Banks Should Stop Advertising Now


By Tom Dougherty

Wasted Advertising Dollars

banks should stop advertising because what they now do is ineffective
Learn from mistakes

Banks shouldn’t spend one more dollar on advertising. That is, until they can get right.

Currently, banks are simply wasting their money until they can figure out a powerful and relevant brand promise so emotional and meaningful that it would actually cause someone to go through the hassle of switching banks.

Certainly, banks have spent millions of dollars on advertising trying to persuade consumers to switch. It may be heard to imagine, but Bank of America actually has a larger market budget than Budweiser.

However, bank marketing has been so off the mark that it might actually reinforce many of us to stay with the bank we already have. Simply put: Banks don’t give anyone a reason to switch even when we want to.

What a waste of money

Banks have spent millions to advertise things like “free checking.” Super Free Checking. FDIC Insured. A safe place to keep your money. A better place to save.

They need take their own advice: Save your (advertising) money, if that’s the approach they’re taking.

The last time most of us checked with our bank, things like free checking, being federally insured and “safe place to keep your money” were considered table stakes – the cost of doing business if you are a bank.

Yet advertising agencies have convinced banks to squander millions on extolling table stakes disguised as viable reasons to switch. It’s like a restaurant advertising that they have clean dishes. Clean dishes are to the restaurant business as free checking and safety is to the banking industry. It’s non-negotiable. You’d better offer these things or you won’t be in business very long.

Why in the world are banks so quick to spend money to advertise the same things that all other banks advertise? Is it because the market leaders do it, so everybody has to do it?

It is an old story

It seems since the beginning of time that we’ve suffered through lame bank advertising – and it’s gotten worse. Since the bailout crisis began, we’ve been exposed ad nausea to even more mundane bank advertising that simply markets values most of us believe we already have.

Bank of America is the market leader in the U.S. and, for them, marketing “table stakes’ is a strong defensive position. When everybody in the category says the same things, consumers default to the market leader. It’s when the rest follows that inertia sets in.

Let’s consider BB&T. The nation’s 14th largest financial holding company, BB&T bank advertising likes to remind us that they have been in business since 1872. However, stability is another one of those values bank customers already believe they have from their own bank. It simply doesn’t matter.

What really matters

Consumers are more interested in what banks are going to do for them tomorrow, not what you did in the past. Hint: And it is not free checking. More importantly, customers want to know what who they will be – which part of their self-identification will resonate with the brand.

BB&T’s strategy is a perfect example of an inside out approach, spending money on advertising to talk about your company but never about the potential customer.

How unhappy are you with your current bank? Do you remember all the hoops you had to jump through to open up your bank account in the first place? It has to be done in person because they need your signature and they want to inspect your IDs. You have to move your money. Order new checks, change your direct deposit, change all the online bill pay accounts you currently use today, get new ATM cards. The list goes on and on. It’s extremely time consuming.

Who amongst us has disposable time we don’t’ know what to do with? And for those of us who have time on our hands, we have zero intention of spending that time on something as excruciating as switching banks. Especially switching to a bank that is promising me exactly what I currently have today. It’s not going to happen.

So banks – please stop advertising now. Save your money. Figure out what is important to the consumer and build your brand around who the consumer is when they choose a bank.

Most importantly, it has to be actually compelling enough to move consumers past the point of considering switching to actually doing it.

The good news is that once consumers switch, they don’t switch very often again. We know the reason why: No one gives a reason to switch again.

(Read about how banks and credit unions are competing in a mature market here)

Read our banking market study here

Banks: The Worst At Brand Marketing


By Tom Dougherty

Banks have the worst marketing. Full Stop.

It is, of course, easy to pile on banking these days, but let’s continue that trend anyway. You see, when it comes to brand, the banking industry has been flat-out the worst.

Let’s examine the ways in which you would measure such a thing by examining the banking industry through the list of economies a brand trades in when gaining preference (and, therefore, stealing market share):

Worst at brand marketing because they think the message is all about them
Banks do not know who they are

1. Thrust. The positioning must demonstrate an active competitive advantage. This advantage answers the question of “why should I care?” from the perspective of the end user.

