Harnessing brand power within financial services demands a new way of thinking. It’s not quick and it’s not easy, but it’s a shift that any financial institution can adopt, and it’s worth the investment because great brands all speak the same language: Returns. Great brands get great returns every time. To be relevant today and to ensure growth tomorrow, financial institutions should take a cue from consumer brands. It’s time to connect with customers and create meaningful experiences. 

In their new book, Think Like a Brand, Not a Bank, Allison Netzer and Liz High show banks and credit unions how to embrace their brand and reap the benefits. With data-rich insight and real-life examples, the book is a compelling look at how financial institutions can build value now and create a roadmap for the future.

Hey Listeners, my name is Drew Appelbaum and I’m excited to be here today with Allison Netzer and Liz High, authors of Think Like a Brand, Not a Bank: Five Practical Strategies to Unlock Innovation, Connect with Customers and Grow. Allison and Liz, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.

Allison Netzer: Thanks for having us Drew, we’re excited.

Liz High: Yeah, it’s a pleasure.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, can you help kick this off for us, can you respectively give a brief rundown of your professional background?

Allison Netzer: Sure, this is Allison. So I’ve been in marketing and sales for a little over 20 years now in technology. So I had a nice 13 years with Dell and then after that, really went out and started working with brands, large and small, across various industries and most recently, the last five or six has been in financial services.

Liz High: And I, much like Allison, have been working in marketing or customer insight for 20 plus years, and I have a full background from setting up and establishing my own marketing and innovation agency, which I ran for about 13 years, and then moving into discovering a passion for the intersection between technology, data and insight and then ultimately, that’s what’s led me to FinTech and banking.

Drew Appelbaum: So, how long have you two known each other and why did you decide to collaborate on this book?

Allison Netzer: Well, we met when we were children—no. So we’ve been colleagues and friends, I’ve actually counted it up before this interview, for almost six years now, about five and a half to six years, and worked very closely with clients, with the companies that we work for and really decided to write a book — I don’t know, Liz, maybe I guess it was around Thanksgiving of this past year when Liz shared with me, one, that it was on her bucket list and two, I’m not a formally trained marketer. I really wanted to write the book I wish I had when I started out, that was a big goal. I hope we got close but yeah, it’s been a great collaboration so far. 

Liz High: Yeah, I would just echo that. You know, a lot of what’s in the book is quite conversational because it’s the things that Allison and I talk about all the time with the banks, the credit unions and the FinTechs that we work with. It really is one of the things that Allison’s ambition around the book was, to really share the knowledge that both of us have, and it really is just things that really makes sense to us, things we know that have worked and things that we know that is relatively easy for banks and credit unions to just pick up and run with.

Discoveries While Writing

Drew Appelbaum: Now, I’m glad you said that. So you both have been doing this for a while, you’ve known each other for five plus years but when it comes time to putting things into a book, a lot of new authors come into some major breakthroughs and learnings just by digging deeper into some of the subjects or just by putting everything together and crafting chapters. So did you two have any of those major breakthroughs or learnings while creating the book?

Allison Netzer: That’s a really good question. I mean, I feel like every chapter, we had a new revelation of some sort and partially because we’re very fortunate that there are a lot of real-world examples in the book, right? It’s not just Liz and Allison think XYZ. So in doing, I don’t know, dozens of interviews, we just kept getting fresher and fresher perspectives on things that we’ve been talking about for a while, and I think one that probably, just very directly for me, one of the principles in the book is sometimes do to counterintuitive things.

In the past few years, I mean, you can just think about how you could apply that and for me, I got a much deeper appreciation of the number of people at our industry and beyond that are really embracing that, whether they choose to word it that way or not, that’s what they’re really doing and that was a surprise for me, and really it was very encouraging.

Liz High: Yeah, I completely agree with that and I think for me, one of the, and it was a very natural kind of conversation and it happened more towards the end of the book, and I know it’s something that you believe a lot in Allison, is this idea of rethinking what value means in relationships between banks, credit unions and their customers.

