Attention Bank Marketing: It’s Time to Grow Up!

August 25, 2020 Alex Roddy


In the immortal words of Sam Cooke, “A change is gonna come.”

COVID has ushered in not only an era of increased digitization across everything consumers do and how we do it, but also an increased commitment to core values—like equality and community.

DIGITIZATION

We all live on Zoom. No one wants to touch cash. Going out in public is a consequential action that falls somewhere between political statement and personal hazard. With no more conferences and way more screen time, channels are cluttered with marketing messages.

Meanwhile, banking customers are increasingly left to wonder, “Why?”

  • Why is it that I can watch any movie I choose without budging from the couch while I cannot accomplish my basic banking—which, incidentally, still feels generic and impersonal—without darkening the doors of the local branch?
  • Why doesn’t my bank seem to know who I am? When I call with a simple question about my account, the experience is typically painful and protracted.
  • Why do I have four-five-six financial apps on my iPhone? How is it that I need so many different financial providers to do the same exact things everyone else I know does with their money? (And yes, they have just as many apps as I do.)

CORE VALUES (THINK BRAND VALUES)

The next generation has made their preferences and values clear:

  • Climate justice is a movement championed and led by youth. Greta Thunberg, the face of climate activism, is just 17, yet she has been at the movement’s global helm for years.
  • In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Black Lives Matter has rallied young people of every ethnic and demographic background, bringing them out into the streets to advocate for change like it is the 1960s, but this time for real.
  • Community matters. Gen Z may be the world’s loneliest generation, but they have also fully adopted inclusive pronouns. Here is what those pronouns imply: (1) You see me as I want to be seen. (2) I see you as you want to be seen. (3) We accept one another as we are. (4) In this way, we create a feeling of belonging for all.

There is no industry more essential to our communities and to our economy than banking, yet the industry is too often either disconnected from what is happening in society or seemingly unaware of its own potential to make a difference.

Bank C-suites are littered with books about adopting a “growth mindset.” Many meetings start or end with some reference to “the art of the possible.” Yet the industry’s attitudes and behaviors fail to reflect the world unfolding outside the elevator doors that carry our nation’s top bankers to their top floor offices.

 

And this remains true even in the face of abundant data that indicate customers will pay more for brands with a sense of purpose that resonates with their values—today’s values.

TOO LITTLE CHANGE: WHAT’S TO BLAME?

Amidst all this abundance of market signaling, what are banks doing that is different? Not enough.

Products are still commoditized. Personalization is still spotty. Basic customer journeys remain disjointed. And, relevance continues to be aspirational, not actualized.

To some extent, banks’ legacy systems are so constraining that everyone with an imagination has long since fled the industry. For practitioners of marketing or product management, when adjusting the terms of your cash back offer is a task on par with cleaning out the Augean stables (if you don’t know, just google that), you either need to put your imagination on hold or get out.

 

And then there is the mighty weight of compliance. Every good idea—not to mention every bad one—comes with a corn maze of regulatory and compliance strictures. It is as if the industry is purpose-built to slow change, if not halt it entirely.

Beyond systems and compliance there is the issue of culture.

Over years and economic cycles, the industry has learned to value resilience and risk-aversion over agility and market-responsiveness. In many ways, given banks’ vulnerability to a powerful externality: interest rates, a certain degree of steadfastness seems like it is probably both right and inevitable.

And, a note to the visually obvious: Every bank you can name has a diversity and inclusion (D&I) program. Yet, just a handful of bank CEOs are women (some great women, for sure), and not one CEO right now is black. We know that diversity invites broader perspectives and inclusion inspires greater creativity. So, are bank’s under-diversified C-suites a symptom of stasis? Or are they the cause? No one can say for sure.

But maybe, just maybe, the time has come for banks to have it all. Better data, lower latency, smarter decisioning systems—the infrastructure that powers Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning – can be used to deliver both lower risk and greater relevance. As marketers (those who have fled the industry and those who remain), we know that AI holds the ultimate trump card when it comes to finally delivering on marketing’s manna, the long-awaited “segment of one.”

Empowered with AI, banks can finally align the products and experiences they deliver with each of our individual personal financial goals. The industry is poised for a wave of exciting re-invention. With one rub: those legacy systems, if not simplified, will still be ties that bind. Nothing beats them when it comes to fail-safe transaction processing, but their role needs to be limited to just that. Everything else? Think new layers of API-enabled inter-operable services that give banks the flexibility, scalability and speed to respond to their customers, define break-through value propositions, and be their own differentiated brands.

The change that is possible will span banks’ channels, messaging, offers and experiences. This vital industry, so long a laggard when it comes to relevant, customer-facing innovation, will innovate with the joy and enthusiasm of a kindergarten class with its first access to finger paints. Someone, I’m pretty sure, will come up with a solution for the unbanked that leverages the “Buy One Give One” thinking that put Tom’s Shoes on the map. And I for one cannot wait.

So, bank marketers take note: A change is gonna come. Indeed, it is already at hand.

 

About the Author

Alex Roddy

Alexandra Roddy, Zafin’s CMO and EVP of Partnerships, has marketed products ranging from 3-line classified ads to 1-second debit card swipes to 1-million square foot logistics real estate properties. When she isn’t working (which is seldom), Alex is a dog, horse and baby whisperer who prefers the company of children and trees.

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