The Most Important Medium for Marketers Is … Wait for it …

The Most Important Medium for Marketers Is … Wait for it …

Note: The following post is written by Stan Cowan.

Twenty years ago the marketing function wasn’t just getting off the ground for credit unions, but also for the financial services industry as a whole.  Working for a $1 Billion thrift back then, I was part of a three-person marketing department (two before they created my position).  Needless to say, their marketing department was only utilizing a few marketing mediums or channels – newspaper (for deposits) and billboards (for loans).  They didn’t even have a website back then, let alone online banking.

During the past 20 years, many (and I mean MANY) new marketing channels have been invented assisting marketers (those who chose to keep up their skills) to target different segments of current and potential customers.  But are the “old” channels still relevant today?  Are they even close to today’s, new digital marketing methods?  It depends…let’s look at a few of them.

Your current state of brand awareness is key to determining your marketing methods.  Is your company not yet established in your marketplace?  Or, are you smaller than your competition and/or new to the area?  If so, you should consider mediums that allow for an immediate, high-impact approach such as TV, billboards and radio (traditional channels).  The same could be said for those organizations that are going through a name change / re-branding.

So, does that mean traditional marketing methods shouldn’t be incorporated for well-established brands?  Well, do you still see/hear ads on TV/radio for McDonald’s, BestBuy and WalMart?  Would they still spend billions each year on traditional advertising if it didn’t work? 

With Digital Marketing, not only is a strong, public online presence required for potential customers, but a one-to-one digital strategy is important for current customers.  Key points to consider – How automated is your digital strategy?  How effective is each type of digital medium working for you?  One advantage of an electronic marketing strategy is its nimbleness, the ability to change it quickly to meet your needs.  It’s difficult to launch and change quickly with traditional mediums. 

The most important aspect of digital marketing is one that most don’t incorporate, however—testing.  Most marketers either think they don’t have the time to test their marketing content and targeting methods, or they are too scared of failing to do so.  But wouldn’t you rather fail on a smaller scale than completely because you didn’t do your research first?

So, we’ve put it off long enough.  Given budget and time constraints that we all have, what’s the most important marketing medium to incorporate?  Given my academic background and experience, my answer may surprise you.  Marketing channels are certainly important, but the most important source to tap into is simply – your existing customer base by using REFERRALS. 

Who better to market for you than your current customers?  With the right type of loyalty-based referral program, your best customers, with more credibility than advertising campaigns, can help you gain more customers who look like…them!  Of course, your referral program must 1) be easy to convey, 2) be easy for customers to use and 3) be easy to track. 

Will this require redirecting some of your existing marketing budget?  Yes.  But wait – how much?  That’s why we test it with a select group of customers first, starting by getting their feedback before launching.  Then, you’ll have a good idea of your potential success and how much to allocate.

We’ve only touched the surface here, so I’ll leave you with a related topic for next time:  What if 100% of the marketing budget was allocated to this type of loyalty, referral program where both existing and new customers are rewarded for sharing how they love your organization with others?  Hmmm….


About the author:  Stan Cowan is a seasoned, 20-year financial services marketing leader.  Check him out on LinkedIn.

Stop Straddling Your Strategy

Stop Straddling Your Strategy

Planning - 2There are multiple traps and minefields when it comes to strategic planning. Focusing too much on tactics and not enough on strategy. Rushing through the planning process. Rehashing old issues.

While those are common pitfalls, one of the major mistakes credit unions and banks make with strategic plans is waffling. In other words we sit on the fence and don’t make strong, bold decisions. In an effort to gain consensus we want everyone in the room (executives, board members, etc.) in agreement about the strategy.

While unity is indeed a key to success the result of making sure we hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” might be a straddling effect. In other words, because we want EVERYONE happy with the final product we include EVERYONE’s ideas in the plan. And then we end up just straddling the fence rather than making some necessary (and oftentimes difficult) decisions.

Here are a few examples where straddling causes problems:

  • We don’t have a consensus on target audiences so we end up trying to be all things to all people
  • We can’t decide what the top priorities should be so we end up with six or seven strategic initiatives rather than a focused three or four
  • We don’t want to offend anyone so we include everyone’s ideas, including the ones that are honestly lame and completely out of sync with the overall plan
  • We don’t want to rock the boat so we avoid making hard decisions

Let’s be honest: not everyone is going to agree 100% with every decision in every single planning decision. That’s just not possible. Disagreement and debate are actually healthy. But the solution to a consensus is not to straddle.

