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Creating a special bank brand

Is it possible to invent the "cult of a bank"?

Community banking expert Chris Nichols says there are three elements that can creat a community bank "cult"—and one of them is finding and picking an enemy. Community banking expert Chris Nichols says there are three elements that can creat a community bank "cult"—and one of them is finding and picking an enemy.

We get asked about best practices tips about building a better bank brand. Where banks go wrong is that they confuse marketing with branding.

 Advertising, creating a slogan, buying radio time, and having new shirts for the branch staff is all about marketing. While it helps support the brand, it should not be confused with the brand. While there are lots of ways to create a remarkable bank brand, one of the simplest is to set out to start a cult—a cult of a bank.

Three elements of a cult

Every cult that ever started has three elements. These elements pertain to a nefarious cult like the Branch Davidians, positive cults like what the founding fathers of the United States started, or informal cults such those that follow Apple, Star Wars, or Harley Davidson.

You know you have reached cult status when your followers are getting tattoos of your bank’s logo. How could you have that type of following?

Here are the three elements and how they could relate to your bank:

1. A clear leader/organization: This one is easy. You already have a bank that is a definable entity, with a leadership team in place. You are partly there and ahead of other cults that had to start from scratch.

2. Virtuosity: This one is a little harder. You have to stand for something, and it has to be material and memorable.

If you are trying to build your bank around “great service,” forget it—so is everyone else. Great service is table stakes for community banking.

To excel here, you have to do more than just take care of a customer’s basic banking needs—you need to help them become self-actualized in a way that they feel good about themselves.

Umpqua does this better than almost any bank in our industry. They are truly one of the few “lifestyle banks” in the market.

If you are looking for new ideas, the concept of “freedom” is always a good place to start. Instead of trying to build your bank around finding financial freedom, why not create a bank built around living more simply, within your means? Maybe it is freedom from the conventional, freedom to go explore your passion in life, or the freedom of non-conformity.

Alternatively, maybe you build your bank around a particular cause. Many banks do this with being pro-environment. Maybe build a bank for seniors, to support kids, to fight against cancer or to support gender equality?

“But wait—we can’t do that!”

Did you read the above and laugh it off, thinking, “We could never limit ourselves to building a bank just to support seniors (or cancer, etc.) or any other single cause.”

We hear you, but we want to point out that this is why there are few cult-like bank brands. When you try to be all things to all people, you lose the catalyst for bringing out the passion in people. By narrowing your focus, you can dial up the intensity around your purpose. What you lose in breadth you gain in depth.

3. An enemy.

If you are still not clear on how to turn your bank into a cult, consider the third element of building a cult—you need an enemy.

Once you have a set of beliefs to rally behind, then you need to find a villain to bring your cult together and to draw power from.

An opponent helps define what your bank is about. All great heroes throughout history always had a powerful enemy - Batman vs. the Joker; Apple vs. Microsoft; and Mother Theresa vs. those that ignore the sick and poor. All great cult movements have an “us vs. them” mentality.

If you are still struggling with finding a set of virtues to define your bank, find a good enemy and then work backward to figure out how your bank could be redesigned to stand up to that villain. What virtues would be needed in your bank to make it a powerful antithesis to your enemy?

Putting this into action

You may never start a cult bank, but hopefully, this post has given you ideas on how to better define your brand. Only by working through the above exercise, it may help to bring into focus what a new bank brand could look like.

Bankers, by their nature, are amiable and conventional, which is why they find it difficult to create a movement of passion. By working through some of these questions, and developing the courage to stand for something, your bank will find that it can clearly define itself in the process.

If you are still having difficulty finding that defining concept, we would suggest you check out a YouTube video that is currently making the rounds at many banks right now and pushing them to find a single word that drives them forward. It is an interesting exercise and it may just result in a rallying virtue for your bank.

Motivational speaker Jon Gordon’s “One Word” video


This article is adapted from Chris Nichol's blog on LinkedIn.

Chris Nichols

Chris Nichols is chief strategy officer at CenterState Bank Central Florida, N.A., Winter Haven, Fla. He frequently contributes to "UNconventional Wisdom" and other parts of Nichols is a member of the Banking Exchange Editorial Advisory Board.

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