There are more than 6,700 banks in the United States competing for market share, and among each one’s greatest challenge is effectively distinguishing itself from competitors that offer pretty much the same products and services.

There are many ways to do this, but whatever the tactical plan, it must start with an effective messaging and branding strategy. Crucially, that strategy should not be focused on selling stuff, but rather on connecting with customers or prospective ones on an emotional level

Emotive messaging and branding, as I call it, is an expression of the bank’s DNA, a sharing of a part of its genetic code. It is a way of portraying what the bank is from the heart and what it stands for beyond making money. It is emotive: it is engaging customers or prospective customers at the emotional or visceral level.

Let’s look at a contemporary example. (The actual context has been slightly modified here in order to preserve confidentiality and anonymity.) In this example, consumer “Helen,” who recently moved into a new community, wants to open a business checking account.

In her market, there are two banks that offer business checking in which she is interested. They both offer “really free business checking” with similar features and provide similar infrastructure and convenience such as online checking, inter-account funding (between a business line of credit and checking account), remote deposit capture, business-to-business payments and real-time electronic account statements. From Helen’s perspective, the two banks essentially offer the same suite of complementary business and personal banking services, but she eventually chooses Bank B over Bank A for her new business checking account. 

The reason: Bank B resonated with Helen for reasons other than product differences, convenience, customer service, technological platforms and dependability. Bank B, as it turns out, had an effective emotive brand and message that Helen valued and found attractive. It had positioned itself essentially as a do-gooder in the community: it supported local charities and social service organizations with bank volunteers, sponsored special fundraising events and generously made donations (of a portion of its commercial banking profits through its charitable foundation). This bank had a continual, consistent messaging campaign to portray itself in this manner, effectively coloring its brand as a bank that cares for and supports its community.

Bank A, while advertising itself as a business-friendly community bank, did not project any notable community engagement; its website even lacked any section devoted to community. Instead, its messaging focused essentially on its business banking products and used testimonials to tout the utility of those products.

Emotive messaging and branding is largely based on the simple truth that if the consumer likes you, she will be willing to do business with you.

Neuroscience also offers an empirical explanation. According to studies by Princeton psychology Prof. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, “rational” thinking is not purely rational; it is integrally linked to our emotions. Helen chose Bank B over Bank A -- whose business banking products essentially were indistinguishable -- because Bank B emotively connected with her.

In today’s competitive banking market, replete with commoditized products, banks need to stand out in some way. While product differentiation remains important, it is not as important in a market of essentially indistinguishable product offerings. An intelligently developed emotive strategy, based on deep knowledge about the target market, is critical for a bank to effectively compete for, win and retain business in today’s environment. 

Edmond M. Ianni, managing director of EMI Strategic Capital, serves as senior financial services strategist for ab+c Creative Intelligence.