Community banks have often played up the hometown angle in their marketing.
Too often, in fact.
"Over the past 15 years or so, 'bank local' had gotten very trite," says Steven Reider, the president of Bancography, a consulting firm in Birmingham, Ala.
But the message is taking on new resonance since the financial crisis soured many consumers on large banks. Initiatives like Move Your Money are helping attune people to the value of using community banks, adding more muscle to this musty marketing theme. "We're seeing a resurgence in the approach," Reider says. "I do think that 'bank local' is sexy again."
Beach Community Bank is among those looking to capitalize. This spring the $686 million-asset bank in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., launched a marketing effort urging people to "Shop Local. Eat Local. Bank Local." Appropriate to the theme, the tactics it uses are grassroots, mainly T-shirts and yard signs.
Jennifer Tallman, a banking officer who is part of its marketing team, says Beach Community is getting positive feedback and attracting new customers.
Every Friday employees wear the shirts, which Tallman says often spurs conversations. One employee told Tallman that she had the shirt on at an appointment with her chiropractor, who coincidentally happened to be looking for a loan. "She said,"The shirts are working. They're a customer now and they love us."
Even as the sting of the financial crisis starts to fade, Reider says the concept of "recycling local dollars" is going strong. Some communities are going so far as to experiment with using a local currency, which can only be used at participating businesses.
But it was Move Your Money that started Tallman thinking. Blogger Arianna Huffington began the much-talked-about campaign in late December to get consumers to yank their deposits from banks deemed too big to fail.
Tallman considered the basic premise similar to a "shop local" push by one of the chambers of commerce in Beach Community's market. "I wanted to tie the two together without being so 'move your money' blunt," she says. "I think a lot of times people forget that so much money is reinvested in the local community through local banks. Even if they shop local, people don't always think to bank local."
Though the theme seems ubiquitous lately, Reider says Beach Community's wording makes an impression. "It's cute. It's catchy," he says. "There is something about it that touches the heartstring."
Tallman says the message is meant to be just as supportive of area businesses as of the bank itself. Many in the Florida Panhandle-the stressed Beach Community included-have suffered as unemployment spiked and the housing market collapsed. Now even though area beaches are clear, the Gulf oil disaster is scaring away tourists, devastating the local economy again.
Still, Reider stresses that the friendly neighbor approach can only get community banks so far. Convenience remains the top reason cited by consumers for choosing a particular bank, so large competitors have a formidable advantage.
Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, suggests banks tell consumers how the local connection can benefit them. "Right now in marketing we would say 'locally owned' is a potentially differentiating attribute. The challenge is to connect that attribute to a benefit that customers really care about," he says.
Tom Rice, who owns the Magnolia Grill in Fort Walton Beach, says Beach Community does that through its everyday actions. The bank gave him a loan when he moved his restaurant to a rundown 100-year-old cottage originally ordered from a Sears catalog. The nine-year-old bank was so new at the time it was operating out of a double-wide trailer, which he still jokes about. But he's been a happy customer ever since.
He appreciates the message on the signs lining the lawn at a nearby branch, where he goes daily to get change for his business. He appreciates when people from the bank come in for lunch. And he appreciates how the bank supports veterans' causes in the area. "They're a community bank, and they certainly live that," Rice says. "They really do what they put on their little signs."