“We all are emotional beings and we all have brands that we love. That builds long-term revenue when somebody is emotionally connected.” -Martha Bartlett Piland

While the rest of the world settles into a post-COVID economic slump, the financial world feels busier than ever. Financial brands are eager to get right “back on the hamster wheel,” as Martha Bartlett Piland puts it.

“The hamster wheel is this urgency that, if I’m busy, maybe I’m creating something,” she says. But no matter how fast you spin the wheel, speed doesn’t equal innovation. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Hamster-wheel thinking tends to stifle innovation.

As the president of BANKTASTIC and author of the book Beyond Sticky, Martha is a thought leader on financial innovation and digital transformation. She shared her insights with James Robert Lay on the Banking on Digital Growth podcast.

Are You Caught Up in the Hustle?

James Robert opens the discussion by pointing out that many financial executives are currently reporting feelings of being overwhelmed and overworked. “It's almost like we've rubber-banded back to where we were before,” he says.

Did we learn nothing from the COVID-19 slowdown?

Martha sees how strongly this trend is impacting financial brands, even those that consider themselves fairly innovative. Maintaining the daily hustle means everyone always feels busy when they’re not accomplishing much overall. 

Related Content: How Financial Brands Can Gain Clarity and Move Beyond the Circle of Chaos

“I think sometimes being busy is a badge of honor,” she says. “And I think that if we want to be innovative, if we want to grow personally and professionally, we have to carve out that quiet time or those other things that we break from that hustle and bustle.”

It drives Martha crazy to ask someone how they’re doing and hear them reply, “Oh, I’m so busy.”

There’s a type of dissociation and distancing to this response that makes it hard to open a conversation about innovation.

She’d rather hear someone say, “I’m playing viola again,” or “I’m going to have an art show,” or even, “I’m excited that my bank is helping first-time home buyers.”

As a yoga practitioner, Martha is in favor of making personal choices that “intentionally feed our own brains and spirits.” This is part of the motivation behind writing her book, Beyond Sticky, which is about going beyond the basics of financial management to bring authentic value to organizations. 

James Robert, who read and heartily enjoyed Martha’s book, shares that he resonated with the book’s subtitle, “Get Off The Commodity Hamster Wheel and Create a Bank Brand People Love.” 

Martha says it references the fact that financial brands have been too quick to commoditize themselves. They offer low rates, fast service, and other widely commoditized features that aren’t true differentiators in the marketplace. 

Related Content: How to Position Your Financial Brand Beyond Commoditization

Saying you have great service is one of the blandest, most meaningless things your brand can do. “That's like saying you have clean restrooms,” Martha says.

“We expect you to have fast local loan decisions. We expect you to give us great service. So what else is different about you? What is special? Why should I trust you with my finances? There's got to be more.”

Martha suggests building value around unique attributes and customer-focused solutions. To be successful in today’s financial world, brands must be intentional about answering the question, “How do we generate love and loyalty?”

Overcoming Roadblocks to Innovation 

Certain mindsets and behaviors tend to keep financial executives stuck on the hamster wheel, running an endless loop of doing the same things over and over.

Here are the common issues Martha sees.

  1. Not having a cohesive team within the institution. Financial brands often leave all the innovating to the marketing department and fail to involve IT, HR, operations, and other departments. As a result, the marketers come up with flashy taglines, but the tagline doesn’t shine through in other aspects of the organization.
  2. Preaching financial health without living it. If your slogan is about helping people become financially healthy, your organization should be out in the community assisting with this mission and “living the brand.” Your employees should also feel supported in finding their own paths to financial wellness.
  3. A disheartening lack of clarity in purpose that prevents transformation. For example, a bank might declare that they want to focus on serving small businesses, then lose its nerve and keep trying to court big businesses, too. Trying to be all things to all people just doesn’t work.

Remember, Martha is living proof of this fact.

With her BANKTASTIC business, she focuses her advice and insights specifically on the banking world instead of trying to help all kinds of executives across all kinds of industries. By focusing on banking, she can serve her audience most effectively.

Who’s Getting It Right?

James Robert and Martha acknowledge that some financial brands are getting it right, in terms of having the right mindset and working with clarity of purpose.

Here are some of the bright spots among financial brands.

  • Her Bank. A sub-brand of Legends Bank, this brand focuses exclusively on women entrepreneurs and small business owners by offering a support network and ecosystem of financial growth.
  • Oxygen. This neo-bank is 100% digital and focuses on people who are solopreneurs and/or are working side hustles they hope to leverage into bigger income streams.
  • BankMD by TransPecos Bank focuses on the niche market of doctors and health centers, tapping into their desire to become more successful in the world of healthcare.

Past Lessons for Future Growth

James Robert and Martha have weathered numerous storms in the financial marketplace over the years. During the 2008 financial crisis, financial brands began focusing on improving their cultures and marketing messages. Over the past decade, there has been a big push toward digital transformation to adapt to the rise of neobanks and fintechs. Then, of course, there was the COVID-19 crisis.

What are the key takeaways from these experiences? 

First, Martha says, start being proactive and creative. Get ahead of an impending recession by thinking creatively. If your training budget is being cut, take groups of employees to free community events. If you can’t afford big retreats, arrange low-cost lunch-and-learns.

Martha is a big fan of ride-alongs, which are casual day trips where you follow a customer or colleague as they experience a normal day. Look for insights that inform your company’s decision-making strategies.

James Robert recommends documenting daily insights. Bring a camera or take photos with your smartphone, capturing the mundane moments where people are connecting with your brand in positive and negative ways. Document these emotional connections and share them with your coworkers to inspire innovative thinking.

Be open to new social media channels for connecting with your audience, like TikTok. Although TikTok sometimes gets a bad rap, it could be the #1 social media channel for a large segment of your prospects. Figure out how to connect with them and speak their language.

Finally, don’t lose focus. Keep your attention on your central purpose, mission, and vision. Before you do anything else with the information you’ve learned here today, go back to your mission statement, dust it off, and reflect on what it means. Start your transformation from there.

For more information and to connect with Martha Bartlett Piland, visit banktastic.com. To learn more about financial transformation, reach out to James Robert Lay at the Digital Growth Institute.