Midway through this year's NBA finals, the favored Utah Jazz found themselves in a desperate and unexpected situation. Down three games to one in the best-of-seven series, the Jazz had looked anemic and ineffective against the swarming defense of the Chicago Bulls.
Jazz star Karl Malone, usually a dominating force and leading scorer on the court, was playing terribly. He was roundly criticized. Jazz fans were beside themselves. Where, they wondered, was Karl Malone?
In the fifth and sixth games, Malone resurfaced. He finally began to show some of his trademark dominance and averaged 35 points. But it was too late. Chicago won by four games to two, beating the Jazz twice on their home floor.
Those of us watching banks compete in the rapidly changing world of financial services are as nervous as Utah Jazz fans were.
The financial services industry is in the midst of a momentous transformation fueled by consolidation, globalization, and the emergence of new distribution channels and payment systems. Nonbanks with strong national and global brands have made serious inroads into banking territory, offering consumers the option of consolidating more of their financial services under one roof.
Yet where, at this decisive moment, are the bank brands? How can competitors simply waltz onto banks' home court and make big marketing plays without encountering more resistance? It's true that banks have been hamstrung by an intense regulatory environment, but recent legislation has improved their ability to compete with nonbanks.
However, if banks are to prevail in the marketplace they once dominated, they must do more than simply match the products or geographical reach of competitors. The winners in the new financial services industry will achieve supremacy on the basis of customer loyalty, not just product offerings. In short, banks must build stronger brands.
But banks have historically been terrible at branding - and even now they look flat-footed.
One problem is that few banks truly understand what branding is. Many think that branding is nothing more than a name or a logo or advertising, that branding can't be quantified, and that it's not worth the cost.
When most banks discuss brands, they tend to concentrate only on products like car loans, overdraft protection, convenient ATMs, or one-stop banking. But such products are only one part of the branding equation. Banks that try to differentiate themselves using products alone cannot win because the products are rarely unique.
This problem is compounded by the fact that many banks find it difficult to position themselves meaningfully. Catch phrases such as "the premier provider of financial services" are hardly differentiating or of substance.
Yet we should not put all the blame on banks. After all, branding banks is decidedly more difficult than branding breakfast cereal.
In the world of consumer package goods, branding principles are relatively easy to apply. Unlike services, package goods can be seen, touched, smelled, or tasted by consumers. These products have a direct connection with consumers relatively unaffected by the intermediaries through whose hands they pass.
Not so for banks and other service companies, which must rely on any number of intermediaries - including employees, alliance partners, and various forms of technology - to communicate with and serve their customers. Unless banks can guarantee that the same customer experience is delivered by each intermediary, the meaning and effectiveness of their brands will break down.
Successful bank branding requires attention to every step in the service delivery process as well as buy-in from every level of the organization, from the CEO down to the people who answer the phones. This is not an easy task for any service company, least of all for banks and their disparate "silos of responsibility."
What will make customers loyal to a brand even after the competition duplicates its products or offers even greater convenience?
To answer this question, we must first understand what a brand is. It is a name that conveys a set of expectations and associations in the minds of consumers. Volvo means safety. Visa means acceptance. Coke means refreshment.
Brands have meaning for consumers in terms of the functions they provide (like convenient ATMs) as well as their human or personal associations (such as friendliness, reliability, or strength). Consultants call these characteristics a brand's "functional" and "emotional" equities.
Among retail banks, consumers see little difference between retail bank brands in terms of function because almost everyone offers the same services. Singular or innovative products remain so for only a short time because product lead times are so brief.
If banks are to stand out from the crowd, they must build their brands' emotional equities and develop personal bonds with their customers. These emotional connections are the only ones that last.
Yet one-stop banking is not an emotional benefit. Neither is convenience or any of the other marketing concepts that most banks currently use to position themselves. These features may be important to customers, but they are not enough to fuel a brand by themselves because they are neither emotional nor unique.
Emotional brand experiences are derived more from how something is delivered than from what is delivered.
Several pioneers in the branding of services - such as Southwest Airlines, Federal Express, Charles Schwab, and Nordstrom-illustrate this point. Each of these brands stands for a singular customer experience based on how their products are delivered.
And not coincidentally each brand is known for excellent service characterized by frequent personal interaction.
But frequent personal interaction is not what goes on at most banks. The primary interplay occurs when customers sign up for a service. After that, personal interaction usually happens only when something goes wrong, which with luck is seldom.
Human interactions between banks and customers will only become less frequent as Internet banking and other technologies gain ground.
Yet banks must do a better job of branding themselves before new competitors have a chance to establish customer relationships.
To build stronger brands, banks must first concentrate on better brand positioning. Advertising or a name or logo is just tactics; branding is the strategy behind them. And brand positioning is the foundation of that strategy. Brand positioning defines the customer experience. It must be unique and based on the delivery of important, emotional benefits.
Developing a brand positioning isn't easy. It takes a great deal of time and must involve managers from every silo of responsibility. One positive byproduct of such a collaborative process is that it creates disciples, without whom it is impossible to generate the necessary internal commitment and momentum. Similarly, senior management must be involved in the process in a meaningful way. And ultimately the CEO must become the brand's strongest advocate.
Once a brand positioning has been developed, it must be conveyed consistently throughout the organization. New product offerings, channel strategies, customer services, technologies, and advertising must all communicate the brand positioning. The objective is to maintain one look, one message.
Branding is not about spending more money on marketing. It's about spending more intelligently by focusing on a single, powerful message. Brands are valuable corporate assets that pay off in measurable ways.
The championship game for consumer financial services relationships is under way. It involves aggressive and wide-ranging competition among banks and nonbanks-many of which already have strong, global brands.
The time is here for bank brands to prove themselves, or someone else may take home the trophy.