After more than three years of turmoil, the financial services industry is starting to regroup and move forward on the public relations front. It's a return to normalcy, accompanied with a natural inclination to return to the familiar and comfortable. But with new regulations and a rapidly changing communications environment, there is a need to consider fresh ideas — from unexpected sources.
Consider the organic farming industry, which has averaged 13.6 percent annual sales growth during the past five years. In his best-selling book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes an organic farm that thrives by leveraging the complex interdependencies in nature and tapping into consumers’ values and passions. Banks can improve their public relations strategy by applying the following lessons from organic farmers.
Take a comprehensive view of strategy: Financial services firms in today's swirling digital news cycle face some of the same challenges as organic farmers. Pollan describes an organic farm that thrives in the midst of complexity by leveraging the efficiencies found in nature. A high performing organic farm creates a virtuous cycle in which free-roaming chickens fertilize fields, which helps produce healthy pastures for cows, which reduces the need for antibiotics, etc.
This approach is a stark contrast to the old-fashioned system of linear efficiency made famous by Henry Ford's assembly line. Clearly, a public relations strategy needs to focus on moving from Point A to Point B, with defined metrics. But for bankers today the path to success looks less like Ford's production line and more like the "synergistic ballet" described by Pollan, with complexity, interdependence, and symbiotic relationships.
One aspect of the synergistic ballet described by Pollan is "holons" — an entity that is simultaneously a self-contained whole as well as a dependent part. Examples of a holon are a body organ such as a heart or liver. The concept can be applied to a bank’s employees, shareholders or customers, all of whom function on multiple levels as self-contained wholes and dependent parts. Misjudging the complex interdependencies among these groups can have a ripple effect on a bank's reputation, stock price or revenue.
Remember that consumers look at the big picture: Organic farmers understand that many consumers will pay more for organic products because they are concerned about broader issues such as family health and the environment. The purchase is a reflection of their values. A recent study by my firm reveals that the reputation of the company behind the product brand is critical to consumer purchasing decisions. In fact, 70 percent of consumers surveyed in four developed and emerging markets (U.S., U.K., China and Brazil) actually avoid buying products if they do not like the parent company.
Banks are no exception. A recent BAI study reported that 84 percent of U.S. customers believe a strong reputation is a "must-have" or would make their banking experience ideal. The challenge for banks is indicated by a Gallup poll last November, which found that only 15 percent of Americans had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the banking system. Now, more than ever, banks need to invest more in strengthening and protecting their corporate reputation—it drives purchasing decisions and has a direct impact on the bottom line.