How banks rate (On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the worst): 1. The main reasons bank marketing is the worst is that there is little to no differentiation between the industry’s players. All talk about the same things: Free checking, good rates, low fees, reward programs, good service, etc. What makes it doubly bad for the banking industry is that those values, which are simply the definitions of a bank, is all they market. Therefore, even those most likely to switch don’t.

2. Gravity. The positioning must have a powerful relevance to the target audience, and their interest and receptiveness must be piqued.

How banks rate: 2. The only reason that banks don’t get a “1” here is because target audiences believe the choice of banking is important. However, the messaging is not, which is why so few people actually switch their primary checking account. Only about 3% actually make the move each year, even though five times that number consider doing it.

Consider this. When the economy took a nosedive, the banking industry marketed, “safe,” even though research demonstrated that the public felt its money was already safe. Even those who banked at a failing bank knew it was federally insured. To be important, banks needed to consider the highest emotional intensity in the category: Anger.

3. Definition. The positioning must be distinctive. It must set the brand apart from the competitive set.

How banks rate: 2. This depends on the individual bank brand, of course, but very few of them are emotionally different than their competitors. Most follow the market leader, Bank of America, both in terms of messaging, brand face (reflection of the target audience) and even in color palette. Ever notice that the color palette of most banks is dominated by blue?

4. Density: The positioning must be single-minded. It must have clarity, simplicity and must illuminate the target’s main precept.

How banks rate: 2. The banking industry does not deal in precepts (belief systems that drive behavior) because there is very little emotional or strategic play in its messaging that suggest it understands why target audiences choose. Except in rare cases, it is also not very single-minded. The players in the industry are all over the map. Quick Question (as a test): What is the single-minded message of, let’s say, Wachovia? (Waiting.)

5. Synthesis. Fuse the positioning together in an emotional bond with the target audience. It must grab them in the gut.

How banks rate: 1. If there were a zero, we’d use it here. The only attempt at emotion is either “dream your dream” kind of emotion, which is overused, or is about the bank itself. Rarely, if ever, is there marketing in which the target audience says, “They get it. They know where I’m at.”

Trusting the Bank Brands

6. Integrity. The positioning must be believable. If the message raises suspicion – even if it is true – it raises barriers.

How banks rate: 3. Target audience may be distrustful of banks, but the messaging is so benign that it is generally believable on a very simplistic level. (We believe that, yes, you have a reward program.) However, what is not believed is that any bank is better than another.  If you are fed up with your current bank, do you really believe it’s any better over at Citibank or BB&T or TD Bank or anyone else? That’s the reason why audiences don’t switch. They don’t believe there’s a true choice.

7. Precision. The brand message must speak to the target audience best positioned to make a choice.

How banks rate: 1. For most, this is about segmenting the market. In banking, it’s about speaking directly to those most likely to switch. Therefore, banks need to ask what those are looking for? The banking community gets this significantly wrong because it often markets the things target audiences believe they already have, like free checking. In most cases, banks seem to be talking to those who have already chosen them.

8. Convergence. The positioning must convey the same message in all the ways the consumer touches the brand.

How banks rate: 5. Consistency is one of the few things the banking industry gets right. The problem, however, is the “brand” is usually just the category benefits of banking, not the brand of the bank itself.

The News Gets Worse

9. Momentum. The present positioning must build upon (but never mimic) the equity of past communications to leverage any residual positioning equity.

How banks rate: 2. We’d give banks a better score here if they had any equity to leverage. Bank of America has some (and even does a better job than it had before), while Chase and Wells Fargo do make some attempt. However, the positioning and messaging those take has almost no relationship with the equity.

10. Acceleration. The positioning must keep pace with the changing markets to evolve constantly, making itself increasingly effective day.

they are the worst at brand marketing because they all look alike
Why are they so confused

How banks rate: 1. Oh boy. The most shocking thing about bank marketing is how little it changed after the economic collapse of which banks are blamed. Looking at a before and after, even among smaller banks, is to see mirror images of each other. Research has shown that consumers believe they themselves have changed, but financial institutions have not.

