As bank marketing officers are quick to say, it isn't easy to make a financial institution stand out in the public's eye.
Money is all the same, people generally pick their bank by location, and then inertia sets in.
It takes a lot of poor service to lose an account. You have to insult people so often that they finally realize it.
This explains why, in some communities, the market shares of competing banks remain fairly static year after year, no matter how hard each may try to change things.
Robert Pierson, president of Collective Federal Savings Bank North in New Jersey, tried to explain that when he visited my financial institutions class.
As a marketing officer with both bank and nonbank companies, he had his share of triumphs - notably bringing in Joe DiMaggio to serve as spokesman for the old Bowery Savings Bank in New York City. Still, he began his lecture by indicating how tough the selling of banks really is.
Bob brought in several small bottles. In one he had coal, in another, oil, in a third, a dollar bill. The point was that each is a generic item - all units are alike.
Then he showed us a banana with its brand label - indicating how some companies have been able to make their products stand out in world of generics.
And he illustrated this ability of some marketers to make their product appear different by relating how Walt Disney had taken the concept of an amusement park - something the trolley companies had built in every major city to get people to ride their lines on weekends - and developed a "Magic Kingdom" using appropriate hype.
This, Bob explained, is the bank marketer's challenge: How do you handle customer disinterest in an environment in which studies show that people want to keep demand deposits in institutions no more than threemiles away from home, will go only five miles for a CD and eight or 10 for a mortgage?
The building itself is a key, Bob said. It should be attractive, and it should be on the side of the road that most people pass on their way home. No one has time to stop on the way to work, and few will bank at an institution if that involves a left turn into traffic.
But as most marketers know, the best new customer is an old customer. Cross-selling to those already on board is usually the best way to get new business.
"The bank market is an umbrella over a variety of niche services," Bob said, and the job is to find specific new services for each specific group.
The most ingenious suggestion Pierson presented concerned the mortgage for a young home buyer that is tied to a deposit kept by his or her parents.
If the parents keep an unmovable, sufficiently large CD, the bank will lend 100% of value so the younger family can get a home even without sufficient resources for a down payment.
But while bankers have been trying to develop their niches, Bob feels that their most under-utilized resources are their employees.
The failure to implement a sales culture is pervasive. The lowest-paid employees, the ones that customers see most, hate to sell or even smile. Bob blames a top management that often follows the philosophy that "floggings will cease when morale improves."
Bob noted that people who say "hello" and "thank you" and who call on occasion to thank you for your business are the best word-of-mouth advertisements a bank can have.
A Two-Edged Sword
What about celebrity endorsements, a la Joe DiMaggio?
Sure, tying in your bank with a famous celebrity solidifies a brand identity and makes the customer feel he is "with the best." But athletes can become losers, and entertaining can lose favor - thus hurting the bank if it is too closely tied to them.
This is a lesson that some schools and museums learned when they had named buildings and halls after financier who later ended up in jail or ignominy because of the insider trading and savings and loan debacles.
When Bob Pierson had finished, those students who had thought they would enter financial marketing and make a quick name for themselves were left with the feeling that marketing successes are far more mundane than one might expect.
For example, newspaper ads of rates and services are like a daily Yellow Pages: First, people have to decide what they want, and then they use the ads to determine where they will get the product or service.
Most marketers know this, but would like to spread the word so that chief executives might understand why their marketing departments rarely have hitting streaks like the one DiMaggio had in 1941.