I’m always excited every March when nearly 200,000 people crowd into Austin for South by Southwest, composed of annual interactive/digital, film and music conferences. The interactive portion of the conference has blossomed into a massive tech event—now well known as the place where the Next Big Thing (like a Twitter) gets unveiled.
But “South-By” is not just a conference and trade show: Call it the Super Bowl of Experiential Marketing, where big brands and startups compete in innovative ways to garner attention. Sometimes that manifests in small things, such as custom Spotify playlists or one-to-one interactions. And other times, that means over-the-top events with a healthy share of free food and drink. (Yes, there’s a reason why I go!)
The bottom line: Over the years I’ve seen and heard one consistent message, summed up in this poster at SXSW Interactive:
“I’ll be interested if you’ll be interesting.”
This led me to ask this question: As an industry, are we interesting? We have a large, expensive branch distribution network that sees less and less foot traffic each year. What can we do to create interest—along with more involving and compelling interactions for our customers?
Capital One is the most visible financial institution at SXSW. Every year they take over Antone’s, an iconic blues venue, and turn it into the Capital One House. They host speakers and events, some related to the financial services industry—such as “Car Buying is About to Change…Forever”—and some just of general interest to attendees. They use this venue to seek out talent (banking pros, not blues players); generate new ideas; as a mini focus group for products such as new card designs; and to bat around better ways to motivate young consumers.
Capital One is not new to experiential marketing. Their Capital One Cafés are, in their words, “banking reimagined”—inviting places where you can bank (albeit via computer or ATM), get answers to financial questions, hang out and enjoy a snack and a beverage. It resembles a cross between a self-service bank and Starbucks, complete with Wi-Fi for the laptop crowd.
But here’s the point: They’re busy. To the question, “As an industry, are we interesting?” their answer might well be, “As a bank, we’re more than interested: We’re involved in finding answers.”
I’ve been in several Capital One Cafés around the country and always find them full of people hanging out, having business meetings in their conference rooms and interacting with Capital One staff. One of my favorites is in suburban Boston, near where I grew up. This Capital One Café (one of several in the Boston area) sits on the corner of a major intersection, and if you can stand in front of it and look to the left and right, you’ll see three large bank buildings. Two formerly housed community bank headquarters, now re-branded as large national bank branches. They might as well serve as empty mausoleums, though. Meanwhile, the Capital One space brims with vibrancy, and a crowd of people who want to visit and stay.
Those legacy branches have, in the words of one fintech presenter at SXSW, “not changed much since my grandfather’s day.”
I’ll grant that’s an overstatement. But for many banks and many branches, a strong core of truth informs that assessment: Locations that are cosmetically refreshed, but basically the same as ever. These stand merely as places to transact, and the emphasis on efficiency reinforces this—leading many to maximize productivity while failing to improve the experience from the customer’s point of view.
We can’t—and shouldn’t—turn ourselves into coffee shops. But there’s a lot we can do to perk up:
- How about a “pop up bank”? Many banks have portable ATMs but PNC’s “Tiny Bank” is a full-service branch housed in a storage container. It’s dropped off by a flatbed truck and installed for limited time periods in places such as a university campus, a Chicago park or a new mall in Atlanta.
- Frost Bank’s "switch team van" is a more affordable alternative. Housed in an attractive, oversized cargo van, this innovation from the San Antonio-based bank is big enough to host meetings, open accounts and execute non-cash transactions. It can also serve as a temporary branch and go to local businesses where it supports Frost at Work.
- Umpqua Bank has been a leader in experiential marketing. Part bank and part community resource center, the Portland, Oregon-based institution is a leader in “slow banking.” It hosts local sponsored events that bring people into the bank and give them a reason to linger, instead of simply transact quickly and leave. This includes activities such as book signings, club meetings, concerts and other community events. As branch traffic declines and banks reduce staff, there are limited resources to do outside calling. Branch events represent a great way to draw people into the branch, with friends bringing friends—and potentially turn them into customers.
- Citizens Bank of Edmond is a single-branch community bank that has been particularly innovative. I recently ran into a young bank manager at a much larger bank who told me he grew up in “a small Oklahoma town you probably never heard of—Edmond.” When I explained that I knew of an innovative bank there he nearly jumped with enthusiasm. “I love that bank!” When did you ever hear a millennial say that about a 117-year-old community bank (one that predates Oklahoma statehood)? They’ve created a unique experience with their street festival, Heard on Hurd. (Editor’s note: You can listen to the BAI Banking Strategies podcast featuring Jill Castilla, President and CEO of Citizens Bank, to learn more about how they innovate.)
Whether or not we listen to it in the months to come, the consumer’s call remains: I’ll be interested if you’ll be interesting.
The banking industry faces many challenges with new technology, increased competition and evolving consumer and small business expectations. The tendency is to move towards a focus on efficiency improvement (always important) and new technology. (Where’s the evolving baseline for “table stakes”?) But one of our biggest challenges centers on staying relevant: 90 percent of what every physical or online bank does remains at its core the same. While people need banking services, they don’t necessarily need banks.
Find ways to be interesting. Otherwise, why will your customers be interested?
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David Kerstein is president of Austin, Texas-based Peak Performance Consulting Group, which specializes in community and retail banking strategies. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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