Villing & Company

Cheering for the underdog: Opportunities for challenger brands in financial services

My favorite time of year is just beginning.  March Madness.  A month when many of us spend way too much time filling out and following the fortunes of our bracket selections.  And for cheering for the underdogs - the Cinderellas who will either make our day or break our hearts.

Americans seem to have a special affinity for underdogs.  Maybe it’s part of our historical DNA.  Maybe it is human nature.  But most of us want to see David take down Goliath.

In marketing, underdogs are called “challenger brands”.  In virtually every business category, there are the established brand leaders and insurgent challengers.  But as I look across the business landscape, no industry holds greater opportunity for challenger brands than financial services.

Credit unions and community banks are generally looked upon much more favorably than mega banks. While the 2008 financial crisis certainly had a negative impact on the perceived trustworthiness of the big name banks, it would be a mistake to say that is the only dynamic in play.  It goes back to the aforementioned American tendency to root for the underdogs.  Smaller financial institutions are inherently more personal and relatable than their big brothers.  Simply, more likable.

So there are significant opportunities for community banks and credit unions to leverage these attitudes in their brand messaging.  It’s important to let consumers know about your core values, your commitment to the local community and your accessibility and willingness to serve their needs.

However…  there is also a danger in building one’s brand on a foundation of such relatively soft attributes.  At the end of the day, consumers want to know that their more tangible needs are being met.  Convenience.  Location.  Breadth of services.  Technology.  These are the areas where the big guys have the edge.  They have the human and financial resources to do what their smaller brethren often cannot.

This isn’t exactly rocket science, but in the most basic terms, here is some advice.

  1. Level the playing field in any way you can.  Make sure you are accessible to your customers or members. Remember the old axiom “The best place to fish is where the fish are”. Some consumers need their financial service providers to have convenience in the form of branches that are easily accessible to when and where they live, work or shop. Conversely, many younger, more technologically savvy consumers prefer to avoid human contact and maintain access through mobile and online connections. If you can’t meet these needs at the most basic level, the playing field tips markedly towards the big bank brands.

  2. Leverage your built-in advantages to the max.  Consumers, even those who prefer to keep their relationship at arm’s length, do place a premium on institutions who embrace the values that are important to them. Transparency. Community involvement. Fair and understandable pricing policies. Good communication. And clear and consistent demonstrations of trustworthiness.

There is, of course, much more to the story than time and space permit here.  One could fill the pages of a book (or the character counts of a very substantial e-book) with specific strategies and tactics.  I guess I should work on that. But right now, I have to see how my college basketball tournament brackets are holding up.

Filed Under: Financial

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