“Brand speaks the language of returns every single time. There's really not a way you can look at it where it doesn't provide a return.” -Allison Netzer

Financial institutions struggle with branding. They often focus so narrowly on being a good bank that they forget how to be a good brand.

Sure, they might be good at banking, but they’re bad at bonding with their customers. And at key points in the customer journey, banks are failing to make branding bonds that build customer loyalty.

To provide insight about this issue is Allison Netzer, chief marketing and strategy officer at the revolutionary banking software company Nymbus and coauthor of the book, Think Like a Brand, Not a Bank

Banks are Breaking Marketing Rule #1

When Allison Netzer began writing her book, she realized many banks were breaking the first and most important rule of marketing: Know your customer.

Marketing any brand is more than pushing a product on people. There must be a clear understanding of the customer’s motivations and desires.

It’s such a basic concept, yet many financial brands lose sight of it. They focus on becoming exceptional at banking, a feat they often achieve. Yet they lack customer advocacy because their audience simply isn't connecting with the brand.

Allison and her team at Nymbus are careful to explain this idea to banking executives diplomatically, without insulting them. They also try to provide step-by-step support as they work on fixing the situation.

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“It is not easy to carry this water uphill when you're talking about change management,” Allison says. “We do try to steep it in data.” When banks have more data that supports the importance of branding, they’re more open to the concept.

One of Allison’s tried-and-true strategies is putting a dollar amount on the brand. Bankers think in dollars, so a brand expressed in dollars gets their attention.

It’s also essential to gather and share data on the emotional experience behind banking and the return on investment (ROI) of improving it. 

These metrics help bank execs shift their mindsets. Data can tell powerful stories that give people new perspectives they haven’t considered before. This is the first step to getting better at branding and bonding with your customers.

A Crisis of Confidence in the Banking Industry

Allison sees a concerning trend in the banking industry. “This is going to sound a little strange,” she says, “but I think industry wide, we have a crisis of confidence when it comes to really being our brand and being able to think and do counterintuitively.”

Even big banks with some of the top executives in the industry are having trouble understanding and synthesizing the data they’re seeing from their customers’ behaviors. This leads to binary thinking, which Allison discusses in her book.

Binary thinking tries to sort information into black-and-white terms, even when there are significant gray areas. As humans, we tend to be binary thinkers yet our behaviors tend to fall into the gray areas. It’s a paradox that makes business activities like marketing and branding so challenging.

Allison explains that the solution is found in shifting our mindsets and practicing discipline. When you slip back into binary thinking, it’s time to stop, reflect, and consider whether you’re approaching a problem with the right mindset. 

Discipline comes into play here because it involves forming an internal conviction that you’re going to succeed by habitually doing things that lead to success. Allison calls it, “the mindset of, ‘this is not going to fail.’”

The Importance of Being Counterintuitive

When you’re trying to accomplish a transformation, sometimes it’s important to “do the counterintuitive thing.” Allison explains that this is one of the core principles in her book and it’s sometimes a difficult exercise for seasoned banking professionals.

Here’s how she explains it:

“It can be tempting when you're thinking about a change or a new direction to sort of take a blank sheet approach, right? Throw everything out, hire a huge consulting firm, and just throw 125 years out the window. Let's start fresh,” Allison says. “The counterintuitive thing there is actually no, it's not a huge blank sheet exercise. You don't have to throw everything out. You don't have to spend a tremendous amount of money to make a lot of progress in terms of brand-first thinking.”

Instead, financial brands can take what they already have, reframe it, and interpret it in a new way. They can take years of customer or member data, reexamine it, and try to learn new things from it that they’d never considered before.

Be “open to odd.”

This idea is similar to Seth Godin’s book, “We Are All Weird.” Each of us is unique, so brands should connect with us in unique ways. This is the idea behind micro-branding and the democratization of consumerism.  

“Odd is a feeling,” Allison says. “It’s another way of, sort of, embracing tension and creating contradiction.” When something is odd, it makes you stop and think twice. 

For example, look at CoBank, the banking cooperative that has become one of the nation’s largest lenders in rural areas. One of their core values is making their CEO accessible to everyone at all times. In their banking branches, they have phones that you can pick up and talk to the CEO at a moment’s notice.

That’s odd, right?

But this oddball way of doing business resonates on a deep level with people in rural America.

Sometimes the best path isn’t the comfortable path. It’s okay to be odd, weird, and counterintuitive. Unexpected paths can lead to success.

Beautiful Brands are Born From Tension

Tension is another key concept in Allison’s book. The idea is that tension can be an indicator of something fresh and exciting that’s just about to happen. As proof, look outside the business world and into the world of art and creative expression.

Musicians and artists are excellent at embracing tension rather than shying away from it. Their cello strings are stretched across the bodies of their instruments. Their canvases are stretched over frames. Before they begin to create a new song or painting, they feel full of tension from the desire to express themselves.

This tension sets the stage for inspiration. When the musician or artist leans into this tension, beautiful sounds and pictures begin to emerge. In a similar way, brands can lean into tension and see how it enhances their interactions with people. 

To see the tension in your organization, look at what’s most difficult to accept. Is there something awkward or even horrifying about your customers’ experiences with you? Instead of trying to hide it, ask them about it. Embrace the tension and see what you could do to nudge it in a more positive and productive direction.

If you’re having trouble picturing how this would work at your organization, visit Allison’s website thinklikeabrandbook.com. The site provides a helpful overview of how to get started with the data, strategies, and mindset of connecting with your customers and sparking a banking transformation.

For more information, connect with Allison Netzer on LinkedIn or at Nymbus. Reach out to James Robert Lay and access more resources about digital transformation at digitalgrowth.com.