Differentiate.

Earlier this month JCPenney became…jcpenney. It unveiled its new branding strategy, complete with new logo, new spokeswoman, and a “everyday low prices”. I was thrilled to see the promise of a rejuvenated JCPenney, an historic brand that has lost a bit of its luster over the years. (A little history: I’m the daughter of an ex-retail employee – RIP Castner Knott – and briefly worked in retail myself – RIP Bombay Co.)

So I was excited to see the new jcpenney…and saw the new ad and mistook it for Target:

Later ads seem to feature spokeswoman Ellen DeGeneres – I think the “Changing Room” ad is rather clever – you can view them on jcpenney’s YouTube channel.

It’s complete with the Target brand’s typical “quirk”, vivid colors, and decades-old jazz music. Target’s done a great job of defining itself as a brand, and I can see why jcpenney would aspire to get the results that Target has achieved. Was it intentional to mimic Target so closely (Fashionista thinks so, right down to the “shops” concept)?

While we await results of jcpenney’s rebranding, this does call to mind that now – perhaps more than ever – it’s crucial to differentiate your brand.

Bankers stand out as an industry that doesn’t put as much focus on branding – but in the current climate, where the public image of bankers suffers, maybe they should. In its most recent issue, Bank Director focused on branding in its cover story, “Why Brand Matters”:

“The best way to silence a room of community banks is to ask them to describe themselves without using the words ‘people,’ ‘service’ and ‘community,’’’ says Jeff Stephens, chief executive officer of Portland, Oregon-based Creative Brand Communications, which helps community banks and credit unions with their brands.

His point is a familiar refrain among the people who handle branding campaigns and advertising for a living: Banks just don’t get it. They are a commodity and they all sell pretty much the same things. They sound the same. They look the same. They just don’t realize it. Or, they just don’t care.

In other words, they have weak brands. One market researcher determined that bank brands were less differentiated than bars of soap. They are more like motor oil. Another researcher discovered after polling 16,000 consumers that people like their credit card companies better than they like their banks.  Ouch.

Umpqua Bank, as illustrated in the article, might be the reigning king of bank branding. Branches were turned into stores; service at each store strives to be as excellent as that of a stay at a 5-star hotel. The big idea behind all this? Creating an “emotional connection” with customers.

So, how to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack?

Name

Maybe it’s the most elementary of branding ideas but it seems to be the one that gets overlooked. How many First National Banks are there in the U.S.? (Answer: Over 400. And that’s just commercial banks). Some of the memorable ones have a little history to them – think Wells Fargo – or communicate something to their customers, whether it’s regional pride (Umpqua Bank = Umpqua River) or a message (think Simple).

Offer Something Different

Bank-in-progress Movenbank is current invite-only, and takes you to an online, interactive questionnaire to “discover your financial personality” (I’m an “entrepreneur”). Their goal – “building a better banking experience”.

I bank with Fifth Third, and when we refinanced our mortgage we got Nashville Predators checkcards due to Fifth Third’s partnership with the Preds. Fifth Third – an Ohio-based bank – managed to come across as a local bank. Impressive.

Service

All of the above is just a gimmick if your bank fails at service. Wells Fargo, ranked the #2 bank brand by Brand Finance, requires that its bankers follow-up with customers. But service doesn’t stop at the branches. How’s your website? Is it clean and easy to navigate? Is it easy for your customers to contact you? What about social media? Is Twitter just a way to pump out promotional material, or are you creating a conversation with your customers? Do you engage with customers on your Facebook page? Perkstreet – also featured in the recent issue of Bank Director – constantly engages with their customers on Twitter and Facebook as part of better serving them.

How does your bank differentiate itself from the rest of the pack?

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