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Bank On It: 6 Ways to Stand Out in a Crowded Field 

October 2023

Bank On It: 6 Ways to Stand Out in a Crowded Field 

Brand Strategy for Banks and Financial Institutions  

Randall Kirsch, co-owner and partner at Jackson Spalding, was a recent guest on the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta’s iLink podcast, hosted by FHLBank’s Director of Marketing, Brittany Strickland. They discussed six ways financial institutions can stand out in a crowded field using brand strategy.  

You can listen to the conversation below, then read Randall’s comprehensive guide to building brand awareness. 

Brand Awareness: What It Is & How to Measure It

Before we discuss how to build brand awareness, let’s define it. There are two kinds of awareness: aided and unaided. Unaided awareness means someone can name your brand when prompted with something like, “Name all the banks you can think of.” Aided awareness means they recognize your brand when it’s part of a list of brands in your category. For example, “Which of the financial institutions in this list have you heard of?”  

Unaided awareness is far more valuable because it means your audience can call you to mind without help, making it far more likely that you would be considered when they need the kinds of services you provide. Still, aided awareness is important and beats no awareness. It’s much less likely that you’ll be considered, much less chosen, if they’ve never heard of you.  

How Can Banks & Financial Institutions Build Brand Awareness?  

There are six ways banks and financial institutions can build brand awareness, each of which is discussed in more detail below and includes a challenge for your marketing and communications teams.  

  1. How you look (visual identity)  
  1. How you sound (brand voice and tone)  
  1. What you say (messaging) 
  1. Mental availability (being easily recognized and remembered when it matters)  
  1. Physical availability (being present and accessible in key “moments of truth”)  
  1. Relationships (the people who know your people)  

1. How You Look (visual identity) 

Banks tend to stay within a very narrow set of visual cues to evoke trustworthiness, reliability and safety — the “Greek columns” cliche being the ultimate example. But how can financial institutions break the “lookalike trap” without looking too unserious?  

One critical element of branding and awareness-building is to create a set of “distinctive brand assets” that you stick to repeatedly and relentlessly — essentially creating more mental triggers that help people register and recognize your brand without any mental effort or even consciousness. These include:  

  • Name, logo, unique brand color – Your name and logo are inherently distinctive, but your brand color can be an asset, too. Think of Mailchimp’s mustard yellow or Ally Bank’s purple. IBM earned the nickname “Big Blue” either from the blue tint of its computers or its well-known logo, but it doesn’t matter because both are good examples of making color a brand asset.  
  • Tagline – “Just Do It” is probably the most famous of all, but so many others have stood the test of time. “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” or “Like a Good Neighbor,” for example. Wells Fargo’s “Together We’ll Go Far” plays on its brand name, making it even more ownable.  
  • Mascots/characters – The insurance industry loves them: GEICO’s gecko, Progressive’s Flo, AllState’s “Mayhem,” etc.  
  • Brand font – Yes, even your font. Verizon is a good example of a brand that has made their font a distinctive brand asset.  
  • Consistent imagery – Remember the Apple silhouettes?  

Challenge #1:

Inventory your bank’s “distinctive brand assets.” Do you have all you need or are you missing some? How might you build and use your distinctive brand assets more consistently over longer periods of time? If your marketing team is sick to death of your logo, colors or other brand elements, they’re probably doing it right.  

2. How You Sound (brand voice and tone) 

There is lots of debate on the validity of “brand personality” or “brand voice” as a difference-maker, so a warning: if you are trying to create a brand personality to align with a certain consumer “personality type,” you will probably fail because there is no “type” that prefers certain brands. All brands have customers of many “types.”  

But, if we’re really talking about differentiating your tonality so you sound different even when you’re selling the same things your competitors are selling, it can work.  

Why? Because it’s less about getting certain personality types to choose you, and more about sounding different than everyone else they might choose.  

Think of your tonality as just another “distinctive brand asset” you can create – much like your logo, brand color, and fonts. Just like your actual voice distinguishes you from everyone else, your brand voice can help your brand stand out.  

Bottom line: Avoid sounding like your competitors, and more importantly, always sound like you.  

Challenge #2:

Do you have a consistent brand voice and tone? If so, how does it compare to your top competitors? Is there an opportunity to be more distinctive?  

3. What You Say (messaging) 

Research shows that consumers often end up perceiving little meaningful difference between most brands in the same category, despite a lot of marketing effort being put into brand differentiation strategies.  

With that in mind, here are three top considerations when it comes to messaging:  

  • Focus less on how your offerings are different and more on how they help your customer, not just functionally, i.e., by solving a problem or meeting a need, but emotionally. How do you help them feel better?  
  • Find a simple, repeatable and unique way to deliver your message and stick to it over time. Truist’s “Start with Care” campaign is a recent example of a bank positioning around a simple, emotional core and a message they can own.  
  • Keep it short. Short is good. Long is bad. Say it in as few words as you can. Even cut syllables.  
  • Over time, change the story but not the message. Focus on finding new and entertaining ways to tell your audience the same thing over and over. How many ways has GEICO found to tell us we can save 15% or more on car insurance?  

