Saturday, 13 August 2011

Cars: A Lesson in Brand Identity

A few weeks ago I was driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike when I noticed a sweet ride. Deep black, with flecks of blue, tan leather interior, advanced looking dash, and a pretty, well-dressed lady in the passenger seat to boot. I thought to myself, "what a handsome and successful couple". The car, as emblazoned on the trunk, was a "Genesis"... the beginning... awesome name.

I looked up the car later in the week. It is made by Hyundai. I thought "maybe that couple isn't so successful after all". The lightbulb atop my head went off, sirens blaring, slightly embarrassed by my reaction, but I think I had a blog post! My opinion of this couple, a couple I have never met, was significantly influenced by the car they drove. I promised myself I would swim in deeper waters in the future.

Is my reaction unique? When I transitioned from banking to bank consulting in 1997, I drove up to my new office with great anticipation. I was anxious to get started. My car... a Mitsubishi Eclipse. On that day, my boss matter-of-factly informed me that I would have to get another vehicle. He drove a Volvo.

When I coached my daughter's club softball team, I was in charge of finances. Funny how this banking thing bleeds into your personal life. But one family was persistently late making their fee payments. I caucused with the other coaches to see if we should cut them some slack. Cutting slack meant the other families would have to pay a little more to support the family having difficulty. We decided against it when the father pulled up in a Cadillac Escalade.

I don't think cars influencing our opinions of others is unique to me.

This causes some people great difficulty, including me. I grew up in a blue collar family. The first family car I remember was the Dodge Dart Swinger. As I moved through my professional life, my family income has naturally gone up. But my upbringing does not permit me to spend $20,000 more on a car just so people can think well of me. Look at the cars of other consultants, you'll find the Volvo's, BMW's, and Infinity's. I drive a Dodge. But not the famed Dart Swinger!

I witness many friends and colleagues spend suitcases of cash on vehicles. Some are spending cash they do not have. No matter what math you use, it does not make financial sense to drive a "status" car. And yet many do. I think there is a strong lesson here for financial institutions.

There are countless resources for FIs to research how to appropriately position their brand. Maybe we are looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps we should build a brand that enhances the brand of our target customers?

For example, after a bank board of directors meeting a few years ago, a director approached me on a different topic regarding something his Merrill Lynch broker told him. This bank had a significant Trust Department, and one of their directors had his money at Merrill Lynch. It almost felt like he wanted me to know he was a Merrill client. In the eyes of the director, Merrill Lynch elevated HIS brand. Wonder what he thinks of them now!

Getting closer to home, listen to how friends and colleagues discuss coffee. Some go to the break room and pour a free cup. Others go to Starbucks, often saying "I need my Starbucks". Their Starbucks? Again, this could be a case of a company elevating the personal brand of their customers.

The proliferation of Starbucks outlets has made drinking their coffee less exclusive, and therefore lessens their ability to elevate customers' personal brands. CEO Howard Schultz readily admits they diminished their brand by opening too many stores. Fortunately for personal brand builders, they keep their price points high so schleps like me gravitate to Mickey D's.

If the question about brand changes from building the brand of the FI to building the brand of the FIs customers, what changes need to be made? If our target customers are small businesses, how do we position the FI in such a manner that the small business person is proud to proclaim that we are their bank? And if we position ourselves as customer brand builders, do we have the courage to focus on our target customers to the exclusion of other customers that are valuable to us, but not our strategic focus?

It would be writing the obvious to say that banking is at a crossroads. History and culture did not require us to position our FI for anything other than locational convenience and efficient transaction processing. Now, we must be unique, be focused, have purpose. Much like Harley Davidson, our customers should be fiercely loyal to us because we mean something to them. We build their personal brand.

I think my next car will be a muscle car. Beats going to the gym.

What are your thoughts of brand building focusing on customers instead of our institutions?

~ Jeff

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