How community financial institutions can win at brand building

Jul 22, 2021
Jackie Lam
Contributing Writer

When we think of what makes a brand, most are well aware that it goes beyond a logo, color palette, or even a big budget ad campaign. While all those elements are qualities of brands, what defines a brand is the way customers perceive a company through a variety of multi-faceted customer experiences. 

In other words, it's more than what you tell people. It's what they experience.

Local and community-focused financial institutions have defined banking industry standards for amazing customer service. Their ability to serve individuals at every stage of their lives and invest in small business to fuel community growth has given them brands people can trust. And on the heels of the pandemic, the level of support community banks and credit unions were able to give to businesses and individuals in need renewed interest in these financial institutions. It also created the opportunity for them to invest in brand experiences and attract new customers & members. 

Here's how community financial institutions can make the right investments in experiences and double-down on their strengths to win at brand building. 

Serve your customers when they need you most 

It's one thing for a bank to say they care about you, and another to show they care through investments in services and technology people need. And while moments of crisis can prove to be challenging, they also serve as an opportunity to step up and develop these programs. 

What Jill Castilla and her team at Citizens Bank of Edmonds managed to achieve in such a short amount of time with their Citizen CARES Overdraft Program, which helped their customers with deposit accounts have early access to their stimulus payments, is an amazing example of how the community banking industry stepped up and knew what their customers needed the most.

“Because our bank is small and nimble enough, we can make those decisions locally that can change and create products and services for the communities that we serve”, shared Jill during her keynote talk at Narmi’s Digital Banking Transformation Summit.

We can make those decisions locally that can change and create products and services for the communities that we serve. -Jill Castilla

"We’re able to execute things very efficiently, even implementing new technologies," she continues. "If we can carry that forward into this next decade and beyond, there's no one better position in this industry than small regional community banks – to be able to serve consumers well, to have a user experience that is relevant, and then to really pave the way of what banking looks like for the future.” 

Tap into insights from customer relationships 

“The wonderful thing about small banks is that relationships are always a differentiator,” says Jill. “It’s really a two-way street. It's not just that your bankers care for you, it's that you have a line of communication with a bank CEO.” 

People are good at telling you what they need. Financial institutions can listen better by making the most of face-to-face time. Physical branches have already started to see some customer traffic return, but it’s clear that those drawn to in-person experiences are looking for something greater than what they can get through digital. Figure out what their expectations are, and see how you can enhance their experience during their visits to your physical locations.

Chances are COVID-19 has changed what customers want and expect from a banking experience post-pandemic. Instead of simply returning to the pre-pandemic status quo, you can use feedback you've received and listen to what customers want from their community banks and overall banking experience.

For example, through the Federal Reserve's FedNow pilot program, over 110 financial institutions and processors will play a role in shaping FedNow's features and functions, and offer input for the customer experience. Further, through the Federal Reserve's upcoming launch of an ecosystem system program, participants will provide feedback on specific product features and use cases, and play a role in supporting A-to-Z testing of solutions. 

Take action:

Turn transactions into relationships. Every interaction with a customer or member is an opportunity – whether it be in a physical location, social media, or through a digital platform – to make a connection. Look for ways to add your brand’s distinct personality to customer interactions.

Make the most of feedback. Turning feedback received from customers and other data into beta features and pilot programs can help indicate that your brand is constantly working on improving the banking experience.

Continue to make tweaks. After you've developed these beta features and pilot programs, plan to fine-tune and make improvements over time through continuous feedback.

Serve as beacons for the community to reach more people

Pre-pandemic, big banks were leaning into their established brands to attract new customers and retain existing ones. The attention of financial institutions of all sizes has now shifted to staying competitive based on value proposition, and discovering new ways to align with communities. According to Richard Walker, a principal at Deloitte, consumers are demanding an experience that represents the brand to which they are associated. And the brand promises the financial institutions make must be reflected in the products, services, digital platforms, and each customer support experience.

