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Mergers, Acquisitions And Marketing

One of the most complex branding challenges facing any bank is a merger or acquisition. Oftentimes it involves taking two brands – each their own equity – and combining them into a single brand (that may or may not be new). The task can seem overwhelming: Should you use one of the existing brands or create a new one? How do you transition all of the branded materials? Most importantly, how do you get the bank employees from each entity to understand this new “hybrid” brand?

On paper, it may not seem as complicated. In an acquisition, the more popular of the two financial arrangements, one bank is essentially “taking over” another bank. That means the buyer’s brand should simply subjugate the seller’s brand, right? Not always.

Let’s say that the seller’s bank is located in a rural area, and they have a strong, positive reputation with ag lending. Farmers can be sensitive to change when it comes to their finances, and it might be risky to switch their bank’s brand to something that was originally targeted toward a more urban audience. Instead, a gradual transition is probably in order, strategically introducing elements of the “new” brand over the course of months or even years.

In fact, all of the customers at the seller’s bank will likely be watching the proceedings closely. After all, they might think, if we are getting a new bank anyway, this might be our time to shop around. The challenge, then, is to convince those customers that they aren’t getting a different bank, but are instead gaining an improved version of the same bank. It’s not a takeover, it’s an upgrade.

However, that’s easier said than done. People are understandably suspicious of anything that pertains to their money, so subtlety is paramount. We’ve seen the “print new business cards and get on with it” approach taken, and it can be a disaster. Partially because it tends to alienate customers and partially because it almost always alienates employees.

Bank employees, as it turns out, are often the most important constituents that a new brand message has to appeal to. Change can be hard, especially for well-established team members, and if they chafe under the new system, the customers they deal with will be able to tell. It’s not easy, but it’s critical for the team at the seller’s bank to believe that the new arrangement is good for them and for their customers. Help them to understand that with change comes opportunity. Win them over, and they will win over the people who matter most. After all, who has a closer relationship with your new customers than them?

All of this takes a lot of insight and planning. Whatever you do, don’t wait until the deal is final to get started on the branding transition. Do your homework. Talk to employees and customers at both banks. Their input will be invaluable as you choose which elements of your brand to refresh and which to leave alone. Get lots of options when it comes to things like logos and brand messages so that choices don’t become binary, yes-or-no situations.

Finally, don’t forget that an acquisition isn’t just business. It can also be very sentimental for many people involved. Be sensitive to their feelings, and listen to their input, even if you can’t always do what they ask. In the end, you need to make the branding decisions that are best for your bank. It’s just easier to make good decisions when you understand all the stakeholders and their positions.

Greg “Hal” Halliday is the president of Anchor Marketing, a branding and new media agency that specializes in successful differentiation and positioning. Anchor Marketing has spent nearly 20 years branding and marketing independent banks in Minnesota and North Dakota. Halliday is recognized as a Certified Financial Marketing Professional by the American Bankers Association. You can contact him via phone at 701-787-8230 or by email at halh@anchorwebsite.com.