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Digital Ecosystems Make Banks Less Visibile to Customers — So How Do Banks Tell Brand Stories?

The calculus around brand storytelling is changing

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  • Written by  Paul Rohan, Head of Business Strategy, Finance and Solutions Consultant, Google Cloud
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Digital Ecosystems Make Banks Less Visibile to Customers — So How Do Banks Tell Brand Stories?

We all grow up listening to stories and telling stories. Whether they’re passed from parents to children, from teachers to students or among friends, stories captivate imaginations, mentally transporting us to new worlds and letting us imagine living the lives of others.

Naturally, then, brand stories have a lot to do with how customers view their experiences with brands. A brand story is a cohesive narrative that encompasses the facts behind a brand and the feelings that its products and services create among customers.

But the calculus around brand storytelling is changing. Consumer transactions increasingly rely on complex ecosystems of software in which no single brand owns the entire experience. Rather than navigating to a separate app to send a friend money, for example, consumers can accomplish this task within the context of another experience, such as a social media or messaging app. For the consumer, the appeal is a seamless, fluid, friction-free experience, not per se the role of any single company contributing to that experience.

This is a significant shake-up in how customers perceive brands—and it calls for a significant shake-up in how businesses market themselves and their brand stories. This is particularly true within the banking industry, where most legacy players have long enjoyed, and built their operations for, direct interactions with the customer.

Banks and digital ecosystems: debunking the myths

In working with major banks as a digital strategist, I’ve heard firsthand some of the myths that pervade the industry and discourage financial institutions from embracing unfamiliar relationships with customers.

One myth is that if the customer journeys that lead to financial products are initiated by non-bank brands, then the financial product will become commoditized, reduced to a feature in someone else’s product. A related myth is that branding is mostly about customers seeing a company’s logo or advertising, which means that if a bank is not the brand that initiates a customer experience, the experience does not offer branding value.

To understand why these myths are flawed, consider how Intel has not been commoditized into obscurity by the more visible device makers who use its processors, how Square has not been reduced to “just” a feature in bigger mobile experiences, or how services such as PayPal, Apple Pay or Google Pay carve out distinct brands while often surfacing largely within other companies’ retail experiences. Traditional banks that participate in ecosystems can operate similarly.

To help expand their reach and offer their customers richer services, banks can plug into other brands’ experiences via application programming interfaces, or APIs, in order to engage with consumers already gathered around those experiences and to leverage the demand aggregated by having all those consumers in one place. I’ve seen banking leaders fret over this dynamic because the bank’s brand may not be visible to customers during the experience—but these concerns over visibility ignore how much additional reach a bank can accrue if its capabilities surface precisely when customers need them, such as within a rideshare or restaurant app, rather than forcing customers into a seperate, bank-initiated experience just to access their money. Simply put, the number of interactions around a brand’s products and services can be more important than whether the brand is front and center in every experience.

Historically, a bank’s brand was supported by the best experience that the bank could offer as a single supplier through its preferred channels. But today’s ecosystems mean that a bank’s brand should be supported by the best possible customer experience delivered to the customer’s preferred digital interfaces. A bank should define its brand personality as the sum of all the customer experiences it participates in. Because APIs are a critical enabler of this digital brand personality but cannot be presented in a meaningful visual form to the end user, brand stories, rather than logos or traditional advertising, are primed to become a critical way to bring to life the brand values behind this personality.

Choosing the right archetypes for ecosystem branding

How can a bank communicate its digital brand personality within an ecosystem? Every bank brand’s contributing role in every customer journey should be part of its brand story, whether the role in the journey is:

  • The primary contributor (the customer-facing, journey-initiating brand most visible in a digital experience);
  • A secondary contributor (a brand that contributes essential elements to the experience but is less prominent and of lesser importance in the overall journey);
  • A tertiary contributor (a brand that appears in the journey for a specific but minor purpose).

For banks, brand storytelling should progressively evolve beyond exclusively telling stories that frame a bank’s proprietary and branded applications as “Heros”—i.e., the experiences that make everything happen. There are multiple other archetypal character roles available to a bank’s brand storytelling that can be used to tell descriptive and evocative stories that express what the bank stands for and why customers should feel affinity for the brand regardless of where it surfaces in a digital experience.

Archetypes represent a typical, generally universal human experience. Beyond brand stories in which the bank brand can credibly be the narrative’s “Hero,” further stories built around additional roles can include but are not limited to:

  • The “Antihero” (a contrarian brand that acts differently than other players in its ecosystem)
  • The “Creator” (a brand that introduces something new to the ecosystem)
  • The “Powerbroker” (a brand that aggregates services and demand from third parties)
  • The “Wise Veteran” (a brand that shares experience and advice with the ecosystem)
  • The “Loyalist” (a brand that offers trust and reassurance in the ecosystem through loyal and long-term collaboration with specific partners)
  • The “Mentor” (a brand that works with start-ups to bring growth and diversity into the ecosystem)
  • The “Sidekick” (a brand that acts as an associate and counterpoint to a “Hero” brand in the ecosystem)

Traditional banks need to accelerate their transition to ecosystems and these additional branding archetypes because many Millennials and other younger customers have not responded with emotional warmth to legacy institutions’ “Hero”-branded applications, many of which just repackage the bank’s status quo services in a mobile-friendly wrapper.

As banks embrace new archetypal roles, their logos will not always be at the forefront of a customer’s ecosystem journey. Consequently, extra focus should be given to digital marketing tools that complement a brand logo with stories that express the brand’s value even when the brand is relatively invisible to the customer—e.g., articles, case studies, data visualizations, ebooks, explainer videos, infographics, whitepapers, etc.

In conclusion, as customers continue to adopt ecosystem experiences, rather than discrete brand interactions, banks need to think beyond logos and “Hero” narratives. Such brand strategies can cut off a bank from the strategic opportunities involved with plugging into popular experiences largely defined by other companies. Every story has a moral that both educates the audience and increases their emotional investment in the tale. The moral of this story is that if a bank insists on being the “Hero” and nothing but the “Hero” in all customer experiences, there may not be a happy ending for that bank.


Paul Rohan is Head of Business Strategy, Finance and Solutions Consultant, Google Cloud

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