Two weeks ago, I spoke to a conference of marketing executives organized by the American Bankers Association. The talk among these bank marketers–a young, energetic, change-minded bunch–ranged from the needs and interests of Generation Y to the power of social media to the design of new products for new times.
My message to the group was much simpler than all that, almost a throwback. You can’t really think about your bank’s customers, I argued, unless you also think about your bank’s people. Even the most creative business leaders I know recognize that success is not just about marketing differently from other companies: more daring ads, more new products, more aggressive use of Twitter and Facebook. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, about caring more than other companies–about customers, about colleagues, about how the organization conducts itself in a world with endless opportunities to cut corners and compromise on values.
That’s what helps you stand out among your customers, and stand out from the crowd in a hyper-competitive marketplace. The new “power couple” inside the best companies, I concluded, was an iron-clad partnership between marketing leadership and HR leadership. Your brand is your culture, your culture is your brand.
So imagine my surprise when right after my talk, a banker by the name of Jana Dobbs, an executive with Corner Bank, a 138-year-old outfit based in Winfield, Kansas, shook my hand and handed me her business card. “Take a look at my title,” she said with a Cheshire-cat grin. Jana’s title, it turns out, is senior vice president of human resources and marketing. Forget a “partnership” between HR and marketing. At Corner Bank, the two functions report to the same executive. It’s a title I’d never seen before, and I asked Jana how her fellow bankers tended to react to it. “They’re usually kind of shocked,” she admitted, “because at most companies the head of marketing and the head of HR have very different personalities.”
Corner Bank has a great brand position in the Kansas cities and towns in which it operates–as an advocate for the little guy in an industry dominated by giants. That means the day-to-day interactions between customers and front-line employees are a huge part of the bank’s brand identity. “Our people are our best marketing tool,” Jana explained. “Advertising is important, the design of the Web site is important, but if customers have a positive experience every time they come into the bank, that’s what builds our reputation. We’ve got mobile apps, we’ve got Internet banking, but what we rely on is a hometown feeling. When you walk into our bank, we know your name.”
That’s certainly a winning value proposition for a small, family-owned financial institution. But it works for major organizations too. One big company that embraces the connection between brand and culture is USAA, the insurance and financial-services juggernaut based in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a huge, successful operation with 7.4 million members, 21,000 employees, and annual revenues of $18 billion. What most distinguishes USAA, though, is that it only does business with active or retired members of the U.S. military and their families. That’s the customer base it serves–and it serves those customers fabulously well. Its customer-loyalty rankings are off the charts and it has become a legendary brand, both in terms of technology innovation and service.
One reason for its strong performance as a brand is the strong sense of identification between its front-line employees and its customers. USAA does business almost exclusively over the phone and the Internet, and it has more than 13,000 customers-service reps. The company has a much-admired training program in which employees learn the myriad technical skills they need to work efficiently. But what they really learn is to empathize with and see the world through the eyes of a soldier on active duty in Afghanistan who needs to wire money to a sick parent, the wife of a soldier in Iraq who needs to finance a car, and all of the other unique pressures and demands on its 7.4 million members.
How do employees develop that sense of empathy? A BusinessWeek feature tells the story well. When they are about to start their training, employees review “deployment letters” that real soldiers get: “Report to the personnel processing-facility” tomorrow, the letter reads, and get your affairs in order beforehand. They eat MREs (meals ready to eat) on many occasions during their training, to get a “taste” for the life of a soldier. They walk around in 65-pound backpacks. They read actual letters from soldiers in the field to their families back home. USAA calls it “Surround Sound”–immerse employees in the real life and emotional needs of customers. “There is nobody on this earth who understands their customer better than USAA,” one consultant has said.
That kind of personal identification between employees and customers is what gives USAA the drive to not just provide great service but to unleash big innovations. For example, it was the first financial-services company to allow customers to deposit checks by iPhone. You get a paper check, you take a photo with your iPhone, and email it to the bank. It was the first financial-services company to allow you to check deposit balances via text message. You text your account number and get a return text with the relevant information. USAA has proven itself to be a technology leader–not because the company is obsessed with technology, but because it is obsessed with customers.
The simple lesson behind the success of both small-fry Corner Bank and big-boy USAA: You can’t be special, distinctive, and compelling in the marketplace unless you create something special, distinctive, and compelling in the workplace. How does your brand shape your culture? How does your culture bring your brand to life?
Reprinted from Harvard Business Review