiable firms after that were Wells Fargo and Visa at numbers #14 and #15, respectively. MasterCard (#29) edged out American Express (#30) and was followed by HSBC (#31.)
So let's look at Wells Fargo, the strongest financial services brand in the Western world. What does their brand communicate? A friendly community vibe on a national scale. Personalization and customization for the individual client or small business. And, if you check out their site, a lot of smiling people including - we're not kidding - a promotional campaign where customers who open a checking account get a free pony (full disclosure: not a real pony. Nonetheless, Branding 101 tells us people do love ponies.) Then there's the logo: a simple red square (red signifying strength) with firm Greek-like block letters in gold. It conveys stability, like a monument on the National Mall.
Visa, meanwhile, conveys a sense of spirited fun. Their Website shows NFLer Drew Brees awkward handing off a football to the classic "fan-boy," straight out of central casting, appealing to a unique demographic. It's logo suggests motion and action: Visa is for people with things to do.
- Create a brand that subtly compels action. It's worth noting that the examples of Wells Fargo and Visa speak directly to points #1 and #2 above, namely the importance of knowing your customers and what service you are providing. Think about it: customers give their money to Wells Fargo. And Wells Fargo, not surprisingly, conveys stability and security, saying "Your money is safe with us." Visa, however, lends money to customers. And their brand of movement and activity speaks to customers who consider themselves as sophisticated, mobile, and worldly. Both brands subtly compel an action. Wells Fargo's says, "Give us your money," while Visa's says, "Here, take our money."
Ultimately, this juxtaposition illustrates the small but profound effects your brand can have on customer perception. In both cases, however, the brands convey trust, which is of paramount importance.