Banking on brand boldness

Regional banks work to differentiate their brands after mergers

Posted on Nov 1, 2016 :: Financial Services , Insight On
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

With many community and commercial banks merging or partnering, customers stand by and watch as different names appear on their favorite branch locations, and new clients might wonder where to start.

So how do banks stand out and attract new clients in an evolving and competitive industry?

Regional banks say efforts to distinguish their brands are less a concerted marketing effort and more about simply doing their best work to solidify relationships with customers.

“I know that there are entire books written about differentiation,” says Jeff Gahnz, vice president of marketing for the Green Bay-based Nicolet Bank. “The reality is very simple.”

Banks like Baylake Bank (for years based in Sturgeon Bay), which merged with Nicolet earlier this year, and the Medford-based Mid-Wisconsin Bank, which Nicolet purchased in 2012, were successful for a reason, he says.

“Continuing to succeed is basically being true to who you are, knowing what your brand is and simply doing as well as you can into the future,” Gahnz says.

Some of the other recent mergers and partnerships include:

• BMO Harris acquired M&I Bank in 2011.

• First Business Bank acquired Aslin Group, the parent company of Alterra Bank, expanding into the Kansas City market in 2014.

• AnchorBank merged with the Evansville, Ind.-based Old National Bank this year, with the conversion of all 46 AnchorBank offices in Wisconsin completed in September. About half of those branches are in the Madison area with the rest in Milwaukee and the Fox Cities.

• The Business Bank merged into Investors Community Bank in May, combining two locations each (Stevens Point, Manitowoc, Appleton and Green Bay).

Some banks, like Investors Community Bank, founded and headquartered in Manitowoc, stand out by specializing in a particular area and building upon that focus. In Investors’ case, that means primarily business and agriculture lending.

“In trying to seek out a merger partner, one of the things we felt was important is finding somebody that’s focused similarly to who we are,” says Dave Coggins, chief banking officer of Investors Community Bank. “The Business Bank was exclusively a business bank, so that fit right into our DNA.”

Investors, which also had a branch in Stevens Point, recently added The Business Bank locations in Appleton and Green Bay and retained local bankers to help them build brand awareness in their new communities, says Laura Wiegert, vice president of marketing.

“They know the community, they know the people, and we’re starting to get our name out there more frequently,” she says. “We tell them ‘we promise to walk in their shoes,’ and businesses appreciate the fact that we try to best understand their unique financial needs.”

“Everybody believes they’re the best and their product offerings and people are better than the next guy,” Coggins says. “But it really does boil down to people, their relationship-building skills, and their ability to deliver on our brand promise.”

With banks in four locations, Investors is a relatively small organization; it has customers in 61 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, mainly focused in Central and Northeast Wisconsin.

A bank with a wider reach, the Indiana-based Old National Bank, which absorbed about four dozen AnchorBank locations in Wisconsin, still focuses on that local connection to ensure it stands out.

“We intentionally have held onto what we call a ‘community bank model,’” says Len Devaisher, Old National Bank regional CEO-Wisconsin. “For us, that really means local leadership. We understand that one size doesn’t fit all.”

Devaisher says Old National Bank also places a strong emphasis on ethics in its operations.

“Our industry overall — financial services — is one that’s been subject to a lot of scrutiny, and frankly deservedly so, because some in this industry have not guarded and stewarded the trust that clients put in us,” Devaisher says. “The good news is this becomes an opportunity for us to talk about our approach.”

Old National Bank was named in August as one of the nation’s 60 Best Banks to Work For by American Banker magazine, ranking second, and was also one of few banks listed by the Ethisphere Institute as a 2016 World’s Most Ethical Company. The organization has made the list for the past five years.

“That’s something that we talk a lot about,” Devaisher says. “Every executive leadership meeting we hold begins with an ethics message, because that for us is really foundational to everything else we talk about.”

Each bank leader highlights customer relationships as the primary way to ensure they stand out as a banking choice in the region.

“Our brand is simply a promise that we try every day to uphold,” says Gahnz of Nicolet Bank. “It’s up to the people who actually interact with us to tell us what our brand is. How we stand out is we know what we do well. And we try to do it better than our competitors do.”