In today's competitive marketplace, branding can be the final factor that affects a consumer's decision of where to bank. Whether you are a de novo just starting out or an established bank with many branches, branding should be an important part of your business strategy.

Exactly what is a brand? Everyone uses the word, but few people can accurately define it. Contrary to popular belief, a brand is not a product name or a company logo; unfortunately, it is more nebulous than that. A brand is the consumer's gut feeling or perception of your company or your company's products and services. And when enough people share the same gut feeling or opinion, it becomes known as your company's brand.

For example, The Ritz-Carlton hotels are well-known for their commitment to the highest level of customer service. They are so committed to this concept that they have empowered each employee - from manager to maid - to spend up to $2,000 per guest if needed to ensure a satisfying guest experience. Consistency of this initiative over time has led to an extremely positive public opinion, to the point where The Ritz-Carlton name is synonymous with "excellent customer service." The same can also be said for Volvos and "safety"; and for Nordstrom's department store and a "no-questions-asked return policy."

Even if a consumer is not yet a customer, they have most likely formed an opinion of your bank, even if their only exposure is driving by a branch or seeing an occasional print ad. Because it's based on a gut feeling, you cannot set your own brand, but there are certainly ways to influence it. Here are three critical factors that can help influence a brand:

Consistency of Experience: Fast food chains have mastered this concept. For example, whether you walk into a McDonald's in San Francisco, New York, London or Beijing, your surroundings immediately feel familiar. The experience is consistent across the globe, from the layout of the store to the placement of messaging. Banks can apply this same concept to their bank branches. Consistency builds familiarity, familiarity leads to comfort, and we all know that people want to do business where they feel comfortable.

Delivering What You Promise: If your bank's marketing strategy is to tout a 48-hour loan approval process, then you must be prepared to do what it takes to stay within this timeframe for loan processing. Nothing can tarnish your brand faster than not following through on your promises to your customers, especially promises that are widely advertised as a reason to bank with you over a competitor. Choose one or two services where you know you can exceed expectations, and stick to them.

Going Above and Beyond Customer Expectation: With so much competition these days, it's not enough to be just "good" at what you do: you need to be GREAT. Regard every customer interaction as a make-or-break experience that will leave a lasting impression.

Finally, when all factors are combined and successfully executed, the end result is TRUST. According to The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier, "The degree of trust influences the buying decision more than the product or service features and benefits themselves."

It's easy for the big guys with the deep pockets to reach consumers with expensive television campaigns and sponsorships of major sporting events. So how can a small community bank create a brand without spending a fortune? Here are three things to strengthen brand:

First, establish three to five key people in your organization to act as internal "brand champions." Give them additional training on your business and marketing strategy, company philosophy and customer service policy, and instill ownership of your brand concept. They will act as your brand "evangelists" and will help rally co-workers across the company.

Second, be consistent in your external messaging. Bank signage, in-branch marketing materials, Web site design, advertising: keep it simple and tie it all together. Consistency in all these areas will help build your image and shape your brand.

Third, create a mission and vision for your bank, and educate your employees on it - and stick with it!

Neumeier also states: "Only one competitor can be the cheapest - the others have to use branding." No matter what size your financial institution is, your ability to influence your brand will help you attract and retain customers and build valuable relationships.

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