In one planning session I conducted a few years ago, the client once again brought up the issue of changing their name. For multiple years in numerous planning sessions they had debated whether or not they should change their name. And  they never made a decision. They just straddled. So in this particular session I said “you either need to _______ or get off the pot.” Okay, I said it a little nicer than that but you get the idea. Once they were challenged and pushed they realized they had to move forward rather than stay idle. So they voted during that session to change their name and are now seeing record growth. Why? Because they stopped straddling.

As David Maister says in Strategy and the Fat Smoker, “the best outcome from strategic planning isn’t necessarily greater analytic insight—it’s greater resolve.”

Rather than straddle your strategy, aim for boldness and resolve.

How Financial Institutions Can Build Brand Value

How Financial Institutions Can Build Brand Value

Building Brand Value - 1Anyone wanting to improve their organization’s brand knows you start with your value. What unique value proposition do you offer consumers? For banks and credit unions this can be extremely difficult. After all, banking is now a commodity and every financial institution says they are about service, community or people.

So how can financial institutions build brand value?

One way is to read Building Brand Value, by Bruce Turkel. I’ve longed followed Turkel’s blog (he offers great insights and his blog is a must-read). So I wanted to dive into his book, which is aptly subtitled Seven Simple Steps to Profitable Communications. For banks and credit unions to build better brands, they can follow many of the suggestions Turkel offers.

As Turkel notes, “Each of the points can be expressed in only three words….it’s all quite simple.”

Below are three of the seven principles from the book and how we can apply them in the financial services world. For the remaining four, be sure to pick up a copy of Building Brand Value (it’s a quick read full of solid suggestions).

(1) All About Them

Turkel has a unique take on ROI (return on investment). He says ROI is not near as important as a new acronymn MOI—the French word for me, as in “What’s in it for me.” He says MOI is the best way to predict success with your brand. Consumers pay far more attention to messages that promise them benefits.

  • Application: While the internal components of your brand are critical, always craft your brand message around your target audience. Too many banks and credit unions are still trying to be all things to all people. Stop that. Now. Pick a few core niches and brand to them with customized messages.


(2) Hearts Then Minds

Turkel notes that, “most people make decisions based on their feelings and then justify those decisions with the facts.” Think about Harley-Davidson. Harley does not sell motorcycles. They sell an experience. Scott Talgo, vice president of marketing for Harley, once said “advertising grabs their minds, branding their hearts.” Turkel obviously agrees.

  • Application: Stop promoting rates, financial product features and terms. People really don’t care about those boring banking details. What do they care about? Stories. Dreams. Financial freedom. When it comes to building your brand, make sure you are building emotional connections with consumers.


(3) Make It Quick

Some of the best advice Turkel offers is “reduce, reduce, reduce. Then reduce some more.” He jokingly notes that Thoreau wrote “simplify, simplify” but that if Thoreau thought that was the best strategy he would have just said, “simplify.” When it comes to branding, communicating your message quickly is paramount.

  • Application: Cut the copy in your branding. Cut, cut, cut. You say more with less. Conduct a marketing audit at your credit union or bank to test and see how effective your brand is in reaching consumers.


Those are just a few key points from only three of the major principles in Building Brand Value. The book offers many other tips to improve your branding and your marketing. While it won't take you long to read the book (his writing style is quick and easy) you’ll walk away with so many ideas your head will spin.

Creating a strong brand starts with creating a genuine brand value. If you want to know how to accomplish that for your bank or credit union then read Building Brand Value

What is the State of Your Marketing?

What is the State of Your Marketing?

State of Mind - 1We all have our favorite states. It might be your native state, a destination state or an adopted home state. If you are like me and are a native Texan your favorite state may also be an attitude (for example, my wife was born in Oklahoma but she moved to Texas when she was 10 days old; thus we celebrate her birthday ten days late because when she got to Texas is when she really started living!).

When it comes to your marketing, what sort of state is it in? Is it strong or weak? Is it fun or boring? Is it effective or ineffective?

Here are some possible “states” your marketing might be in along with potential solutions for how to improve:

  • State of Confusion—Does everyone in your credit union or bank know what your brand is? Would they answer the question “What are you about?” with the same answer? If not, then you have brand confusion when you need brand consistency. A confused brand is a weak brand.
    • Solution: Develop a brand plan that clearly identifies your target audiences, your brand vision and your key messages. Train your staff to your brand.
  • State of Mind—What role does marketing play in your credit union or bank? Is it just in the back seat giving tactical advice on promotions or is marketing driving the organization’s strategic decisions and direction? The best financial institutions are marketing driven (check out Umpqua Bank as an example).
    • Solution: Make marketing a strategic function inside your financial institution. Involve marketing in every aspect of the credit union or bank (strategic plan, ALM, branches, training, etc.).
  • State of Unrest—Are you trying to communicate too much with your marketing materials and are you all over the place with your marketing? If so, then there is probably a great deal of unrest in your marketing efforts. You will never achieve your financial goals with weak marketing.
    • Solution: Cut the copy. Reduce how much you are trying to communicate. If there is unrest with your marketing, one of the most practical things you can do is to conduct a marketing audit (get an unbiased opinion on how you can improve this important function).

