Marty Dickinson is executive vice president of marketing and communications at Sterling Bank of Spokane, Wa.

How to Brand a Bank Turnaround

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A bank's brand is its identity; it needs time to take root and grow. Once it does, this identity should provide a clear understanding of what that bank represents so employees can articulate and demonstrate its value proposition. Regardless of who comes across it employees, customers, vendors, partners, the media or the public-at-large a brand should be consistent.

While businesses take great pains to craft their identities, it's important to do so with the awareness that brands, much like the organizations they represent, will evolve. Some of the strongest brands are those that incorporate and communicate the changes within their organizations. Sometimes, however, simple adjustments and refinements aren't enough. Sometimes a bank needs to go back to square one and rebrand itself.

Rebranding a bank requires formidable effort, but is likely to reap significant benefits. For institutions that have grown stale or uninspired, rebranding offers an opportunity to transform. For banks that are undergoing internal changes, as Sterling Bank experienced during the financial crisis, rebranding can serve as an external manifestation of that development and create a stronger, more cohesive identity. Or, if mergers and acquisitions are changing the structure of a bank, it can be an exercise that delves into how the resulting institution wants to be perceived in the future.

Whatever the reason for rejuvenating and recreating a brand, it's a process that should begin with a thorough audit of the existing brand identity, taking into consideration the past, present and future. First, take a look back at a brand's beginnings and its progression. Consider the events and decisions that have shaped the brand's direction and how similar events could play out and impact it going forward. Evaluate perceptions of the brand through a variety of audiences, both positive and negative, and think about how it may be possible to honor an organization's history while being mindful of any negativity.

At Sterling Bank, after a massive undertaking to recapitalize the bank and return it to profitability, leadership took a closer look and realized that the bank needed to revitalize the brand to match its evolving structure and culture. Sterling's efforts to dig deep into its identity involved gathering and validating information for more than a year. It was important to get a firm grasp of the organization's legacy, as it served as a foundation for themes and ideas that would live on in a new light.

The people living the brand to its fullest were Sterling's employees, and it was critical to conduct focus groups to understand how they perceived and communicated the brand. The bank found that many employees were invested in the Sterling name, but needed a more detailed definition of its identity and a rallying cry. Focus group participants enabled the development and testing of messaging, ensuring that any new or refined messages were believable and authentic to the organization.

Likewise, focus groups were conducted with the bank's customers to identify which facets of Sterling's value proposition resonated most strongly. Retail and commercial banking customers shared examples of tangible events where accountability and integrity were demonstrated, lending opportunities connected a business to their vision, and Sterling's strong sense of teamwork prevailed. These stories and situations helped refine our brand purpose and led to one of our core messages: Sterling Bank is a bridge to the possible.

The resulting visual transformation of the logo pays homage to the past and reflects the positive associations with the Sterling name.The mark is subtly reminiscent of the letter S as an evolution, rather than a revolution, from the prior branding identity. The overlapping leaves represent the individual companies and different business units that were coming together. And the bright shade of green evokes the bank's growth and renewal, while the grey ties to the color of sterling silver and the past. The rebrand positioned Sterling to be a progressive, forward-looking and confident industry leader, which made it an attractive opportunity for Umpqua Bank and help validate the similarities in the two companies.

For any brand, organizations must commit to careful stewardship. Whether adhering to a brand's existing direction or embarking on a new one, a company must keep in mind how it stands apart from its competitors and how that differentiation can be maintained. A brand should be living and thriving, so be thoughtful and deliberate about tactics to foster the brand and select employees who live and breathe the brand to act as ambassadors for others. The success of a rebranding effort depends on it.

Marty Dickinson is executive vice president of marketing and communications at Sterling Bank of Spokane, Wa.


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Ms. Dickinson has done a wonderful job in both leading and explaining the bank's efforts to rebrand itself. However, she does not explain how the bank justifies paying large bonuses to executives in operations and credit who were making decisions that created the potential failure in the first place and the failure of the organization to live up to its moral obligation of repaying the American taxpayers for their help in the bailout (taxpayers lost $181MM while the new investors became rich in a part of the country where government is seen as the enemy). Rebranding is not just putting the sheep's clothing on the wolf, it is also the changing of corporate cultures to reflect high standards of behavior.
Posted by DHW | Thursday, December 12 2013 at 2:19PM ET
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