Without trying to be flippant, this is case closed. It also serves as a way to measure the effectiveness of your brand and how you can know its value. Bank marketing is simply the worlds worst. They never develop a brand message of meaning.

The banking industry is the one in most need of repair. It spends billions of advertising dollars (Bank of America actually spends more than Budweiser) and wonders why so few switch their primary financial institution.

It’s simple. It’s because they all say the same things, feel the same in terms of tone and attitude, and completely ignore what is most important to the target audience they are trying to reach. Overall score: 2.2.

That’s the reason so few switch banks.

(Read our bank marketing study here)

Tom Dougherty invited back as Speaker – Stealing Share

Stealing Share invited back as featured banking speaker

featured banking speaker
Tom Dougherty

Stealing Share CEO and Senior Strategist, Tom Dougherty, is invited to be a featured speaker at the National Financial Symposium once again.

After a strong reception at last year’s Chicago gathering, Stealing Share was invited to address the three day symposium in Palm Desert California and asked to speak on the relationship between banking brands and the retail message.

Hyatt Grand Champions Resort & Spa Indian Wells, CA POSITIONING BRAND TO STEAL MARKET SHARE This session presents an innovative brand perspective that targets both the precepts of the customer and the positioning of brand within the financial market space. Using the brand as a prime reference, the audience will be educated and directed toward branding that steals valuable, coveted market share from the competition.

More about Tom Dougherty as a featured speaker here


Stealing Share Rebrands SECU of Maryland

SECU of Maryland. Rebranding a Credit Union


Brand firm conducts research, develops brand for SECU of Maryland

Credit Union Rebranding of SECU Maryland

GREENSBORO, NC – August 10, 2010 – Stealing Share, Inc. a brand development firm that helps companies steal market share from competitors, recently concluded a new branding initiative with SECU of Maryland that is represented in the credit union’s new look and position under the themeline of “Different Direction.”

The new look for SECU includes a black and green logo with a turning symbol that suggests a change taking place, and the themeline of “Different Direction” positions the credit union as providing a true choice in an industry where audiences believe there is no choice.

Make the Credit Union Brand Different

“Brands are only meaningful if they are different and better than the competition,” said Tom Dougherty, CEO of Stealing Share. “A primary reason the financial industry has failed customers is because they often feel trapped by their primary financial institution. Even when they think about switching, they believe there is nothing different ‘over there.’ SECU represents that better choice.”

Resultant research spearheaded Credit Union Rebranding of SECUStealing Share’s brand research arm, Resultant, conducted market research for SECU, a $2.2 billion credit union that serves more than 240,000 members in Maryland. The project resulted in analysis and recommendations for brand strategy to make SECU’s brand more relevant in today’s economic climate and help the credit union better serve its members.

“The purpose was to help SECU find new ways to communicate its benefits and purpose to all of its stakeholders – employees, current and potential members, and businesses,” said Dougherty. “Our goal was to uncover what is most meaningful to those audiences so SECU can resonate more fully than it has been in its market. With this brand, SECU are taking the steps to accomplish that.”

Read out Bank Study Here


Increasing The Market Share of Banks and Credit Unions

Differentiating the Banking Category by Banks and Credit Unions


Change is everywhere

Banking category
Banks face a choice

The banking industry is going through another of its transition periods as banks come to understand that they are more closely aligned with the service sector than they are with the financial sector.

The stakes for success are high and the losers will eventually fail. The trend towards consolidation is continuing and, increasingly, large banks are looming on the competitive horizon.

These larger banks have immense marketing budgets to wield and their national advertising provides them with greater local awareness than even the most established community banks.

Banks and credit unions placed in the Banking categoryTherefore, one would think that the largest multi-state banks would hold an insurmountable advantage in gaining new customers and growing market share. The evidence, however, would point to a different conclusion.

Had any bank broken through the awareness barrier with important meaning to the prospective (not the current) customer base, then it would not be necessary to build a branch on what seems like every street corner.

