Don’t Have The Budget Of A $110B Bank? Here’s What 1 Learned

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It seems that just about every credit union is in one of three stages: considering, going through, or just finishing a rebranding.

Now imagine the challenge of rebranding a bank that is approximately one-eighth the size of the entire credit union industry and which has a name (that it plans to keep) that suggests someone doesn’t understand the basics of an imbalanced fraction and which its CEO readily admits he doesn’t even like.

Kevin Kabot, CEO of Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bancorp, said the $110-billion company, which has 1,200 branches and 22,000 employees, has learned five lessons as part of its rebranding campaign. Kabot shared those lessons and others in remarks before the recent Best Practices in Retail Financial Services Symposium hosted by SourceMedia, parent to Credit Union Journal, in Ponte Vedra, Fla.

Kabot pointed to research showing that when it comes to brand differentiation within retail categories, banks are dead last, trailing (from least to best), insurance, airlines, bottled water, cameras and coffee. “We have only ourselves to blame,” he observed. “We lead our advertising with rate and we steal from each other.”

Kabot said that these are the five lessons that have been learned by Fifth Third, named after the two cross streets of its hometown HQ, in its rebranding:

1. Internal Communication. “When you begin a major brand initiative, a critical step is to plan internal communication. This can make or break your brand. That’s because in a service company we believe our employees are the brand. We’re in the business of advising and serving consumers, and people are our product. That’s particularly relevant in retail services.

“We experienced many subtle differences in the definition of the word ‘brand’ among employees. We started by asking ‘What is a brand,’ and explaining it’s not a product or a logo or a tagline. A brand is all of these, and much more. We told our people it is the cumulative effect of many touchpoints over a period of time. A brand is a promise or mark of trust, and it’s a perception that exists solely in the minds of consumers.

“The money spent internally is seven to 10 times more effective than the money spent advertising externally.”

2. Know Yourself: “Of all the lessons this is probably the most important. It’s hard to hold a mirror up to the organization. I really believe this is where most companies make a mistake. I also believe this is a step you should not do yourself; you need an unbiased third party to evaluate your company. Even if you have a great sense of your company, the process will bring some surprises.

“Fifth Third had a branding firm interview a statistically significant sample of employees in every line of business, every affiliate market, new and tenured employees and all levels of management. We discovered that for our organization our work would lie in getting people to think from the outside in. We wanted employees to understand the value of retaining customers. Our incentives did not reward for this, so we had to redefine the metrics.”

3. Know Your Competition: “If knowing yourself is the most important lesson, knowing your competition is certainly the most interesting. For us there were a few interesting moments during this step. One time our agency assembled a wall of collateral advertising from ourselves and all of our competitors, with the logos and names hidden. It was humbling to see how many were similar.

“From the customer’s perspective, a bank is a bank is a bank. We have to give that customer a reason to choose a brand for reasons other than products and services. Will consumer behavior change based on brand alone? Our company believes it will.”

4. Know Your Customer: “Successful people measure themselves through achievements. Making the American Express card one of those achievements is, in my opinion, brilliant. Few banks have reached that level of brand loyalty. We heard over and over again that people choose banks based on convenience.

“We have a perception of what convenience means. But when we sat down and dissected that word with consumers, we learned so much more. It was all the things we thought it was, but it also means the complete lack of inconvenience. Not having to call the bank twice. Simple, online banking. Not just physical access but intellectual access.”

5. When the Project Is Over: “A branding project is never over. The massive effort to relaunch a brand will die down, but the true work of relaunching a brand never ends. I’m sharing this because you cannot copy my brand.”

Today, Kabot said Fifth Third’s rebranding has changed everything. Where it used to run advertising selling what it wanted to sell, today it advertises what the customer wants to buy. “Today we strive to be a trusted financial advisor where we can sell five, six or eight services.”

But branding isn’t about services, as wise credit unions know. “We realize the critical role ongoing service plays in the believability of our brand promise,” he explained. “What you deliver will become your brand.”

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann (c) 2008 The Credit Union Journal and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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