As banks maneuver the digital world, one of the tougher and perhaps more nuanced challenges is breaking from the sales mode of marketing and moving into the realm of brand building.
It is an interesting conundrum — banks have more ways to interact with their customers given the ubiquity of mobile phones and the various channels like YouTube they have at their disposal. But they also have to approach those avenues in a way that feels authentic to their customers, not just another way for them to push products.
"All too often, banks have the mindset that they want to sell every time they touch the customer," said Dan Latimore, senior vice president of Celent's banking practice.
Latimore recently authored a study that found that most institutions need to reshape the ways they interact with consumers — especially on smartphones, which continue to become even more central to consumers' day-to-day lives.
"Mobile interactions are omnipresent in customers' lives, and expectations are being set by social media providers and other mobile leaders," Latimore said in the November report. "Banks largely fail to meet these expectations today."
Some banks are figuring it out.
Recently, Wells Fargo teamed up with Google and others to launch Holiday Magic, a digital experience that uses Google street view to turn any neighborhood into a winter wonderland.
TD Bank created heartfelt videos that went viral on YouTube. Bank of America uses Pinterest to drive traffic to its financial education website. Lead Bank, in Kansas City, Mo., has created a video series that tout local businesses. First Republic Bank repackaged a history of the San Francisco bank printed in a physical book into a mobile app.
Such strategies work because they show up where customers are -- think social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube — but are non-intrusive, Latimore said. The approach can also be applied to bank apps. For instance, neobanks that tout experiences that help users lead healthier financial lives.
In time, Latimore believes digital interactions will yield a much more positive brand impression of an industry that's been struggling with its reputation ever since the credit crisis.
The $141 million-asset Lead Bank is among the group of banks trying to improve how it emotionally connects to its customers and its community digitally, according to Josh Rowland, its vice chairman.
"Community banks are clearly in an existential moment. …We are a tiny, tiny spec on the landscape of American banking. But not in the community," Rowland said.
Earlier this year, Lead Bank created a video series featuring local businesses and nonprofits at a time when it was readying to open a branch in the area. The videos, which Rowland describes as somewhat informal and were meant to show the community the bank is "all in" to support it.
"Some companies are our clients," he said. "Some of them are not."
The initiative is one of the more recent experiments in which banks — regardless of their size — are trying to connect with consumers on a more emotional level rather than trying to juice the bottom line.
"To me, I'm not worried about an ROI issue on this point," Rowland said. Instead, he said he'd rather focus on communicating to the community that the institution is its advocate and supporter.
Some banks have turned to content — tips and news stories, for instance — as their way to build relationships with customers that aren't sales-driven. Wells Fargo's homepage has featured stories for a couple of years and it launched a digital magazine last year. A news feed was an integral part of Chase's homepage redesign that launched over the summer.
For Regions, it took content that was traditionally circulated internally and began pushing it to a broader audience.
Its latest campaign, for instance, is centered on publishing fraud tips during the holidays — content it packaged into a news release but also into raw video and sound bites featuring subject-matter experts from within the bank.
As the company sees it, the idea is to give the public a window into the brand's soul.
"The content is trying to demonstrate our culture," said Tim Deighton, director of corporate advocacy a Regions Bank, who views his division as the company's storyteller.
Part of the challenge for banks in modern branding is the amount of attention they receive compared to other companies. Consumers seek new financial products far less than they need to buy toilet paper or even clothes. Because of that, they may feel pressure to sell during those rare encounters. Latimore says that banks should instead spend more time on building brands, especially on mobile apps, websites, or third-party apps or websites.
Many banks fail to understand the value of brands, says Duena Blomstrom, a digital banking consultant. The exceptions are institutions like mBank, CheBanca! and USAA. Without understanding what a brand is and that it is separate from marketing, banks will fail to deliver a compelling user experience, she said.
"It's sad and ultimately suicidal that we seem to ignore what brand really stands for and expect color coordination and TV ads to substitute it," Blomstrom said. "Banks know the numbers. They see that the Apples, the Starbucks, the Burberrys, the Googles are making all the money and easily dipping in and out of new business models at will on the back of the brand capital they have created, of the strength of the relationship they forged. But they still ignore it."
Good brands work meticulously at crafting their images and experiences to make it enjoyable for their customers.
"Banks barely work hard at giving us acceptably functional mobile apps," she said.