When was the last time you were in a restaurant that spent a lot of time telling you all about their cooked carrots?
Probably never. Instead of spending resources trying to differentiate their raw materials – most of which are similar-tasting commodities that all restaurants offer – they choose to promote the fact that the restaurant has a unique way of preparing, flavoring and serving those ingredients. They don’t differentiate common foods (few people can tell the difference between one cooked carrot and another), but instead the unique brand of the restaurant itself.
Your bank can apply a similar strategy to overcome the fact that your money market account is very similar to the one at the bank down the street. Your carrots look a lot like their carrots. The key is to tell people how your carrots taste.
That’s what makes your products and services unique. What is the flavor that your people and culture bring to banking? It can be challenging to identify this, so here are three steps that can help you to distinguish what sets your institution apart in the “me-too” world of banking:
(1) Find Your “Why”
Author Simon Sinek wrote an important book in 2011 called Starts With Why. It wasn’t your typical business book. In it, Sinek compared the careers of a good number of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs and discovered something interesting about their approaches to business: they rarely focused on how things were done. The “how,” as it turns out, is too generic and easy to replicate. If anybody is old enough to remember when “free checking” burst onto the scene, then you also recall how long it took for everybody to offer it. Before you knew it, every bank had a cleverly named free checking product. The same thing happened to online banking and every other innovation that has ever come to this industry. Heavy regulation makes it hard to come up with a “how” that really stands out.
Sinek found that successful innovators like Steve Jobs instead focused on why things were done. Why was Apple in business? To help people think differently. Jobs and his company stuck by this assertion for 30 years or so, even as many of their competitors focused on “how” computers were made and sold their low quality products at the lowest price possible. Meanwhile, the Mac remained an expensive technology that seemed destined to remain on the margins, purchased only by schools and advertising agencies.
We all know what happened when the iPhone came along. Suddenly everybody wanted to “think different,” and they were willing to pay anything to do it. Now Apple is one of the most successful companies in the world.
Here’s how to get started finding your own “why.” Get together a team of your leaders, lock the door, place a moratorium on discussions of money (there’s always somebody who says that your bank’s “why” is to make a profit – politely ask them to leave the brainstorm) and narrow your business focus down to why you do what you do. Think about how that is different than the “why” at other banks. Are you an ag bank? Then celebrate that fact! Does your lending team have a passion for commercial banking? Embrace it! Do you want to help young families? That’s a great, unique “why” that other banks may not share.
Your “why” is what makes your carrots taste different.
(2) Sell It To Your Team
Knowing your “why” is only the first step. Now you need the bank staff to share that vision and live it in their everyday activities. Your frontline team is the first touchpoint for most of your customers. Once they understand why the bank is really in business, they can provide customer service based on that information.
Oftentimes this involves a culture change. If the bank’s focus was previously limited to profit and loss, trying desperately to market and brand itself based on commodities like checking accounts and home loans, then it will take some time for everybody to understand that while you still offer those products, your bank’s “why” is what really inspires customers to try them.
Rally the troops. This will take some internal marketing and training, and may include everything from old-fashioned print materials to online demonstration videos to after hours staff get-togethers. Make it fun, make it engaging and make it mandatory. In some ways, this is the most important of the three steps presented here. If your team isn’t on board, no change will take place, and your bank will not stand out.
To differentiate your carrots, make sure your chefs know the recipe.
(3) Tell It To The World
This last step takes a bit of a leap of faith. For banks that are used to promoting rates and “great customer service,” it can be challenging to adopt a new, unique position in the marketplace. First you need to accept the fact that every bank in the world says that they have “good people” and “great customer service.” They also have savings accounts and IRAs and “lenders who care.” Thanks to bland marketing over the years, potential customers have come to expect these things from every bank.
To stand out, you need to be able to tell them your “why” and make it the focus of your message. There was once a bank that understood that not only did they offer exactly the same products as the huge corporate banks, they couldn’t possibly hope to generate as much marketing attention as those financial behemoths. They knew that they were in business to take their small town values to the big city, and they went all in with that sentiment. They adopted “The Little Bank That Can” as their slogan and started to place it front and center in their promotional efforts. They could never be as big as their competitors, but they could tell the world how great it was to be smaller than their competitors. It took guts, but they stood out immediately in a crowded market.
Being a “one stop shop” is not a strong marketing position. Everyone can say it (and they do), and it implies that you don’t do any one thing particularly well. It is the opposite of differentiation. Instead, have the courage to tell people that your bank isn’t for everyone. Your brand shouldn’t exclude anyone, but it also cannot appeal to everyone. Apple’s “Think Different” marketing was not meant to appeal to the masses. It appealed to those who fancied themselves creative. By combining that unique branding with a very good product, eventually the rest of consumers actually aspired to be creative themselves. By staying true to their brand (and remaining patient), Apple’s commitment to a unique “why” didn’t attract a huge market, it actually created a huge market of its own.
Tell people why your carrots taste different. They may not try them right away, but they will remember them the next time they are in the mood for something new.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to making your bank stand out. It takes work, it takes courage and it takes patience. Start with “why” and embrace what makes you unique, even if it doesn’t appeal to everybody. It will pay off in the end, and before long hungry customers will be asking for your carrots by name.