This creates an exciting opportunity for smaller banks to leverage their relationships with the community and customers to differentiate themselves. It might sound like a tall order, but community and regional banks are poised to be nimble and swiftly make changes to best help their customers and the community at large. 

Beyond loans and deposits, approach your financial institution by serving as community stewards. Doing so, you can reach more people. For example, Michelle Spellerberg, VP of Digital Growth at Alliant CU in Chicago, and her team are making strides to level the playing field and narrowing the gap for digital inclusion for rural and underserved communities. 

Take action:

Partner up. Consider collaborating with like-minded organizations to make broadband and technological devices more affordable. Or making digital financial literacy education and resources available to folks who could really use them.

Align internally and with your community on social issues that impact their lives the most. Aligning internally and with your community on the social issues that impact their lives. Banking leaders have the potential to be community leaders. If it is appropriate and in step with your FI's brand messaging and values, consider stepping up to be a community leader at large.

Focus on accessibility. Listen to what your customers want, you can create products, services, and enhance their experiences. And think about what you can do to make banking services and products more accessible and valuable for all.

Provide consistency between in-branch and digital experiences 

While the pandemic accelerated the use and demand for digital banking, the desire for in-person banking services is still present. Approach brand-building with a multi-pronged approach that doesn’t exist merely at your brick-and-mortar locations, but also on your digital platforms.

As in-branch experiences are changing, and providing new opportunities for more personal, high-touch brand engagement, this can extend to an online experience. For example, Berkshire launched Reevx Labs. A new investment in local communities, Reevx Labs was an initiative by Berkshire Bank to help underbanked folks lead healthier financial lives.

Berkshire wanted to create an experience that would encourage emerging entrepreneurs, artists, and nonprofits to open bank accounts. To do so, Berkshire created a customized account opening experience that was different from the core Berkshire Bank brand. By building a tailored experience for Reevx Labs, Narmi was proud to help Berkshire disrupt the traditional barriers to banking these communities were faced with.

Take action:

Improve digital experience design to build upon in-branch experiences. A thoughtful approach to UX design can result in more people finding value in your service and relying on their new community bank or credit union as their primary financial institution.

Explore ways the customer experience can be enhanced both in-person and online. Think about what educational materials, tools and programs can be developed so they're available both at physical branches and through digital platforms.

Focus on connecting messaging with the experience. Pinpoint gaps where your company values and brand messaging don't sync up with what your customers are experiencing. Find solutions as to how that might be remedied.

Lean into digital technology to be more human 

As leading fintech becomes more accessible at different budget levels, community banks and credit unions have many more opportunities to offer sophisticated products that help a greater portion of their communities. But, improvements in online features don’t necessarily require a massive overhaul. Sometimes it's about providing experiences that connect on a human-level, and adding a touch of personalization to extend the brand into the product. 

Humanizing digital doesn't require a massive overhaul. With some easy wins for personalization such as having a preferred name or ability for customers to change their username on their own, financial institutions can go a step further and use the customer's preferred name in the product to personalize their experience on different digital platforms and in email outreach.

For example, PNC allowed their customers to choose their bill denominations. This small change gave their customers more options and a more personalized experience. In turn, it enhanced the customer journey in a small but impactful way. 

Take action:

Focus on customizing existing features. See how your technology can be more personalized to further enhance and engage your customers.

Keep it simple. Look for ways to make navigating your digital platform and performing a transaction as simple as possible. What unnecessary steps in your digital banking features can be removed? Where can you add clarity and how can the design be uncluttered?

To understand your customers’ needs, home in on what they’re challenged with. Through the insights you’ve gained through the relationships you’ve cultivated with your customers, and having a community-first focus, you can improve on existing features and develop new ones that have the most impact. In turn, you can use that as your cornerstone for brand-building.

Narmi Inc.
3 East 28th St. Floor 12
New York, NY 10016

How community financial institutions can win at brand building