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The Threat Is Real

Amazon.com changed the world. If you want to see just how much, seek out and walk through a Sears store (because evidently nobody goes into them to shop anymore). It’s a sad, strange experience – a little like a science fiction story where you are the last person on earth. Amazon has created an environment where they can give consumers the same products for a little less money and a lot less hassle. Order it on your phone and, in a lot of cities, get it the next day.

A lot of retailers didn’t take Amazon seriously because they didn’t think anybody could figure out how to make shipping easy and affordable. They thought that being local would take priority over being exceptional. Now, those retailers are going out of business one by one.

If an online company can dominate an industry where it is necessary to move physical products around the country, think how much simpler it would be for an online company to succeed in an industry where all of the assets can be transferred digitally in the blink of an eye. That’s where online-only banks like Ally and Synchrony come in. They’re testing whether consumers really care about “being local” anymore or not.

The answer to that question is complicated, of course. However, a quick look around the student union at your local college provides some insight. Many of those young people continue to work with their hometown bank even though they are hundreds or thousands of miles away. On the surface, that seems like a good thing for community banks: they kept a customer even though that customer moved away. But look closer, and you’ll see the shadow side of that relationship. Those college students only care about the services provided by the bank. They want them to be convenient and easy to use and secure, but they don’t need the bank to be nearby. Unfortunately, that cuts both ways.

Speak to a 22-year-old, and they will tell you that they would prefer to never enter a bank building or meet with a banker in person. Ever. They don’t just consider it unnecessary, they consider it a hassle. As a result, telling them that you have the “friendliest team” is irrelevant – they don’t want to meet your team. They just want your services to work as well as (or better than) the next bank’s. That’s why institutions that have mastered online services and marketing are growing like crazy.

Now the good news. As long as your online services are equal, being local can, indeed, give you an advantage over online-only banks with the next generation of customers. You can be at the local high school ball game, and they cannot. You can partner with a local car dealership, and they probably won’t. You can buy lunch for the new hires at the local factory, and they will not.

You can make your location an asset – but only if your digital services work great and your digital brand (including social media) makes a unique statement. You must look just as professional as your online competitors, because young consumers are most definitely not afraid to give them a try.

It’s time for community banks to get serious about the threat posed by online institutions. We need to learn from Sears and Radio Shack and Blockbuster. If your product (and your competition) is as close as a person’s smartphone, then location cannot be the only thing that sets you apart anymore.

On the other hand, unlike brick and mortar retailers, your community bank can offer services that are just as good or better than the online competition. There’s no reason you can’t turn the tables and take customers from them! Now that is a goal worth focusing on.

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.