When I was a kid, I knew all of the names of all of the banks in the town—and not because I knew then that I would grow up to write about the banking industry.
No, I knew about banks because my friends and I played Little League. We all wore baseball uniforms sporting the logos of places like First National Bank or Nassau Savings and Loan.
Recently, I was chatting with a banker who retired not long ago after more than 50 years in the business, and I asked him about the public's widespread antipathy toward banks, especially the largest institutions. Bailouts and foreclosure scandals certainly haven't been helpful, but he thinks the rhetoric would be much less adversarial if banks did a better job of connecting themselves to the communities in which they operate.
My sons play Little League baseball now, and curious, I called up our league president.
"How many banks sponsor teams in the league?" I asked him.
"One," he said glumly, "out of 70 teams." Now to be clear, there is no shortage of banks in our town. I can rattle off the names of at least half a dozen national and regional banks that have branches within two miles of the suburban Washington ball fields where my kids play.
The one bank that does sponsor a team is a small, local institution, with an executive who plays poker with someone on the Little League's board of directors. The others, the league president told me, "have just never shown any interest any of the times we've hit them up for a sponsorship."
It may be that in the 30 years since I've matured from Little League player into Little League parent, the big banks have determined that youth baseball just isn't the community-outreach tool that it used to be. Perhaps they've found more marketing value in ice skating (Citigroup since 2005 has sponsored Citi Pond, a skating rink in midtown Manhattan's Bryant Park) or long-distance running (see Bank of America's sponsorship of the Chicago Marathon, which began in 2008 following the company's acquisition of the race's longtime sponsor, LaSalle Bank).
Or maybe my unscientific survey suggests that communities are suffering from wide-scale neglect by their banks. The retired executive whose comments got me wondering about the state of Little League sponsorships certainly would argue as much.
Steve Reider, CEO of the consulting firm Bancography, says it's true that some banks have been keeping a lower profile since the financial crisis began, worried that the public might take a dim view of banks that are giving away money so soon after taking bailout funds financed by taxpayers. But a significant scaling back of community involvement across the sector?
"It would be hard to get further from the truth," he said.
As Reider notes, giving can be hard to see at the community level when it is directed to foundations and cultural institutions that might serve, or appeal to, only narrow slices of a community. And decisions about where and how to direct corporate giving has been complicated by the fact that communities are not defined by simple geography the way they once were.
Increasingly, the sense of identity that people forge by belonging to groups is being established in online communities, where members may not be from the same country, much less the same town.
As the definition of community expands, "the entire marketing dynamic changes," says Jeff Stephens, CEO of Creative Brand Communications in Portland, Ore. "As the Internet has more of an impact on the way we do business, banks can reach a lot farther than just a few miles."
When potential presents itself in the distance, it's always exciting to see which companies recognize it, and which are able to seize it. But sitting in the stands at the Little League field, recalling the vivid memories of my own childhood, it's hard not to wonder whether the best opportunity to make lasting connections lies somewhere closer to home.