Home / Banking Strategies / ‘Commarketing’: How smart community banks stand out in a crowded field

‘Commarketing’: How smart community banks stand out in a crowded field

It’s lunchtime in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Terry Kalinowski feels the need for a little live music. “Anything to break up the day,” says the 26-year-old paralegal. But unless he walks through the halls of the University of Michigan’s Moore Building to hear music majors rehearsing or takes to the sidewalks of Michigan’s third largest city—hopefully to chance upon a street performer—he might be out of luck.

But no worries, thanks to an unusual source that meets his musical fix: a community bank.

The former self-described “guitar geek” has already marked down six dates on his calendar when he’ll grab a few coworkers, head down to Liberty Plaza and enjoy a little “Sonic Lunch,” the free outdoor summer concerts sponsored by the Bank of Ann Arbor.

“I love the feel of those concerts: It’s summer and people are grooving to the music,” says Kalinowski. “It’s just a great vibe.”

That vibe may or may not resemble what the Bank of Ann Arbor sought ten years ago, when they first decided to sponsor the outdoor concert series in 2007. But now that it’s long standing, the concert connection no doubt holds a key to deeper relationships with Ann Arbor residents.

Sonic Lunch is just one way that small-scale banks across the country strengthen bonds with their neighbors by making themselves active members of their communities.

Naming rights done right

First Federal Lakewood, a collection of banks in Cleveland and northeast Ohio, stakes a claim in its communities in both active and passive ways, including a visible presence at First Federal Lakewood Stadium. The 8,000-seat park is home to Lakewood High School and perennial Ohio football powerhouse St. Edward High School.

First Federal’s branding is seen throughout the stadium: at the main entrance, on the scoreboard and end zones and all over the concession stands. After first signing on in 2012 for $320,000, the bank recently extended its stadium sponsorship for another 10 years, and included an $800,000 donation toward a new wellness center at Lakewood High School. All in all, it’s the kind of sharp naming rights move you might expect from a big-city bank—and applied creatively on a community level, works beautifully to support a local focal point that’s been around for more than 75 years.

“It’s a place for the community to come together to exercise and focus on their health,” says Tom Fraser, First Federal Lakewood president. “Winters can be a little rough in Ohio, so we thought it was important to make sure our community members can exercise indoors [at the wellness center] during the colder months,” Fraser says.

And in an age when banks everywhere are being encouraged to focus on financial wellness to win the loyalty and trust of customers, the community center shows First Federal moving fast to fill that need—faster, indeed—than some banks many times its size.

Says Fraser: “Our employees can run seminars and informational sessions on things like establishing credit, setting a budget and saving for retirement. It will be a great place for us to share our knowledge and to help people in the community.”

With its population of 52,000, Lakewood (which borders Cleveland) is continually changing thanks to a wave of immigrants that not only settle in the city once in the U.S. but also move into the nearby suburbs once they establish a foothold. “It’s a strong, diverse community,” Fraser says. “We take our stake in that community very seriously.”

That stake is anchored by the fact that First Federal Lakewood is a mutual bank. “We’re owned by our depositors and the people that we serve,” Fraser says. “We don’t have shareholders who get dividends so we try to find ways to give five to 10 percent of our earnings back to the community. That’s who we are.”

Although these efforts, which also include investments in the local school district’s infrastructure, aren’t blatant advertising endeavors, Fraser acknowledges they’ve raised First Federal Lakewood’s visibility in the community, which has resulted in an increase in customers.

Growing community roots at a farm

Glenview State Bank, which serves Chicago’s north suburbs, uses its family-owned, independent status to support philanthropic efforts throughout the community, says David Kreiman, the bank’s executive vice president, director of marketing. That avenue of exposure is a no-brainer: “It’s in line with the nature of what we do as a community bank.”

Recently, the bank formalized its relationship with the Glenview Park District in the form of an annual financial commitment. “The park district does a lot of wonderful things for this community,” Kreiman says. “It’s important for us to be a part of that.”

One major benefactor of the bank’s generosity has been a food assistance program that’s part of the Glenview Farmers Market, held each Sunday in April through September. It takes place near the grounds of Historic Wagner Farm, a working farm and museum owned by the park district.

“The bank helps underwrite a program that not only allows us to serve people on the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program but also double up the food we provide to them,” says Todd Price, the farm’s director. “We’re talking about putting fresh fruit and vegetables in the hands of people who may not have easy access to healthy foods. It’s a wonderful program and we couldn’t do it without the bank.”

While the Farmers Market program exemplifies Glenview State Bank’s commitment to helping people, they’re also in the business of entertaining them. Kreiman says this year the bank contributed $70,000 to Glenview’s annual Fourth of July celebration, including a parade and fireworks display. “I was walking down the parade route this year and a lot of people stopped me to say, ‘Thanks for what you do,’” Kreiman says. “People seem to really appreciate it.”

And one effort has a decidedly original financial twist. Glenview State Bank also runs four shredding days each year that give community members a chance to get rid of all those credit card and bank statements they’ve stashed away for months, or in some cases, years.

“As a bank, we want our customers to be aware of fraud and how to prevent it, so a shredding day is a natural for us,” Kreiman says. Apparently, it’s a natural for Glenview residents too. Each event draws about 1,000 cars and 35,000 pounds of paper. That’s a lot of Visa statements.

Kreiman says the bank’s philanthropic contributions, while not part of its direct marketing efforts, still have a palpable impact on broadening and deepening the bank’s customer base.

“It’s not quantifiable but after being here 25 years, I can tell you ‘yes,’ without hesitation,” he says, forgoing the term “customer” for something more personal. “People know we’re part of their community and they enjoy being part of something that’s local.”

It also reframes the time-tested banking concept of value. Says Kreiman of Glenview State’s clientele: “They know we value them and in turn, they value us.”

Want more Banking Strategies? Sign up for our free newsletter!

Marco Buscaglia has been writing since the early 1990s, with a focus on topics that include employment, healthcare and small businesses. The former general manager of the Tribune Content Agency, his stories have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald, along with other media outlets. He lives in Chicago.