When Fifth Third Bancorp launched a new marketing campaign last year, designed to poke fun of the fraction (5/3) in its name, executives decided to connect with customers in a new way.
The company had traditional advertisements in place, including a television commercial that featured a catchy tag line (“Banking a Fifth Third Better”), and even a simple math equation (“We put 166.7% into everything we do”).
But Fifth Third’s marketing team wanted something more than jingles and funny punchlines. It wanted to connect with people on an emotional level — to associate the company’s brand with feelings of joy.
So, naturally, they went to the labor and delivery wing.
For the second consecutive year, Fifth Third on Thursday plans to offer $1,053 to babies born in local hospitals. Parents of newborns at 20 hospitals in Chicago will receive the funds in the form of a gift card that must be used for a 529 college-savings plan.
“We look for innovative ways to connect with customers on an emotional level,” Chief Marketing Officer Matt Jauchius said. “This is a way to do that.”
The company last year focused on hospitals in its hometown of Cincinnati, distributing the funds to just over 100 parents.
Jauchius said the so-called Fifth Third Babies project was designed to establish an “authentic” connection with customers — and, of course, to give back to the community. Since the early 1990s, Fifth Third has has celebrated May 3 (again, 5-3) as a day to organize local service projects and honor its employees.
But experts also describe the project as one of the innovative ways banks are addressing much broader branding questions facing the industry. That is, how can a big bank establish a sense of trust with customers, at a time when trust in institutions — particularly banks — is fading? And, in the age of social media, what’s the most appropriate way to soften and humanize a bank’s image?
“Brands have a relationship with people the way people have a relationship with people,” said Gina Bleedorn, chief experience officer at the Adrenaline Agency, a marketing firm that works in financial services. “It’s about give and take, the same way it is in a human relationship or marriage.”
Discussing the project, Jauchius said that college savings and student debt are priorities at Fifth Third. He pointed to the recent launch of Momentum, an app for millennials that rounds up debit card purchases and applies them to a customer’s student loan balance.
The thousand-dollar baby gifts are distributed to parents in the form of Leaf gift cards, which can only be used to fund college-savings accounts. The gifts — which don't have to be used at Fifth Third — are distributed by nurses when they deem most appropriate, meaning that bankers are never on site at the hospital.
But beyond its emphasis on savings, Fifth Third is simply having some fun with the project. Parents this year will receive a gift box that includes a bank-branded onesie, a Dr. Seuss book and an abacus. The company is also tossing in $50 gift cards for Amazon and Target.
“I will tell you that parents, and especially new parents, have no idea of all the crazy stuff they’re going to have to buy,” said Jauchius, who has three kids.
Fifth Third this year expects to distribute the gifts to about 200 families in Chicago.
It also expects the project to get a significant amount of attention on social media. Last year, Cincinnati Bengals running back Cedric Peerman shared photos on Twitter of his wife and newborn twin daughters, who were born on May 3 and received a $1,053 gift.
Establishing a genuine connection with customers is difficult for big companies — and rare in financial services, according to Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, chief reputation officer at the Reputation Institute.
“You can’t plan for that, but you can work toward trying to inspire and evoke those emotions,” he said.
Pointing to recent surveys, Hahn-Griffiths said consumers want big companies to appear genuine and demonstrate a sense of purpose. He also said that has become even more important over the past year, as research has shown signs that consumers are broadly experiencing a "crisis in trust" in institutions, following the rise of false news during the 2016 election.
The loosening of crisis-era rules has also made consumers more skeptical of big banks, according to Hahn-Griffiths, describing "yet-to-be-fully-healed feelings from the Great Recession."
For Fifth Third's part, the company simply hopes families enjoy the baby gift, and that the project serves to emphasize the importance of college savings, according to Jauchius.
While the company originally intended the baby project to be a one-time event, senior executives decided to make it an annual undertaking in light of the positive feedback they received.
This year, Fifth Third is also sending 12-month-sized onesies to the babies who received a gift box last year. The onesie features a rendering of a stork next to the company’s name.
Below the stork is the phrase “Born on 5/3.”