The Current Banking Category

Why You Must Do Things Differently

The reason to invest in a brand is to protect banks against the tremendous capital expense of having to put a new branch on every corner. You need to attract new customers when the bank is not necessarily the most convenient. The reason few banks have been able to win the battle for the wallet (which is in fact a battle for importance on an emotional and intellectual level) is telling.

The Banking category in a chartAdvertising does little to differentiate one bank brand from another and they seem to dwell on category-wide benefits. While it may actually matter (according to your market research) to a potential banking customer that your bank is: convenient, has many ATM machines, competitive rates, “free checking” (we have even seen promises of “SUPER FREE CHECKING”), friendly service, and that you are “small enough to care – large enough to meet your needs,” all of these attributes are banking category table stakes.

Current advertising does little to differentiate beyond corporate identity.

You Can’t Win With Table Stakes

You cannot be a BANK (or Credit Union) today if you are inconvenient, have few ATMs, unfriendly service, expensive checking, and are “too large to care and too small to meet your needs.” We cannot find any bank or credit union that advertises these deficits and your potential customers have a right to believe that banks are in fact, all, pretty much the same. So, left without REAL choices, consumers choose by convenience and locations -occasionally word of mouth reputation, and, most importantly, when they are fed up with their current bank.

Be More Important

Bank category table stakesFor the customer, switching banks or credit unions is a first rate hassle. They avoid it unless they have relocated, moved, changed jobs, or been poorly treated by their current bank. All things considered they are likely to just stay put. If you want to win in this market space and increase your market share, you need to target those that are already looking to switch banks because of one of the above reasons. You must also stand out in their minds, above their considered set of banking choices, to win.

This means that banks and credit unions need to know their potential banking customers better than banks currently know them. Market research that tells you that they value convenience and location but all of these things are not doing enough to help banks increase market share. You do not need research to know this.

It is a consumer trend that transcends your banking category and it does not tell you how to be different and better (as a bank brand) which is the hallmark of a brand that steals, grows, and increases market share.

Your Bank Marketing Success Is Dependent on Your Strategic Brand Work

We are not talking about your bank marketing and advertising failings, we are talking about the DNA of your brand that pre-determines how effective your advertising will be because it provides the fundamental permission to be vitally important and believable. It is this essence that will make everything you market more effective.

Without such a fundamental changes, the only answer to your quest to increase market share is to build more branches, spend more on advertising, and buy up more competitors.

The Detailed Banking Category Decision Tree

Bank and Credit Union Decision Tree – Choosing a Financial Institution in 21 Steps

