Banks as bottled water brands? Who would have thought?

Why Banks Need to Think More Like Bottled Water Brands

By this point, most banks are well-aware that they are marketing a commodity. Even if you’re the industry’s latest darling, Chime, the reality is this: bank services, features and benefits all look exactly the same. Everyone’s got a mobile app. Everyone’s got low rates. Everyone will support you through your mortgage or business loan. Everyone is committed to being local.

Not only are banks completely similar, but they all keep driving their marketing in the same direction. The formula goes like this: Define a loose messaging architecture, buy yourself a sports sponsorship (there’s actually merit to this tactic, but that’s a topic for another day), run an ad campaign featuring broad, intangible proclamations for me-too services, produce some thought leadership which generates very little love at all, and call it a day.

In so many ways, banks are accepting that they are a commodity – a brand that looks exactly like any other. They don’t believe that they can be a specialty ­– a brand with a deep and differentiating focal point that always outperforms its competition.

Banks can avoid the “commodity trap” with a very simple shift in their self-understanding: Stop thinking of themselves as banks at all. Instead, start thinking more like bottled water companies.


Here’s what we mean: Recently, we wrote a piece about Liquid Death, the water company which is sending shockwaves through the industry by doing a very simple thing: Focusing on metalheads and punkrockers of the sober variety. It sounds insane, we know, but Liquid Death is having success because it’s doing what banks should be doing:

Accept that your product is exactly the same as your competition, and instead differentiate by having a clear target audience instead.

Banks can be different. But it takes guts and know-how. Rather than trying to be “the bank for people who have money,” the opportunity exists to “be the bank for X people.” The benefit to this approach is simple: Ultra-relevance, a differentiating customer experience, a better go-to-market strategy, customer advocates and evangelists … the list goes on.

To bring the strategic opportunity to life, we created two imaginary banks for you to consider: Starter’s Bank and CoBank (The names suck, we know). Here are the brand positionings for each of them:

  • Starter’s Bank: A bank with a focus on helping start-ups, entrepreneurs and innovators to make their dreams into a reality.
  • CoBank: A bank with a focus on helping community organizers, engaged citizens and the like to bring about positive change in the communities where they live.

Here’s the fun part. Now that we have a clear, unique positioning, let’s start to get a taste of the kind of marketing we can do when we know our audience, and know them well.

Starter’s Bank: The Bank for Innovators and Entrepreneurs

Recommended Marketing Tactics:

  • Entrepreneur’s Roundtable: Offer up bespoke roundtables to new and budding start-ups featuring experienced and successful entrepreneurs and their lessons learned
  • Accelerator Sponsorships: Sponsor accelerators at universities and in the post-collegiate setting
  • Co-Working Space: Featured lunch-and-learns at co-working spaces where start-ups and entrepreneurs are likely to operate
  • Start-Up Content Marketing: Offer helpful and insightful content marketing for entrepreneurs on when to take financing from banks, along with critical pitfalls to avoid
  • Influencer Partnerships: Partner with innovators across LinkedIn and Instagram to distribute sponsored content around innovation and entrepreneurship
  • Innovation Grants: Annual “kickstarter contest” which evaluates some of the best business ideas and offers micro-financed grants to the top 3 ideas
  • Branch Experience: Feels more like an Apple store, and less like a bank – right on down to the t-shirts that all employees are expected to wear

CoBank: The Bank for People Who Want to Create Change (Hm. That’s not actually a bad tagline.)

Recommended Marketing Tactics:

  • Corporate Social Responsibility: Active funding and donations (“meaningful sponsorships”) to organizations that are focused on creating change in society (climate, diversity, etc.)
  • Get Out the Vote: Regular marketing and advertising centered on getting people out to vote – regardless of political affiliations
  • Branch Experience: Branches act as “community hubs” where community members can meet, organize and rally. Commitment to LEED-certified branch spaces with limited carbon footprints
  • Lending Programs: Specialized lending and micro-financing programs for changemakers with big ideas
  • Cards for a Cause: Credit cards with points that are automatically donated to key sponsor organizations (Rock the Vote, World Wildlife Fund, etc.)
  • Employee Experience: Focus on hiring mission-driven people who live within the communities of the bank itself. Offer 2-3 paid volunteer days. Support for employees in their own change projects.
  • Sponsorships: Think yoga festivals, vegetarian groups and walks and runs for specific causes

The list could go on – literally. In under 30 minutes, we’ve generated 14 completely differentiating marketing tactics, all driven from two highly differentiated strategies. There is easily more where this came from, and it doesn’t even begin to touch the brand voice, look and feel that could be completely stand-out for each of these (imaginary) banks.

In closing, we have to refute some of your natural arguments:

Argument: But my bank already HAS a target audience and a set of customers, and it’s a really broad group. I’ll never get my executive team to focus like this.

 Answer: We get it – there’s this little thing called reality. So, don’t make your sole focus one of these audiences – call it a microsegment and run a highly differentiated campaign against the segment. Track the success, consolidate your gains, rinse and repeat.

Argument: There’s not enough people in these audiences to rationalize going so narrow.

 Answer: You’re starting here but it’s not where you’ll end up. While these audiences are your core, there are tangential audiences who we can start to speak to after we gain traction. Examples: Starter’s Bank can begin to evolve towards targeting a younger, more tech-savvy audience, first in college campuses and then across the world. CoBank can begin to move towards political progressives who share similar values.

Argument: But no banks brand themselves this way today.

Answer #1: We’d argue that Commerce Bank’s focus on convenience – while not target audience oriented – was as close to being a “specialty” brand as you can get. Wells Fargo’s early focus on the West, delivering gold and servicing mining camps was pretty darn focused.

Answer #2: Well, why do you think you’re all considered a commodity?

It may sounds obvious, but if you want to be a specialty brand, you need to specialize in something.

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