Home / Banking Strategies / Your purpose starts with the ‘why’: Know your bank’s core beliefs

Your purpose starts with the ‘why’: Know your bank’s core beliefs


Most banks have a sense of purpose beyond turning a profit, yet too few clearly articulate their purpose in their marketing and communications. And so they essentially hide their light under a bushel and miss an opportunity to emotionally connect with stakeholders.

It may be as simple as asking, “Why do we do what we do?” Banks are good at explaining what they do and how they do it. But I believe more should start with the why. By focusing on this, bankers clarify their core beliefs, points of passion and value propositions. And these translate into meaningful benefits for customers, employees and the community at large. At the very least, banks can develop a more compelling story by starting with the why instead of the what.

Consultant and author Simon Sinek underscored the importance of starting with the why in his inspirational 2009 TED Talk that’s been viewed online more than 31 million times. In his presentation, Sinek cited Apple as a company that brilliantly embraces the why.

“I use Apple because they’re easy to understand and everybody gets it,” Sinek said in his TED Talk. “If Apple was like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this: ‘We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?’” … “Meh.”

But that’s not the Apple way, Sinek said. “Here’s how Apple actually communicates: ‘Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed and simple to use. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

He added: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.”

The bank brand that perhaps most closely resembles Apple is Portland, Oregon-based Umpqua Bank. Smart, quirky and cool, Umpqua has more than 300 branches in five Western states. The locations function more like retail stores and reflect a keen sense of design. Like Apple, Umpqua Bank takes a different approach to its product that always starts with the why.

“Starting with the ‘why’ has driven our bank for a long time,” says Eve Callahan, the bank’s executive vice president for corporate communications for the past six years. “Why do we do what we do? It’s because we want to connect with our customers and our communities in ways that go beyond the dollars and cents.”

For example, Umpqua makes its branches available at no cost to local nonprofits and small businesses to hold meetings. Such organizations usually can’t afford expensive space in a central part of a community, Callahan says. Umpqua generates goodwill by providing the space where the organizations can hold team meetings, meet with customers or conduct a board meeting.

And often, the little things speak volumes about Umpqua’s deep engagement with its community. Scrolling through its Facebook page, I found a wonderful story that recently took place outside Umpqua’s Modesto, California, branch.

To be sure, the beginning wasn’t so wonderful. An Umpqua associate saw a college student on his way to class get knocked off his bike by a car at an intersection outside the bank.

The Umpqua associate raced out to help; the young man was OK but his bike was not. The associate said he’d store the ruined bike at the bank until the student returned. The associate then drove him to class.

It was a series of kind gestures. But there was one more.

Touched by the student’s loss, Umpqua employees pitched in and bought a new bike for him. When he returned later in the day to reclaim his wreck, he walked right past the new bike associates had placed in the lobby. When the associates told him the shiny, new cycle in the lobby was his, the young man was stunned. Tears streaked his face as he checked it out.

Such humane gestures are hardly unusual for Umpqua associates. Schooled in the finer points of hospitality by trainers from Ritz Carlton, Umpqua staff members are expected to treat customers and members of the community like guests at a four-star hotel.

Ray Davis, who stepped down at the end of 2016 as Umpqua’s visionary and long-serving CEO, has said banking products and services are commodities. He believed that a unique customer experience can’t be commoditized—and represents an invaluable point of differentiation.

People who admire an organization that gives back to its community and treats customers well may find kindred spirits at Umpqua Bank. As Sinek says, “You will attract those who believe what you believe.”

Count among those believers the prospective hires who buy into your why. Starting with the why in your communications animates your employees and reminds them of the reasons they wanted to work for your bank in the first place.

Now is the time to gather your team and develop your “why” statement. It will illuminate your purpose beyond profit. It will empower you to craft the stories that emotionally connect with your key constituencies.

Remember that very day, consumers who try to make smart choices will look at a particular bank—perhaps your own—and also ask why. Give them compelling reasons to choose you, and to answer with an emphatic “because.”

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Holly Hughes is the chief marketing officer at BAI.