One political tradition of the New Year is that the president always gives a State of the Union address. Those tend to be long-winded speeches about the political priorities for the upcoming year. As you set the marketing priorities for your upcoming year, start by considering what “state” your marketing is actually in and act accordingly.  

15 Marketing Tasks to Consider in 2015 (Part Two)

15 Marketing Tasks to Consider in 2015 (Part Two)

IStock_000051435828_LargeAs you scan your 2015 marketing calendar, it is probably already full with a complete list of tasks to accomplish this year. But are they the right tasks? Each January I offer suggestions regarding what financial marketing executives should focus on in the coming year. While many of the past posts have focused on strategic issues, this year I’m offering a few professional development ideas as well.

Because of the length, I’m breaking this into two parts (one through seven a few days ago now and eight through 15 now).

Please feel free to also contribute your own ideas!

(8)   Take the CEO and CFO to lunch every quarter

Your CEO and/or CFO can be your greatest advocate or your greatest pain. Most CEOs and CFOs are obsessed with the bottom line and numbers, something marketers don’t tend to highlight. Rather than having an adversarial relationship with these key figures, build a bridge to them. Get them out of the office in an informal setting. But don’t just talk to them about marketing—listen to what they have to say. Hopefully along the way you can engage and educate them more about branding and marketing. If you want to know more about what CEOs want from marketing, then read this post.

(9)   Conduct a digital channel assessment

As mentioned above, digital marketing is not just the future; it’s the present. However, knowing where to start is a daunting task. As CU Grow notes, “digital channel assessments are for financial institutions seeking recommendations to improve key digital marketing channels to generate leads, increase conversations and grow share of wallet.” For the modest investment involved, your credit union or bank will reap a huge return, including recommendations and practical implementation steps.

(10)Read trade publications daily

If you want to earn more in your professional life, then you need to read more. According to Success Magazine, among wealthy people, 88% read 30 minutes or more daily and 79% read professionally related material. Make sure you carve out time every day to read. Some professional publications worth checking out include CU Insight and CB Insight, The Financial Brand, American Banker, Bank Innovation, CUNA’s Credit Union Magazine and CUES Skybox.

(11)Customize your training efforts to your brand

Too many customer and member service training programs in banks and credit unions are lame. They are all just the same generic stuff: call the consumer by their name, smile, say hello and offer a product they don't have. Duh. Rather than use a generic program, customize your sales and service efforts to your own financial institution. Tie it to your brand. Make your training yours and not some canned program.

(12)Read a branding book

As mentioned with task number 10, you need to read more. The more you learn (through reading), the more you will earn. Recent books I read on branding include What Great Brands Do and Difference. Some other classics that touch on branding and other subjects include Onward and Leading for Growth. You won’t go wrong investing your time by reading one (or all) of these.

(13)Have coffee with a customer or member

One of the best things you can do as a marketer is to listen. While we invest a great deal in market research through surveys, focus groups and mystery shops one of the best ways learn about your consumers is simply to listen. On a regular basis, take one of your customers or members to coffee and talk to them about financial service matters. Learn what’s important to them when it comes to money and spending habits. They will offer you priceless insights.

(14)Work on the line or in the call center two days a year

The more we move up in the organization, the more removed from consumers we become. And that’s a problem. One of the best ways to stay directly in touch with your customers or members is to work a day or two as a call center representative, teller or other front-line position. You will not only learn more about your consumers, you’ll also gain insights about your staff and what it’s like to actually do their jobs while implementing your marketing or branding efforts.

(15)Brand to your staff

Speaking of staff, it’s critical your staff buy into your brand. If they don’t live your brand, your target consumers will never love your brand. Any external branding effort needs to involve an internal component as well. Make sure at every staff gathering someone is talking about your financial institution’s brand and the role staff plays in it. But it’s more than just talking about the brand. Recognize and reward those employees who best exemplify what your brand is all about.

 2015 is going to be a great year for credit unions and banks, especially if their marketers complete the above tasks. But those are just a few suggestions. What other tasks do you think financial institution executives should add to 2015?