While bankers are winning over low- and middle-income groups, they still have to rebuild their image with affluent customers.

For the first time since the financial crisis, more people who earn $30,000 to $75,000 a year view banks favorably than view it unfavorably, based on a survey of more than 1,000 people Gallup conducted in early August. Those who earn even less also have a positive view of banks, continuing a trend that began in 2014.

Banking’s biggest hurdle involves people with higher incomes. People with annual incomes above $75,000 have more negative views than positive ones, the survey found. It is this group that continues to dog the industry, keeping overall positive opinions below 50%.

The results indicate that high earners are still smarting from losses suffered during the last downturn, industry experts said. Their view of the industry likely includes investment banking, brokerages and institutional banking.

“They had portfolios that were wiped out,” said Robert Fronk, a management director for reputation management at Purple Strategies, adding that many of those individuals continue to follow recent issues and scandals in the banking industry. Affluent customers are “less forgiving of all that’s gone on.”

Other factors could be at work.

Many of those clients, who were used to coming into a bank and having requests easily met before the crisis, are now facing more red tape due to increased regulation, said Mott Ford, CEO of the $720 million-asset Commercial Bank and Trust in Paris, Tenn.

Despite being “the most creditworthy,” wealthier individuals are “being caught in the additional regulatory burden as well,” Ford said.

Some industry observers drew a distinction based on bank size, though that wasn’t tracked in the public version of Gallup’s survey.

Bigger banks are the ones “holding the banking industry back,” said Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, chief research officer at the Reputation Institute in Boston.

“It’s really a big bank issue,” Hahn-Griffiths said, estimating that it could take banks up to four more years to fully recover. “I think banking as an industry is back into the realm of respectability.”

The 2017 Survey of Bank Reputations conducted by American Banker and the Reputation Institute found that three of the nation's four biggest banking companies — Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo — placed in the bottom five for overall rankings.

The banking industry overall extended its multiyear reputation recovery among U.S. consumers, achieving a score this year that qualified as "strong" (above 70 on a 100-point scale) for the first time since the survey began in 2011, according to the American Banker/Reputation Institute survey.

Gallup also found some momentum, finding that 43% of respondents viewed the banking industry positively. That is an improvement from a low of 25% five years prior.

Still, there is room for improvement. Positive views peaked at 56% in August 2006, based on Gallup data.

Banks would be well served to view employees as their biggest stakeholder and make trust the focal point of their image, Fronk said. He pointed to the auto industry as an example of a group that did a good job improving its image.

“The banking industry I think needs to try twice as hard,” he said.

Bankers also need to underscore the positive impacts they have on people, said Richard Baier, president and CEO of the Nebraska Bankers Association, adding that his organization makes an effort to go to schools and talk about the industry.

“I think it’s positive that we’re starting to see better results among public perception,” Baier said.

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Allison Prang

Allison Prang

Allison Prang is a reporter for American Banker, where she writes about community banks.