Brand, spanking new

Before the financial crisis of 2008, many banks took a hit to their brand, as customers saw financial institutions as the cause of the mortgage collapse and the ensuing financial crisis.

Fast forward to a pandemic limiting access to in-person bank services and affecting financial lives, and banks are again facing a challenge to their brands.

The difference now, experts say, is that banks have an opportunity to actually improve how they are viewed in the eyes of consumers and businesses through their management of relief programs, their flexibility in waiving fees and their willingness to show a more “human” side as customers struggle with job loss, illness, isolation and stress.

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“With the [2008] financial crisis, there wasn’t a lot of trust for banks,” says William Callender, partner and Americas service practice leader for management consulting firm Kearney in New York City. “But now, we’re finding a more positive story.”

Banks that have taken the opportunity to market their community involvement, employee care, loan modifications and fee waivers have also boosted their reputation with customers and prospects, Callender points out. “The message that ‘We’re there to support you,’ is important right now,” he says.

Many banks have focused their marketing efforts on winning over digital late adopters and underscoring donations and employee support of various causes.

“During the pandemic, we have leaned into our brand of striving to be authentic, transparent and accessible,” says Jill Castilla, CEO of Citizens Bank of Edmond in Oklahoma. “We want to be the solution for our community at all times, and it’s why we took on the charge to be the economic first responders during this critical moment in history.”

The $320-million-asset bank was one of the financial institutions to partner with billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban to develop a solution to help people access most of their stimulus check while waiting for the federal government to fully transmit these funds.

Dinesh Venugopal, president of Mphasis Direct and Digital, a Bangalore, India-based IT services company that works with banks, believes that, by adapting their branding message to the current situation, banks are better positioning themselves for future development, particularly the growth of digital service.

“Offering a plate full of standard financial products across all segments of customers, such as a one-size-fits-all solution, will dilute their brand image over time,” he says. “Banks need to delineate and build brand equity, innovate and earn the trust of the customers.”

Brand reputation on the rise

After declining in recent years, bank reputations are once again on the rise, as banks have generated goodwill and positive sentiments by helping customers and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a RepTrak survey in 2020.

Banks as a whole scored a 68.6 out of a possible 100—an increase of 5.4 points since 2019. While the industry’s reputation is still in the “average” range when measured against other industries, according to RepTrak, banking regained nearly all of the ground it had lost since 2017.

Callender points out that the genuine approach is one that has boosted banks’ image during this difficult time. “You want to be really transparent, you want to be a champion,” he says, adding that banks can accomplish this by promoting digital alerts to avoid fees or manage accounts.

While national and super-regional banks have the deeper pockets to spend more on advertising and reinforcing their brands, regional and community banks already boast a personal connection to their customers, Callender says. “Both are good stories.”

Venogopal points out that brand building is a long-term effort that compounds through consistency.

“Banks can build equity because their brands are built on the foundation of a trusted, risk-averse notion of an institution that keeps people’s money safe, which is a key success factor for providing high-stakes commodities,” he says. “The pandemic is creating new challenges for banks, as social distancing measures are pushing them to build a contactless and paperless ecosystem.”

Karen Epper Hoffman is a financial writer based in Olympia, Washington.