Banks Turn Message Back to What Consumers Want

Focus Goes From Safety and Stability to Best Way to Manage Finances

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A correction has been made in this story. See below.

NEW YORK ( -- Consumers are back in banking.

After many months of marketing messages that tout safety and stability precipitated by last fall's financial meltdown, banks both big and small are refocusing their marketing on solutions and services targeted specifically at the wants and needs of more fiscally conservative consumers.

"Six months ago we were trying to reassure the market and consumers that we are safe and secure and stable," said Jim Buchanan, senior VP and consumer marketing executive at Bank of America. "Now consumers are telling us they're not worried about those things anymore. ...What they are interested in is 'How can you help me manage my finances?'"

For some, that's as simple as employing attentive and informed tellers that are trained to recall consumers' names. For others, it means introducing new customer-friendly marketing initiatives such as Bank of America's clarity commitment, reduced-fee plans and just-launched Add it Up program that earns consumers cash back on credit- and debit-card use, or Citibank's "Refer. Reward" program that pays up to $500 for referring friends and family to the bank. Several major banks have also adopted Twitter for a variety of customer-service uses, from problem solving to updates and product announcements.

These newer pushes join existing ones such as BofA's "Keep the Change" from BBDO, New York; TD Bank's emphasis on its extended hours and free coin counting in its ads from Tierney, Philadelphia; and USAA Savings Bank's program that allows consumers to deposit checks at home with a computer and scanner.

Finding satisfaction
Less prevalent are perks such as the café atmospheres built by banks such as ING Direct, as many banks look to close branches to save overhead and cater to consumers' online needs. However, the retail footprint is still important for providing quality customer service. J.D. Power & Associates recently found that customers who reported the highest satisfaction rates with their banks actually held 2% to 5% more in deposits there.

Bank of America, which works with BBDO, has been focusing on straightforward advertising, promotion of specific products and tools to help consumers to save or manage finances, and better transparency. For instance, with every new product it develops, the bank will offer a one-page "clarity commitment" explanation.

"Consumers have gone from 'I don't want to know much about my finances ... to I'm very aware of my finances,'" Mr. Buchanan said.

It wasn't just the financial crash of fall 2008 that soured consumers on banks. High fees, interest-rate fluctuations, lack of transparency and lousy customer service heaped on top of the general bad press and angry consumer sentiments only exacerbated the problem.

At Commerce Bank in the Midwest, front-line employees such as tellers and sales associates are trained to handle customers via a series of mock interactions the bank has developed. It's not as rote as McDonald's cashiers asking "Would you like fries with that?" but it is as specific in some cases as directing associates who are opening new accounts to stand, greet the customer, and use the customer's name, for instance.

"There's been a tremendous movement toward what is being called the customer experience," said Mindy Stimson, Commerce consumer marketing and retail strategy manager. "It started in the retail world -- Starbucks or the Ritz are great examples -- but banks have entered that arena, too."

Commerce's two-year-old theme, from Bernstein Rein, Kansas City, Mo., is "Surprising Relationships," which uses humor to highlight the brand's promise to "ask, listen and solve" via different customer experiences.

Rilla Delorier, chief marketing officer of SunTrust Bank, said "Banking used to be a category driven by functionality and the needs of consumers for it to be fast, easy and convenient. But that has dramatically shifted over the past year to become a category that's much more driven by emotion. Trust, respect and responsibility of the organization are much higher priorities."

SunTrust happened to be going through a brand repositioning at the time of the financial meltdown last year, and so came out with its "Live Solid. Bank Solid" tagline from Mullen, Boston, which it continues to use today. "Our research found there was a bit of a binge in too much attention to keeping up with the Joneses and [the consumer is] now waking up to reality. Now [their] thinking is to get more realistic and more grounded," Ms. Delorier said. "And they want banks to help them."

A little more consumer attention wouldn't hurt, considering that most still don't have a high opinion of banks. In's annual business sector survey conducted last month, the industry fell to a 28% positive rating, eight percentage points below 2008 and the worst year-over-year slide of any industry. Only the legal field, real estate, automotive, and oil and gas industries have lower positive scores. Similar surveys found similar results. J.D. Power & Associates found in May that only 35% of customers are highly committed to their retail bank, vs. 37% in 2008 and 41% in 2007.

What's happening in bank marketing

Less harping on safety and soundness. Maggie Kelly, VP-marketing, American Banking Association, said she saw some security messaging in a recent financial-awards contest, but said, "It's not as prevalent as it was. We're seeing people move back to more product-specific promotions."

Banks are creating and promoting products that push debit-card use and savings accounts. Not only is it better for consumers, but it's better for their bottom line. "U.S. banks earn $20 billion in overdraft fees, that's a hefty business," said Bob Meara, senior analyst at Celent. "If they can't get as many fees, short of getting more customers, they have to get their customers to higher deposits."

Again, cost savings are key for the bank -- a typical branch costs $5 million to build and five years to become profitable -- but the move to more and better online services is being driven by consumers. A recent ABA survey found that for the first time, more bank customers preferred to bank online vs. using other methods, including branch, ATM, mobile or telephone.

Bank of America's "clarity commitment," a one-page simple explanation of its home-mortgage loan product, is emblematic of the simple and direct kind of information consumers now want. Forget jargon-filled ads and book-like bank documents; the bank of the future needs to cut straight to the point.

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CORRECTION: BBDO, New York, is the agency of record for Bank of America, which was incorrectly reported as Deutsch, New York, in an earlier version.

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