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Branding the Branch, Digitally

Banks nowadays can connect digitally with customers online, on their mobile phone, even on their Twitter or Facebook feed. But, for many banks big and small, that’s still not enough. Their digital messaging needs to extend to the most traditional of delivery channels, the branch.

Realizing that old-school posters and simple paper-based brochures are not necessarily cutting the mustard, more and more banks are turning to the use of digital signage, utilizing display screens sometimes as large as 90 inches across or smaller less obtrusive touch-based screens like iPads, to extol the virtues of their bank’s brand, its products and services or local community events. Typically using a combination of evergreen messaging and more frequently updated information, banks are developing increasingly mature and targeted strategies for reaching out to customers and prospects via their in-branch signage.

“Environmental digital signage is getting really big,” says Sean Keathley, senior vice president with NewGround, a St. Louis, Mo.-based branch design consultancy. “Banks are using the technology to help a big location to anchor a market, or to create a mood or atmosphere.”

Community Outreach

For Huntington Bancshares Inc., in-branch messaging was a crucial part of the Columbus, Ohio-bank’s two-year, $70-million branch overhaul, which was completed at the end of last year, says David Hawkins, senior vice president and director of customer experience. “Digital signage plays a role, a prominent role, in each one of our branches,” he says.

Huntington’s digital screens, typically mounted behind the teller row and ranging in size from a 42-inch screen to a double-42-inch screen, serve a trio of purposes: they communicate branding messages, advertise bank products and promote community events and local businesses, according to Hawkins. Indeed, aside from marketing to consumers, the digital signage serves here as a tool to reach prospective small business clients by offering them marketing support.

“Community and our support of it is a big part of Huntington’s brand,” Hawkins says. “Rather than just talking about it, we can demonstrate our commitment through programs like the ‘e-merch’ promoting of local events and businesses. It’s more genuine and authentic.”

Well Fargo & Co. also underscores community in its in-branch messaging. The San Francisco, Calif. bank has rolled out digital signage to roughly 5,000 of its branches, according to Jason Carey, vice president for in-store advertising and retail digital signage director. “You would think customers do not want to be advertised to, but if it’s relevant and they’re in our stores, they love it,” Carey says.

While much of the messaging is controlled centrally, individual branches can target promotions based on the demands in their market – advertising mobile banking more aggressively in Minnesota, or focusing on car loans in southern California, for example. Most of Wells Fargo’s digital message boards are currently linked by a satellite system, by which basic content is refreshed every three to four months. Seventy of the bank’s branches are already on a more modern IP-linked system, which Carey says will allow his team to more easily and frequently update the content on the boards. He adds that newer technology approaches like gamification, touch-based content, and near field communications are “on the radar” and could eventually be added to the digital signage program.

One factor helping financial institutions right now is lower expense for digital signage. As retailers such as Burger King and Nike have invested heavily in the technology, the cost has plummeted in just the past few years. Keathley recalls working in 2010 with a community bank in Texas, which spent $20,000 on a plasma screen for its digital signage implementation; three years later, Keathley estimates, the same screen would cost roughly $700. Smaller banks can mount a digital signage plan for as little as $4,000 in capital spending – although they will likely spend at least a few thousand dollars more annually on developing and refreshing their customized content, he adds.

Brand Clarification

The digital signage implementation at Tri Counties Bank of Chico, Calif., emerged out of the bank’s 2009 plan to refresh its branches and compete more effectively with bigger rivals, says Creative Services Manager Christian Burke. Launched in 2010, about one-third of the $2.5 billion-asset bank’s 66 branches boast digital “walls,” composed of four 46-inch flat screens pulled together, which run 13-hour-long loops of customized brand messaging and community information.

The “brand clarification” part of the revamp soon came to involve executives and board members throughout the bank and ultimately laid the groundwork for the “Day in the Life” messaging that was developed to run on the banks’ digital walls, Burke says. In addition to scenery shots taken from landscapes around the bank’s broad geographic footprint, there are photos of company employees and business customers of the bank and videos of employees participating in local events. “The digital walls became the way to reduce all that clutter from the branches and to better show our story,” Burke says.

Burke cannot estimate how much new business the digital messaging may have brought in, but he says feedback has been positive. Indeed, Tri Counties Bank next year will be re-launching its in-branch digital messaging with a greater emphasis on product marketing and more ability for interaction, but the brand messaging will remain a key underpinning.

Even smaller community banks are getting into the game. Kilmarnock, Va.-based Chesapeake Bank, with $663 million in assets, launched a new in-branch messaging program in January, to coincide with the reboot of its new Web site, its mobile banking service and its personal financial management tool, according to Marketing Director Paula Milsted. With iPads set up in all nine of the bank’s free-standing branches, customers can come and peruse product offerings and receive tutorials on personal financial management, she says.

When customers are not interacting on the devices, product advertisements and promotions scroll through on the screens. “We can easily change the content based on different promotions,” says Milsted, who adds that the form factor and touch screen of the customized iPads make them ideal for customers who want to discreetly gather information on financial products. She says the iPads have proven particularly helpful to garner traffic in the bank’s less rural locations.

Even so, like many banks, Chesapeake hasn’t quite given up on its traditional promotional material yet. “We thought about bringing in a few big LCDs to replace our posters,” Milsted says. “But in in the end, we still use posters and we still have brochures. A lot of people just want something that they can take with them.”

Ms. Hoffman is a contributing writer to BAI Banking Strategies based in Schweinfurt, Germany.