When everything is running smoothly for a business, marketers get to serve primarily as the bearers of good news. We share information and stories, opportunities and promotions, experiences that welcome in new audiences and support our long-standing crowd.
But the formula is far from clean. Audience perception can be a fickle thing to manage, and this means that misconceptions, bad PR, or a host of other pressures can result in your marketing team fighting uphill battles for reputation. Financial services marketing teams know this better than most marketers, as they work in a space where trust is earned at a premium.
While today it might be easy to bring to mind news stories of data breaches and predatory banking practices, there are also a number of financial brands that are working hard to earn audience confidence in new ways by embracing content marketing practices.
“Trust. It was the most important word in banking when I opened my teller window for the first time as an 18-year-old banker in 1976,” former US Bank CEO Richard Davis wrote in his retirement letter last year. “Times have changed. The essence of the relationship between bankers and customers, however, has not: do the right thing and re-earn their trust today.”
When it comes to effective, ethical marketing, trust always plays an implicit part in the conversation—your audience can’t listen to what you have to say if they don’t believe your brand when you say it. This rule applies twice over for financial brands because of the further suggestion that an untrustworthy brand is out for nothing less than to separate people from their money. Where trust is a core value for all marketing, it is elevated to a singular currency for marketers in finance.
This requires enormous work from financial brands to reorient their marketing into forms that people are inherently more able to trust. But for those that are able to do so effectively, there are powerful, lasting relationships to be earned.
Davis’ statements about banking rings true throughout the business he has recently left. Trust remains central to US Bank’s brand mission and public slogan. Their annual report is geared toward building relationships and trust with audiences, rather than the primary goal of driving profits. But perhaps most importantly, the US Bank annual report was framed not by a vision statement or a balance sheet—it opened with a story about a customer.
This format, directly tying business goals and outcomes to the stories of their audiences, seems to be the shift that financial services marketing needs. By placing the audience’s story at the center of their marketing, brands make their topics directly applicable to their audiences’ lives while simultaneously alleviating one of the primary drivers of distrust: the belief that a brand is not primarily operating for your benefit.
Online bank Ally is also stepping up in this space. For a while now, Ally has hosted a rather robust content hub with useful information for understanding and handling finances. But recently they’ve also added an interesting navigational addition—a series of evergreen and informative content, mapped directly to the common financial lifecycle of their readers.
You don’t get the impression when entering Ally’s blog that you’re going to run into advertorial content that seems to always end on a note about the bank’s competitive CD rates or promotions for opening a savings account. Rather, the brand does the hard work of mapping their content to an intuitive structure for their audience and then supporting it in a way that remains useful and trustworthy without being salesy.
Successful ethical marketing doesn’t rely on telling readers that they should trust a brand—this is a continual mistake that we see through short-form advertising on a regular basis. The better approach is to match the form and function of your content to the expectations of your audience and to let trust grow naturally from there.
Most financial brands are still undergoing some growing pains in this space. Take for instance Capital One, which has perhaps one of the most unique examples of this. In what initially looked to be a very strange brand partnership, Capital One launched their “Cafés” in cities across the US with Peet’s Coffee, promising to offer patrons a place to sit, relax, and . . . talk about banking?
Strange as it may be, their formula sought to challenge the sometimes dehumanizing act of going to a local bank branch. Rather than counters, tellers, and security bars, customers could ask questions and plan for their futures in a comfortable setting over a cup of coffee.
The problem, however, is that this experience has yet to catch up to Capital One’s site. The brand’s learning portal sports a decent list of evergreen financial education information, but that’s about it. There isn’t much attempt made to produce timely content that tackles present day needs, the content itself is housed in a space that is surrounded by promotions and CTAs to buy banking products, and overall there is the impression that the authenticity of the Cafés hasn’t caught up to their digital brand presence.
Image attribution: Raw Pixel
It’s an illustration that drives home an essential but difficult to manage reality of ethical financial services marketing—the personal experience of interacting with your brand has to extended across the entirety of your audience’s experience. Online banks like Ally have a bit of an advantage here, because they can constrain all experience to phone calls, website interaction, and their app. More traditional brands like Capital One have more to balance and optimize, and in their case they’ve started with the difficult task of improving their brick-and-mortar experience.
There is an enormous amount of room for brands to improve their experiences and grow trust with their audiences. The challenge is that while content marketing is a powerful driver for this type of change, a more holistic shift towards audience-story-driven experiences is often necessary to preserve earned trust throughout each customer’s journey. It is in this challenge that content marketers may have an opportunity to take a leadership role in shaping the future of how people speak to their financial brands.
For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.
Image attribution: William Iven