Banking executives – like those in other heavily regulated industries – face some obstacles when they try to advertise. While they have some leeway in savings accounts, mortgages and other products, interest rates are largely influenced by the Federal Reserve, while capital requirements and other regulations help to keep most bank rates and terms in a fairly narrow bandwidth. To stand out, some institutions try catchy advertising about their security, customer service and other issues. But if they’re not careful, the campaigns can backfire.
In March 2019, TD Bank — a national institution with U.S. headquarters in Cherry Hill — caught some flak for an ad in a Boston branch that read “When you’re Downtown, but your debit card’s somewhere in Dorchester,” a racially mixed neighborhood.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh called it “insulting,” and TD bank quickly swung into damage control mode, issuing a statement that “The ad, which was removed today, does not reflect our core values around diversity and inclusion,” according to published reports. TD Bank was the hardly the first big company to stumble, and the bad publicity will probably fade away, but in competitive markets, it’s better to avoid situations where an apology is needed.
The big takeaway
The “big takeaway,” said Dawn Lauer from MWWPR — a public relations agency with offices across the U.S. and the U.K. — involves “never deviating from your client’s core message and values. In the TD Bank example, there was a failure to understand the sensitivities behind the semantics. It looks like the bank was trying to convey a sense of convenience, and leverage the alliteration between ‘downtown’ and ‘Dorchester,’ but it blew up instead.”
When MWWPR took a New Jersey-based community bank with about $10 billion in assets through a full rebrand a few years ago, “we gained a thorough understanding of their market,” said Lauer, who serves as the agency’s chief client officer and managing director of its B2B practice. “We worked diligently to match the bank’s message to the bank’s target audience of entrepreneurs, while ensuring the messaging would also resonate with each local community.”
She said MWWPR spends a lot of time with clients “to understand their community and their needs. Instead of developing a campaign by throwing a wide net over the general population, we hyper-target the message around local audiences. What do they read, what are their issues?”
That’s more important than ever, especially in today’s social media-driven environment, she added. “The TD incident blew up on social media,” said Lauer. “The reality is that today, people look for something to pick apart. You have to be sensitive to your entire audience. There may be unintended consequences if you just throw some words around that seem to sound right.”
Start with the basics
“The starting point of any campaign should focus on your company’s mission, its vision and its beliefs and values,” said Mark Fernandez, an executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Valley National Bank. “All those points were front and center when we started our rebranding program in October 2018. For example, although our legal name remains Valley National Bank, our branches were simply branded ‘Valley,’ which has a more local feel; along with a new logo.”
The new design featured a “subtle arrow pointing to the right, signifying forward thinking, with a slight modification to the bank’s traditional blue-and-yellow color scheme,” according to a Valley announcement.
In addition, “[t]he banking industry is changing and so are the ways that people do their banking,” said Valley Bank Chief Executive Officer Ira Robbins said during the rollout. “We’re refreshing our brand as a way to show how we are staying ahead of the curve to give our customers the power to succeed. Our new look reflects a modern, responsive bank, while honoring our 91-year legacy of stability and success.”
Reassuring existing and potential customers should be a key part of any advertising or public relations campaign, Fernandez said. “We wanted to reinforce the concepts of trust, reputation, local engagement and a forward-thinking approach,” he said. “We know who our commercial and consumer customers are, and we kept that in mind throughout the rebranding process,” which stretched into late 2019. “We wanted people to be aware that Valley has the feel of a community bank — with a strong focus on relationships — but we’re also backed by the resources of a big bank,” with more than $30 billion of assets.
He noted that “under Ira’s leadership, we thought through the campaign for about a year,” and leadership spoke with key customers ahead of the rebranding. Fernandez said the ability to gain and retain people’s trust is particularly important during a merger or acquisition, like Valley’s recent deal with Oritani Bank, which expanded the buyer’s presence in the Bergen County market.
“Valley’s leadership met with Oritani employees and walked them through our culture and mission, and we listened to their thoughts,” he said. “The objective was to collaborate and let them know we’re available to answer their questions. On an ongoing basis, we’re releasing a sequence of communications to create transparency and let people know what’s going on.”
Fernandez has been on both sides of the process, since he worked at USAmeriBank when it was merged into Valley back in January 2018. Today, as Valley’s chief marketing officer, he puts his Oritani experience to work, as well as a long background in sports marketing that includes a total of decades with teams like the Phoenix Suns, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Tampa Bay Rays.
Fernandez sees parallels between sports marketing and bank marketing. “In both, you have to differentiate your organization,” he said. “You need to invest in your people and ensure that your organization is worth it to your customers. Why should someone buy season tickets or bring their employees to your stadium? In banking, as in sports, it’s not just a matter of winning, but community involvement. Why should people and businesses choose Valley as their bank? It’s because we’ve got the local touch so they know that the institution and their banker believe in the same values that they do.”