I recently walked into a giant retail store as its Christmas decorations were going up. The fact that the Halloween decorations were still displayed made me chuckle.

Added to the mix were several barbecue pits that they were trying to clear out. The scene was pretty comical. But it got me reflecting on some of the merchandising conversations I've had with branch bankers through the years.

Operations like big-box retailers can actually get away with quite a bit more "message overload" than we can. Customers walking into these businesses are in a shopping mindset and are more prone to take the time to sort through competing messages.

This is not a dynamic we share. Information overload can be as ineffectual as no marketing at all. Few things glaze a customer's eyes more quickly than clutter.

Now, to be fair, I'd rather run the risk of a bit too much marketing in a branch than the alternative. Barren, unengaging environments don't help us much. With customer visits to our branches becoming an increasingly scarce asset, we do not want to miss opportunities to educate folks about things they may not have been considering as they walked in.

But we need to avoid overkill. Not every piece of marketing material sent out has to be on display at all times. If nothing else, many folks could benefit from a rule that, if something new goes up, something old should come down.

It's pretty amazing how many times you will find a branch with marketing pieces obstructing the view of other marketing pieces. Dry erase boards or menu signs block lines-of-sight to branch displays, and vice versa. Sometimes, you can barely see the employees' faces for all of the "tent signs" atop the counters.

Tables that should be appealing to the eye, with maybe one or two "take one" fliers, instead have nearly every square inch covered with multicolored stacks of paper. The same customer who may be curious to see what is being highlighted in a flier is not nearly as likely to "shop" through stacks to find something that catches his fancy.

One of my favorite analogies to drive home this point is an admittedly odd one: Consider the zebra. If ever there were a poorly camouflaged animal, it would be the zebra. Lions can see their bold black and white stripes from a mile away. At first blush, that would not exactly seem to be a survival "best practice."

However, when the herd is spooked and in danger, it runs in a tight pack. Individuals' markings, vivid as they may be, blend together. The lions experience visual overload and have difficulty zeroing in on any one to take down.

No matter how appealing or eye-catching any individual piece of branch marketing is, we can create our own "zebra effect" when we overload our customers. Our messages blur together.

But even if we are disciplined about not overwhelming branch visitors with too many marketing messages, an even more common type of marketing clutter emerges that lessens the effectiveness of many branches' marketing. The scientific term for this phenomenon is … clutter.

I don't mean to pick on frontline folks. Truth be told, most non-customer-facing employees' desks and offices would not pass retail-floor muster. Things like papers and reports — important or not — tend to accumulate on shelves, desks etc.

My first job in banking was managing an in-store branch. I am entirely sympathetic to the fact that it is not easy to keep small work spaces that are in plain view of customers as clutter-free as we would like. But I also know that, as soon as we become a little lax, the space quickly begins to resemble a cluttered storage closet.

Fairly or not, clutter suggests disorganization and confusion to many people. And this is not exactly a message any bank wants to send.

During a period when more pressure than usual is on us to cross-sell products, the temptation to pile on the marketing is natural.

But in some situations, saying "less is more" has real merit. When we take care to limit how many messages we send to customers in our branches, those we do send have better odds of being received.

How clear and focused are the messages in your branches today?

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