Too Bad The Lobby Often Not Seen As Part of Your Brand

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"Wanted: Members!" This is how the old-west style sign read as I walked into the branch of a $100-million-plus credit union recently. It was tough to miss as it was displayed right beside the rate board. In fact it was the first thing that caught people's eyes as they walked into the building.

The sign brought to mind a number of questions. The first was what do current members think of this statement? Here are some possibilities: "Is my business not important enough that the institution needs to look for new patrons? Is the organization more interested in looking for new business then taking care of me? Is the credit union struggling that much that they are desperate for new members?"

The second question was what do prospective members think of the sign? The wording suggests what the institution wants, which is obviously new business, but says nothing about what the institution can offer and why someone would want to do business there. Ask not what your credit union can do for you, but what you can do for your credit union. A good start is suggesting they get a new sign!

This sign exemplifies a problem that takes place in all too many companies in several industries. Too often marketing professionals create ads, brochures, direct mail, and or signage based on a cute idea that pops in their heads while taking that first sip of coffee in the morning. While there may be many good concepts that reveal themselves in a flash of perceived brilliance, a better course of action would be to take a second sip of coffee. Then think through the idea and determine if it is conducive with the overall brand essence of the institution.

Literally everything an organization does, internally and externally, either contributes or detracts from the brand image. If the idea coincides with the essence then odds are the marketing professional has stumbled onto a great concept. If the design doesn't fit into the integrated marketing communications and it's used anyway then there is a problem-a big problem that leads to brand deterioration and confusion.

The latter was the case with this credit union. This particular institution is a solid organization with a lot to offer consumers. The majority of their marketing materials reflect that fact. They portray the credit union as a professional and viable financial institution. Given that, the sign in the lobby simply did not fit-not with the theme, not with the communications, and definitely not with the brand.

The real issue lies in the fact that many marketing professionals don't see the lobby or location as a part of the brand. In fact, it is one of the most important extensions of the brand. Take Starbuck's for instance. There are plenty of other coffee houses around the country-some of which have better tasting coffee by the tastes of some. But why is Starbuck's the leading coffee house brand? Because they have branded their locations as well as their coffee. As CEO Howard Schultz states, their retail locations are meant to be "an extension of your front porch." More than any other coffee house, Starbuck's gives consumers a full and consistent coffee house experience. From the soft chairs, to the walls, to the music that all create the proper ambiance verything says Starbuck's coffee.

This concept of "branding the location" is beginning to be applied by many companies at many retail locations, including financial institutions. Many banks and credit unions are redesigning their branches to remove unnecessary clutter and create a comfortable feel that is conducive to their brand. Two perfect examples of branding the institution among Midwest credit unions can be found at Fox Communities Credit Union in Wisconsin and BCU in Illinois.

And for those that say credit unions under $50 million in assets don't have the funds to brand their location, take a drive to Loves Park, Ill. and check out Rockford Bell Credit Union. At first glance inside you'd think you walked into a $222-million financial institution rather than a $22-million credit union.

These organizations understand that members want to feel like they have walked into a welcoming institution with knowledgeable financial advisors, not a saloon featured in an old Clint Eastwood western. From the looks of the first credit union mentioned, the members should walk in with a sign reading, "Wanted: A Comfortable Chair."

Ken Bator is president of Bator Training & Consulting, Naperville, Ill. He can be reached at 630-854-6380, or www.btcinc.net.

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