Against the backdrop of a struggling national economy, numerous government bailouts and high-profile bank takeovers and credit losses, consumers still show remarkable confidence in their local banks.
A recent study, commissioned by my company, that examined U.S. consumers in the South and Midwest showed that most continue to view their banks favorably.
A vast majority of respondents also said they have no intention of switching banks soon. Indeed, despite the spate of distressing news coming from the banking sector in 2009, more than 90% of all consumers in the study looked at their banks "very" or "somewhat" favorably.
Six in 10 consumers say the financial health of their bank has remained the same for the last 12 months; fewer than 10% say it has declined. And 97% of those queried are confident their banks will survive the recession. Fewer than 5% were considering switching banks or actively looking for a new one.
Needless to say, other industries would be envious of such statistics. The study demonstrates that most banks have a customer base with a positive view of them. This is so despite the hits in the media and innumerable barbs from grandstanding politicians the industry has suffered. So surely, it should be elated by this reputational resilience.
However, a closer look at some other recent research suggests a more complex picture. Though confidence in "my bank" remains high, confidence in the banking sector overall is low and has fallen precipitously in the past 12 months. A Gallup survey early this year found that 18% of U.S. adults had "quite a lot" or a "great amount of confidence" in banks. This reading was a 14-percentage-point slide from 2008.
Perhaps this explains why one of the spectacles largely absent from this crisis has been a literal "run on the banks" such as characterized the Great Depression and was a feature more recently of the banking crisis abroad. Though this recession has brought us many enduring images, one that has been largely absent has been that of panic stricken customers lining up outside their local banks in a rush to withdraw their deposits. Maybe that is because consumers have been able to be of two minds about the current state of affairs in the banking sector. This view reconciles the ideas that much of the banking sector is experiencing difficult times but that the part of the banking system that "touches my life" has not been affected.
A similar phenomenon has been documented in politics. In survey after survey, people say that they hold Congress in very low regard, yet they continue to re-elect their incumbent congressmen. For instance, despite a near-record low congressional approval rating of 15% in the days leading up to the 2008 election, voters returned all but a handful of incumbent legislators.
Banks appear to benefit from the same mechanism that limits turnover in Congress. Most consumers believe the system as a whole has problems, and that other banks may be in trouble, but are confident that their bank is an exception.
In other words, they have a longtime relationship with their bank and have heard no reason to believe it is in trouble. Therefore, they give their bank the benefit of the doubt.
Indeed, when survey respondents were asked an open ended follow-up question, "Why are you confident in your bank's ability to survive the current economic situation?", the most common responses were variants of "I have no reason to believe it will fail " or "I see no sign of instability."
A segment on "60 Minutes" this year gave a look at exactly what happens when the FDIC seizes a financial institution. The clear explanation of that process might contribute to why 86% of survey respondents believed that their deposits are safe.
For community or regional banks a localized communications effort can be effective.
The simplest step to take is to make sure employees get the information they need to be strong brand ambassadors. This requires regular, continual communications from management to employees, which enables organic message delivery to the bank's customer base.
Taking a "branding from the inside-out" approach allows branch tellers or other customer points of contact be their customers' "expert" on the bank and shows an understanding that everyone from CEO to teller has a role to play in building trust within the community. Local media relations and a digital strategy and other forms of community outreach can easily dovetail and reinforce this "inside-out" approach.
In short, instead of taking a wait-and-see approach, financial institutions should be in the business of connecting with their customers with responsible and transparent communications targeted at a variety of stakeholders, including employees, depositors and other customers. Each bank's situation is different, and each set of circumstances unique, but the basics remain the same. Real brand trust and goodwill rest on a bedrock of clear and regular communications.