  1. What do I need to do with my money?
    The first question is what NEEDS to be done. The customer needs to become aware of the situation at hand and automatically addresses what needs to be done in order to live.
  2. What should I do with my money?
    Then the customer begins to think about what they SHOULD do with their money. This could include considering what will bring in more profit or how much should be saved as opposed to invested…etc. The customer begins to debate after the recognition of what must be done in order to function properly.
  3. Banking category choicesWhat do I want to do with my money?
    Following the debate of what needs to and should be done with finances, the customer begins to take into account what they would like to do or WANTS to do with their money for themselves. They think about what will make them the most profit and what will be easy and beneficial for them.
  4. What do I know?
    Naturally the customer then begins to think about how much experience and knowledge they have in this field and wonders how much control they could have over their money based upon this experience and knowledge.
  5. What will be best for me?
    The customer asks himself if they know best and if they knows of the best options for themselves. They consider themselves as an individual before considering others involved in the decisions.
  6. What will be best for my spouse/family?
    Immediately after the personalization of the decision has been established, they become aware of the needs of the family/spouse. Determining what would be best for them may not in fact be the same as determining what is best for them as an individual.
  7. Am I a member of a particular group that has a specific financial set-up?
    Next the prospect thinks about their current situation regarding employment, benefits, and other factors. They ask themselves if they are a member of a certain institution by association or if there could be added benefits to belonging to an institution aligned with their employment benefits. For example, a certain credit union or bank may only accept members or share holders who work for a particular company or for the government…etc.
  8. What is the easiest solution?
    This is where they begins to get frustrated and starts looking for the easiest, most painless option. After discovering the many factors involved with choosing a new home for his finances and those of his family/spouse, he begins to look for a quick fix or an easy answer to appear.
  9. Does location matter (work/home)?
    Convenience becomes the next question. The financial institution close to home or to work presents an easy option that is accessible and timely. Thy wonder if they will make any sacrifices in order to have that convenience factor of proximity.
  10. What resources do I need to make this happen?
    Next, they wonder what kind of money they need to start up and how much money they will need to budget for each account. Do they need anything in particular before he starts up his accounts?
  11. What are my options?
    They observe the entire set of institutions in the area and realizes there are more options than they thought. They realize that they may not know which one will be right for them or their family/spouse.
  12. University marketing studyWhat do my family and friends use for their finances?
    Immediately they turn to people he trusts for advice and recommendations. They figure if they use XYZ Bank and they have no problems, then I should go check out XYZ bank because it would probably work for them too. Which is sometimes, but definitely not always the case.
  13. Who will help me?
    They look for more assistance. They start becoming aware of the different institutions advertising, the way the buildings look…etc. They seek information and may either go inside for help from an employee or they may look on the Internet for information and ratings.
  14. What will make a difference? They determine the deciding factor, whether it is location, price, options, customer service…etc. There will be one factor that will directly influence their final decision.
  15. How will I keep my records?
    They want to know how they will keep track of his money and see what is being done to maximize their profits. They want to be sure they can see what is happening and that they feel security in the decision time and time again.
  16. What kind of access will I have?
    Security also lies within the realm of easy access. Will the money be safe from everyone else but entirely accessible to them? They want to know that if any transactions or emergency funds are needed, that they can rely on his provider to be there for them regardless of day or hour.
  17. What will I have to do?
    How do they get started? They want to know of any catches or start-up fees. They need to know how difficult it will be for them to get organized and fall into a pattern at the new institution.
  18. What will be done for me?
    They want to know what kind of service they will be getting in return for their investment of their finances. What kind of rewards are given to the customer and what can be done to make life easier? They want peace of mind and to know that they are being accommodated.
  19. Over what will I have control?
    In other words, what do I have to do to keep things going in the right direction? They want some sort of control over their money, but not enough that they feel as though they are completely responsible for what happens to it while it is in the bank or in mutual funds…etc. They want to have control via access and knowledge.
  20. What kind of fees and charges are involved?
    Everyone naturally wants to know what kind of late fees or start-up fees pop up. As consumers, we are always taught to look for the small print and the hidden catches when something seems too good to be true.
  21. What will I have the ability to do on my computer?
    They want to know what can be accomplished at home on the computer. When they cannot make it to the institution after work or during lunch, they want to know if they can come home and have online capabilities. They also want to know if there is anything online that sets this particular place over another. They are still looking for assurance that they are going to make the right decision.

Understanding “the switcher” is key and you need to understand the thought process that propels customers to switch.

At Stealing Share we build decision trees to help us visualize this and help us anticipate all of the internal questions that the prospect makes when they consider switching banks. We then address those issues in the brand’s definition being careful to note the important questions that is the self-identify of the customer.

It is these questions that illuminate the bank’s promise because your brand is NEVER about you. It is all about the customer. If the prospect can find themselves in the brand, sharing their core beliefs and values they will prefer you and you will increase your market share.


 Banking Opportunity in the Banking categoryOpportunity is always found in the belief systems of your target audience.


The ways in which banks and credit unions speak today does little to create preference. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, BB&T, First Trust, RBC Centura, PNC, and Sun Trust all appear as the same to potential customers.

Real opportunity to increase market share will be found when they finally define themselves in terms of the customer and not in terms of their own offerings and services.

As long as banks and credit unions continue to see themselves solely as banks and not as extensions of their prospective customers then their only option is to put a new bank branch on every street corner in America, wasting valuable capital and resources that may ultimately place the bank itself at a competitive disadvantage.


What is going on in the banking category?

Banking Market Study Update