So it really challenged what we had previously thought makes a bank or a credit union great, and when you start to look at that through the lens of people in other industries, the way that sports teams think or the way that Amazon itself thinks, then you start to see that there’s a massive opportunity for banks and credit unions to think about value really differently.

If there’s one thing that I think or I hope that the book does really well is really recreate a way of saying, “This is what we bring to the market, this is why we’re important and this is the value that we can give back to people that are our customers.”

Drew Appelbaum: So when you started to write the book and when you had this in mind and you’re focusing on banks and financial institutions, who exactly there are you writing this book for and what size banks? Are we talking about small, local, regional banks or can Citi Bank have a major overhaul like this?

Allison Netzer: I think yes, yes is the answer to the question. One of the things that I really admire about the work Liz does and certainly, you know, her voice in the book is, these is very accessible to anyone and by anyone, I mean, any size institution and also, any group within the bank or financial institution.

It would be easy to sort of see this book on its face as a book for marketers, but we talk a lot about the financial case for Thinking Like a Brand and that’s where a lot of Liz’s data background comes in. So CFOs, folks that are like, “Well, that sounds interesting but you know, show me the money.”

Anyone who is really trying to position and push through change within an organization, a change in mindset. So, we do think it’s a broad group but we also hope that we’re able to speak to everyone within those five principles, and we try to be very conscious of that.

Drew Appelbaum: Now, set the foundation for us. How are banks acting in terms of marketing customer service right now and what is the issue with that?

Liz High: So it’s interesting because we talk about this idea of “Think like a Brand Not a Bank” but we’re very — both Allison and I — you know, we love that some of the great work, particularly the community banks and credit unions do, but it comes down to this idea that when you talk about being an industry and everyone talks about the banking industry. That instantly puts a way of thinking.

So typically bank thinking, just because it always has been can be very binary. So it’s either risk or not risk. It’s either you’re a business customer or you’re a consumer and there’s very little gray area and we believe that for banks and credit unions to really innovate and to do different things, it’s time to embrace the gray.

Digital Strategies for Brick-and-Mortar Banks

Drew Appelbaum: You mentioned the FinTech world earlier and right now, there’s all of these new cases of virtual banking and no more brick-and-mortar. Has this really changed how traditional banks should be acting and treating customers and marketing themselves?

Allison Netzer: I think it has. I think that, again with the credit to those who work in banking, a lot of institutions were already moving that way, right? Even pre-pandemic, over 10 years ago, I think about two institutions that come to mind. One is, PSECU. Pennsylvania State Employee Credit Union has been a digital credit union since its inception and that was decades ago. 

Another one is Umpqua Bank which has been digital forward, digital first for decades. So you know, I think it’s — one of the things that Liz will often say and I’m just going to steal her line because it’s so good — it’s already happened. It’s not happening, it’s already happened. So the move to a digital first banking relationship has already happened. 

We’re most interested in not convincing folks of that fact but how they can take that fact to their advantage and deepen the relationships, deepen and broaden the thinking, bringing brand, thinking into that reality, as opposed to spending a hundred pages trying to convince you that the reality has changed. 

Liz High: Yeah and I would just add to that. If you were a community bank or a credit union in red, 90% of the things that are written about them, you would—you know, you just want to give up, but part of what we’re seeing in the book is that there are a lot of things you can do that takes all of the strengths that you’ve got today and build on those.

A big message in the book is that innovation and growth doesn’t mean a million dollars, McKinzie and a blank piece of paper, three things that everyone’s afraid of. It really is about how can you start with a change in your mindset, and once you change that mindset, you can change the decisions you make and then you can start to change the way the institution operates and thinks, but it can start a very accessible and, we think, a very positive place.

Drew Appelbaum: I love that you brought up data and mindset because sometimes, the data convinces the mindset and allows you to open and think more freely and sometimes, marketing is really hard to quantify, and you’re dealing with banks, and so you know you need to bring correct data, clean data and big data, and you actually provided some data right in the beginning of the book that had some interesting insights. 

