Wednesday, August 08, 2007

It’s the community, Jake

Yesterday I found myself at lunch with a friend who is in charge of "brand management” at a medium-sized, growth-oriented bank that is working hard at distinguishing itself from the rest of the bank pack.

I won’t share names.

Anyway, this bank has a lot of things going for it, including my friend. Let’s call him “Jake” to make him more real. It turns out that Jake, who lives in Hillsdale, is pitching Hillsdale as a site for a new branch.

We ate at the Three Square Grill, which fronts on his Hillsdale banking competition: Key Bank and Bank of America. Our family patronizes both branches, but we hardly have warm fuzzies about them.

Warm fuzzies are parts of Jake’s thinking. A bank, he tells me, should be a community hub, like a corner grocery, like the Third Place (after home and work/school).

Starbucks has gotten a lot of mileage out of the Third Place concept, but I sense the coffee behemoth may have run the “place” into the ground, especially when local community-attuned entrepreneurs can capture the special feeling of a unique “place” so much better.

So I listened to Jake’s pitch about his bank and its brand and where it is all headed — community-wise, as it were.

I’ve probably given as much thought to what it means to be a community and to build a community (this community in particular), as anyone around. So when Jake finished talking, I gave him my non-professional thoughts about banks (and ambitious corporations) and my brow-furrowing thoughts about community.

Community and corporations are diametrically opposed, I said, so for both to be successful in the same place, somebody has to change. Turns out communities are changing (Thanks to hyper-local media, they are discovering themselves, for starters), but not in ways helpful to corporations. So corporations need to ride the community change wave.

More than that, they need to help facilitate that change and make it a stated, well-publicized goal.

What has the Bank of America ever done for Hillsdale? What has Key Bank done for Hillsdale? Precious little besides take and use our money. Both are oriented to individuals (hey, this has been an individualistic society) and not to the immediate community, which is evolving in importance. Think communitarianism.

I remember making the pitch to Hillsdale’s banks for ads for The Southwest Community Connection when I started it back in 1994. I suggested that by placing an ad in the community newspaper, the bank would send the message that it was part of the community — that it supported an institution (The Connection) that was important to community building.

I got three responses.

One, “corporate” (and often an ad agency in east of the Mississippi) makes those decisions.

Two, it’s too much trouble dealing with small-circulation, individual publications.

Three, we buy in mass media in mass markets. It’s not just easier that way; we get more eyes for the advertising dollar.

Message: Forget community; it’s all about reaching the individual, autonomous customer, disconnected from his or her surroundings.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

But back to Jake, the brand manager. I suggested that communities have their own brands. Don’t replace theirs with yours — meld them.

Explore what it means to “be a part of the community.” The bank that is most embedded in a community will be the bank that gets the community’s business. (A good example is Edward Jones Investments, which puts community-involved agents in small communities — exactly like Hillsdale and Multnomah Village.)

The most important location for a business is not physical but emotional. Identify with, appeal to and support the community’s “heart” — its schools, its creativity, its farmers market, its neighborhood association, its open spaces, plazas and parks and its efforts to make them all better.

If a community embraces a bank as “its bank,” it doesn’t matter if there is enough parking (think internet banking) or whether the place faces on the main drag. I urged Jake to rethink some of the constraining traditional parameters for where to site a storefront bank. The question isn’t so much where in the community a bank is as what in the community a bank is.

Deeds count far more than appearances.

Names: Community comes first. The sign on the bank shouldn’t be Key Bank or U.S. Bank. It should be, in BIG letters “HILLSDALE, Key Bank” or “HILLSDALE, Umpqua.” Note the clever insertion of a comma, as in “Portland, Oregon.” The implied message is that Umpqua is a state … a state of mind, but the community comes first.

On this point, “The Bank of America” has a problem. “Hillsdale, Bank of America” screams contradiction. We want, in essence, is a Bank of Hillsdale.

Growth. Corporations live or die on growth; but growth can also kill. I told Jake that each bank branch opened shouldn’t be seen as enlarging the corporation, but as helping another community, and doing it from the inside out.

And that’s my final point: New branches shouldn’t be imposed on communities. They shouldn't arrive as strangers or new-comers. The siting process shouldn’t be a question of them (the community) and us (the bank). If Hillsdale is a prospective branch site, long before the doors open, the bank needs to involve the community and explore ways to address its needs as part of the siting decision. Community buy-in and emotional “ownership" means the community is part of the planning.

When our conversation ended, Jake picked up the tab. “It’s on the bank,” he said.

I hope the bank got its money's worth.

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Blogger Dickey45 said...

Not sure what you mean by "community-involved agents". I've heard Umpqua bank used to be a serious community bank. My boyfriend's family banked there for decades. I would imagine a bank that does community-wide micro loans (maybe even loans directly from banking members) would be great and helpful.

I really wonder if banking regulations have taken from "credit union" type banks which allowed them to be a community type bank. They don't seem to be a whole lot different than the big banks anymore.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

By "community-involved" agent I can be quite specific. Mark Reynolds of Hillsdale's Edward Jones office volunteers to be on the board of our Hillsdale Business and Professional Association. He also serves coffee to prospective clients at the Sunday farmers market. In short, he gets it.

But wait, there's more!

The major property owner in Hillsdale has been the treasurer of the organization for years. She is the complete opposite of "absentee property owner."

Mike Roach, co-owner of Paloma Clothing, is HBPA president and a major force in helping our schools.

The list goes on and on.

Sadly, the banks don't get it. No one from either of the branches gets involved. Our HBPA board used to meet monthly at Key Bank but that was about the extent of it.

8:25 AM  

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