Challenge #3:

Can you explain how your institution helps your customers (functionally or emotionally) in 10 words or less? Has it been consistent over the years? Does the home page of your website or your latest ad campaign communicate it unmistakably? If not, it’s time to define a positioning and message strategy and stick to it.  

4. “Mental Availability” (being remembered when it really matters)  

Mental availability is a brand’s long-term likelihood of being remembered specifically in “moments of truth,” i.e., specific situations that would trigger someone to need a bank or credit union.  

To make sure your marketing investments build mental availability, leverage your distinctive brand assets — at every single touchpoint — to burn your brand’s identity into your audience’s distracted brains so they can recognize your bank’s marketing unconsciously.  

But consistency isn’t enough. You also need reach. The goal is to place your distinctive brand assets in front of as many potential customers as you can within your marketing budget. And let’s face it: few banks (or brands of any kind) would say they have the budget to reach every potential customer consistently with their advertising, so you must focus your limited marketing budget somehow.  

Ideally, this means focusing on media that will reach a lot of non-customers. People who don’t do business with you at all. This is the fastest path to growth because typically there are far more of them than any other type of potential customer. Naturally, this mass-marketing advice leads to lots of valid debate on ad reach versus frequency, but keep in mind: if someone has never seen your marketing, your marketing has no chance of influencing them.  

It’s worth noting that banks with more locations and ATMs have an advantage when it comes to mental availability because people see them more even when they’re not yet in the market for financial services. Institutions without a large physical footprint must use other media to compensate (TV, radio, outdoor, digital and social ads, etc.) and/or PR, which can be a relatively inexpensive way to keep your brand visible when your advertising budget simply can’t reach the entire market.  

Challenge #4:

Audit your marketing mix. Are you making the most of your distinctive brand assets across every touchpoint? Are you reaching as many non-customers as possible within your marketing communications spend?  

5. “Physical Availability” (being easy to find and do business with) 

 In this context, “physical availability” means being present and available across a variety of buying situations. This matters far more once a customer is ready to engage with a bank, so it’s not as much about driving brand awareness as it is about driving brand access.  

As with mental availability, banks with more locations and ATMs also have an advantage when it comes to actual physical availability, but the importance of choosing a “bank near me” has been declining steadily as consumers of all types shift toward digital banking, even for non-routine banking activity.  

So, you need to think of physical availability as building your institution’s presence (online or offline) when and where the customer would need banking services. (See Challenge #5 below.)  

Assuming you’ve achieved some degree of presence and are easily found, the next step is to make sure your potential customer can clearly understand your various offerings and figure out which one is right for them. Depending on what they need from you, this can be a lot harder than it sounds. And not just online, but in person.  

Challenge #5:

Think about all the “moments” when a consumer or business needs to open an account, take out a loan or develop a new banking relationship. Where are they? Why are they there? Who are they with?

Now ask yourself how you might make your bank easier to find and engage with in those spaces, places, and moments. Take a hard look at your website vs. your competitors’ websites.

Which one is easier for a non-banker to navigate and figure out which product is right for them? How easy does your customer-facing team make it for your customers to get what they need?  

6. Relationships (the people who know your people) 

One final way to build brand awareness through both mental and physical availability, separate from your marketing mix, is through your relationships.  

Sometimes, the biggest difference between your bank and all the others is simply that the customer knows someone who works for your bank. And that can be enough to lead them to your door. But perhaps the most important relationships are with the “gatekeepers” who can automatically put you into the consideration set or even the preferred position for a mortgage loan or car loan, for example.  

Think about how you ended up with your home mortgage lender or your auto lender. Did you shop the market and weigh different options, carefully choosing just the right one? Many of us end up with our lenders almost by default because that’s who our real-estate agent recommended or who the car dealership teed up for us.  

When you think about relationships, go beyond “networking” and think about partnerships with the gatekeepers who can help your brand achieve both mental and physical availability at crucial moments in the decision process.  

Challenge #6:

Go back to Challenge #5 above and think more specifically about the people interacting with your target customers in those spaces, places and moments. How can you be more intentional to build relationships with those gatekeepers so you are easy to recommend in moments of truth?  

A Final Word  

Now that you’ve explored the six ways your bank or financial institution can build brand awareness, I encourage you to share the six (friendly) challenges above with your marketing and communications teams. Even small improvements across all of them could yield real results for your brand.  

Brand Strategy Agency in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles 

Need help building your brand and driving demand? Contact us. Our team at Jackson Spalding would be happy to consult with you.  

Want to go deeper? We recommend reading:  

How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know (Byron Sharp)  

How Brands Grow Part 2 (Jenni Romaniuk & Byron Sharp)  

Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore (Neale Martin)  

Interested in seeing brand strategy in action? Watch our video case study

Author’s Note: Many thanks to Byron Sharp, Jenni Romaniuk and their colleagues at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, the source of several of the concepts shared above, including “distinctive brand assets” and “mental and physical availability.” Their work has been an invaluable contribution to the field.