So Liz, can you share what you found when you dug into some of those pandemic rebound numbers for brands versus other companies? 

Liz High: Yeah, absolutely. Both Allison and I have a real passion for brand being something that has a strong monetary value, and one of the pieces of research that I always desperately run to every year that it comes out is the Kantar 150 Most Valuable Brands, and they do a methodology, which allows you to say not about your turnover, not about how big your organization is, but the real value of your brand. 

During COVID, they did a piece of work looking at how the value and the trust of brands changed through COVID, and what we saw is that when great things were happening in the marketplace like PPP, like banks taking big great things they were doing for the community, supporting food drives, supporting investments for people that were unable to work, there was a really dramatic upturn in financial services trust and financial services value. 

But as soon as all of those things stopped, then the trust in financial services actually went back down to below what had been the prior to that upsurge during COVID. So it kind of said to that yes, brands are valuable. It said yes, financial brands can really make a difference, but doing one-off initiatives or campaigns doesn’t build the level of trust those brands need. 

It is about being more systematic and it is about being more pragmatic about having that ongoing thinking like a brand, being a big part of the community, really solving problems for people that delivers long-term change. 

Drew Appelbaum: When a bank really buys in and they want to embrace that brand first mindset, what are some of the common barriers to change that you’ve heard? 

Allison Netzer: Really good question. I mean, I think any kind of change, the questions or the challenges that we hear most often are, “Is it expensive?” right? When you say the word brand, that sounds expensive, marketing does not, right? So expensive, of course highly regulated industry. So compliance, right? Are all of these great principles and ideas compliant, and they are, and then really the third is, and this is where I have the most hope is, “How do I change the minds of my colleagues? How do change the mindset of my board of directors?” 

“How do I do that piece? I don’t know where to start. I have been told no so many times with different ideas.” So we do try to give the structure for both the financial business case, we try to give the structure on how to do this within a highly regulated industry and then also, how you changed the mindset of others, really by starting with yourself. 

Drew Appelbaum: Is this an overnight shift? Can you say, “Hey, we love customers, here is a free coffee” or really what is the timeline or can you even create a timeline for this process for your bank/brand? 

Allison Netzer: Right, you can and fortunately that “We love customers, have some coffee” tactic has already been taken, so we do not recommend that, although we both definitely love coffee. We get that question a lot Drew, sort of how do I know that I’m there. I’ll share one example from a real customer engagement that Liz and I had, and I am sure she has others. 

So we were sitting down, really doing the Think Like a Brand workshop with the client, and we’re going through the process, they were bought in. We came back, it might have been three to four weeks later, and people in the back were raising their hands and contributing ideas, which they hadn’t done before. 

So I stopped the conversation and I said, “You know, I am just noticing more participation this time and I’d like to know a little bit more about that.” And what they shared was before, raising your hand meant signing yourself up for a task, right? So all ideas were just immediately boiled down to a task and it was kind of like no good deed goes unpunished. 

Whereas now that they were there, they were thinking like a brand, it was really about throwing something out there for the group to build upon. They don’t have to action every comment. They don’t have to action every piece of conversation. The pressure was off and remarkably, bankers, bank marketers, folks involved in this industry are actually extremely creative, but they have to have that pressure taken off, and the mindset of thinking like a brand really does that. 

Liz High: I would agree with that and I think a lot of it comes down to taking small steps. So you know, I was actually talking at a conference for women and banking and a lot of the questions that came up were around, “You know, I feel like I get so much push back. I find it very difficult to get my big ideas out there.” 

I think the big message, I love this idea of taking a very small step out of your comfort zone and checking in, checking in with yourself, checking in with your colleagues, checking in with your team, then feeling okay about that and being prepared to take the next step. So it comes back to that whole thing whereas innovation doesn’t have to be brand new blue sky. 

Behaving and thinking differently can be a small step, and a small step, and those really do become significant change, but it doesn’t feel frightening. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable or if it does feel uncomfortable, you learn how to embrace that. 

Drew Appelbaum: Again, as you mentioned earlier, there are some brands that are really doing it well and in the book, you do list a lot of case studies on brands who are doing great things. Is there anyone you want to shout out now and maybe tell us why they’re excelling more than others? 

Liz High: I think for me, the one — and sorry if I steal this Allison because I know it is one of your favorites as well — is Ellevest, which is an investing platform for women, run by women, designed to challenge some really wrong perceptions in the marketplace around women are not investors, they might be savers. 

You know, women are not interested in the market and this kind of women-owned fund has been all about saying, “We don’t believe in that” and their mantra is, if women are financially comfortable and secure, we’re all financial comfortable and secure. So I really love the fact that they’re challenging perceptions and the numbers behind that really, really stack up.

So coming back to your earlier question about some things that happened in COVID, when in Wall Street money was just flowing out of funds dramatically, Ellevest and their female investors, they stuck with it. They didn’t take their money out, they reduced what they were putting in but they didn’t take their money out because they’ve begun to really embrace what was happening. 

They could feel the benefits, they felt part of something that was for them. So to me, that is a really strong example of a great financial vehicle really, really thinking like a brand and really, really challenging perceptions in the marketplace. 

Allison Netzer: I completely agree and you did steal mine. They do a fantastic job of you know, one of their principles, again, we talk about is sometimes doing the counterintuitive thing and in their case, they are doing that but they’re also changing perception. I’ll pick a small institution as an example, also one of my favorites. 

This is a new bank, it’s Locality Bank, serving South Florida. And two really interesting things about Locality is one, their mission is their product. So I decided to do a dramatic pause there because like say that their mission is their product. So they are a mission-led bank and they’re also strategically serving the banking void that’s been created in South Florida from larger banks leaving the communities. 

They’re staying that size, they’re just going to be the very best Locality that they can be. They’re not trying to be the greatest business bank ever to exist or to have bazillion customers. They’re just being really good at being them and they created an entire acquisition strategy completely by accident with baseball hats. 

So Google it, look it up, it’s a thing. I love their story, I love the people there and I feel like probably Liz, of the folks we talk about in the book, they probably embrace all of the principles already without even having finished the book. 

Liz High: Yeah. No, absolutely. I think that is so interesting because when Allison and I were working with them right at the beginning of the journey, the questions they were asking, the investments they were making, was completely different from any of the other institutions that we’ve worked with. So it was great to come in to a really refreshing team of people that wanted to do it right from day one and being able to partner with them has been really incredible. 

Drew Appelbaum: Now before we wrap this up, I do want to mention that you do have a website to go along with the book. Can you tell us what the address of the website is and what listeners and readers can find there? 

Allison Netzer: Sure, very cleverly it’s thinklikeabrandbook.com.

Drew Appelbaum: Easy to remember. 

Allison Netzer: It’s easy to remember, hard to type, but we’ve tried to make it as helpful as possible. So, of course, there is the link to purchase the book there but we’ve also included Liz’s data pack. If you want to download the data graphics that are in the book and use them for your presentations, that’s all there, as well as the ability to sign up for workshops and just kind of see where we’ll be talking about this. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well, Allison, Liz, we just touched on the surface of the book here. We didn’t even get into your research backed principles, all five of them, but I just want to say everyone should go check them out and the book, and just by putting this book out there to help banks, help financial institutions better themselves, create a better environment for customers, that’s no small feat. So congratulations on having your book published. 

Allison Netzer: Thank you so much. 

Liz High: Yeah, thank you. 

Drew Appelbaum: This has been a pleasure. I am excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Think like a Brand Not a Bank, and you can find it on Amazon. Allison, Liz, besides checking out the book, besides checking out the website, is there anywhere else where people can connect with you? 

Allison Netzer: Yeah, we are both very active on LinkedIn and we also are on Twitter. 

Drew Appelbaum: Well, thank you both for giving me sometime today and best of luck with your new book. 

Allison Netzer: Thank you. 

Liz High: Thank you.