Read outside the lines

My Holiday Gift to You:

How to Filter Digital Media Content

I love digital media. As one who makes a living helping financial institutions marshal their marketing power, I’d be a fool not to.

Even so, digital media are a mixed blessing. They put mass audiences, once the exclusive province of the moneyed, within the reach of all. But like any pipeline, they care nothing about what flows through them. They deliver trash as readily as treasure.

This places the responsibility for sorting through the dump on the shoulders of individuals at the receiving end. Sadly, it is a responsibility that many neglect. Which is how bogus tales catch fire and spread.

Recent examples of fakes include a story about sending rude messages on napkins to a whiner on an airplane, one about an insulting message left on a check for a server, and tales of insensitive quotes from the celebrity or politician of your choice.

Some fast-spreading fakes may be harmless, but not all. As I write, digital media are spreading nonsensical anti-vaccination hysteria that kills children. Get-rich-quick schemes are depleting people’s life savings. False accusations are costing innocent people their jobs, marriages, and community standing. Bogus medical treatments are keeping seriously ill people from seeking appropriate care. Once limited to small, word-of-mouth circles, these and other instances of harmful misinformation now spread virally and cause real harm.

Who knows? The next bogus story to go viral might just be about your financial institution.

When trusted friends or generally reliable news sources post a story, how do we know what to pass along and what not to? As my holiday gift to you, here are three tips: 

1. Focus on the journalist, not the journal. With shrinking budgets, even many respected journals can no longer afford the kind of fact-checking that was once de rigeur. But over time you may identify individual writers who are more conscientious than others about checking their facts.

2. Use fact-checking resources. With a quick visit to sites like or, you can confirm or debunk much of what you encounter in digital media. Both sites do a good job of sticking to facts and avoiding ideological biases.

3. Learn to spot logical fallacies. We are all prey to logical fallacies, that is, reasoning that appears to make sense but under scrutiny does not. A working knowledge of them can provide a shortcut to not being taken in. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab offers a great introduction to logical fallacies.

Please share these tips liberally. Together, we might just reduce the amount of nonsense in circulation. And maybe even prevent a bit of harm.

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Thoughts looking forward to the

2014 Financial Brand Forum

In my current article for The Financial Brand (you should read it—click here), I touched on a disease I call sloganitis—a condition in which the afflicted comes up with a slogan and mistakes it for a brand. I thought I’d talk a little more about that here.

A marketing columnist who shall remain nameless avers that the first step to a great campaign is to cook up a catchy slogan.

No. The first step is to have a product or service that people want. I won’t venture to prioritize the myriad steps that follow, other than to say that a slogan, if you bother with one at all, should be among the last.

Nor can you necessarily trust yourself to know a “great” slogan from a lame one when it concerns your own financial institution. You’re biased. It’s much easier to recognize when somebody else has a lame slogan.

To give you that opportunity, below is a sample* of financial institution slogans from over 850 listed on (No disrespect to The Financial Brand. They rock. It’s the slogans I’m talking about.) You can bet that when each line was presented, a CEO said, “Yeah, I like that. That truly captures who we are.” In many cases, someone probably managed to get a focus group or two to say nice things about the slogan, too.

Yet I challenge you to find one that says anything believable, that any other bank couldn’t claim, and, above all, that is likely to make the market respond, “Wow! That’s the bank for me.” (If you prefer, check out The Financial Brand’s entire list, but don’t expect to find much better.)

Apologies in advance if your slogan happens to appear below. Though, if by listing it I have given you food for thought, perhaps instead I should say, “You’re welcome.”

Meanwhile, be reassured that there are people out there who truly respond positively to every slogan on the list. Never mind that they happen to be each bank’s respective board of directors and their spouses.

Random sampling of bank slogans:

We Built This Bank For You
We keep our promises to you
We’ll take you farther
Your next experience in trust
Good Banking Is Good Citizenship
Money. Wise.
Where the world comes to bank Local Since 1872 Strength
Growth. Vision.
It’s all about YOU!
Your future. Our priority.
A New Way of Banking Smart banking made easy.
Happy Un-banking Grow with us.
America’s Neighborhood Bank
Our Financial Strength Is In Our Service!
We All Profit
*I started with the third slogan and then took every fiftieth one from there.

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Making your app

one of the six …

… and not one of the 26

Senior Direct Marketing News writer Al Urbanski reports interesting findings from a recent LoyaltyOne and Northwestern University study. It seems that, on average, smartphone and tablet users sport some 26 to 29 apps, respectively. (That’s all? They should see my phone and tablet.) Yet the average user accesses only about six of those apps on a daily basis. Of those, most are games or music, or utilitarian apps like maps and weather. Branded apps? Not so much.

That’s good and bad news for banks.

On the good news side, your bank’s app is—or should be—the ultimate utilitarian resource. You can’t get much more utilitarian than checking balances, making payments, and transferring.

On the bad news side, filling only a utilitarian role is antithesis of fostering a relationship business with your clients. And, there’s the ever-looming threat of being out-utilitarianed* by a competitor.

But the best sort of bad news is the kind that brings with it strategic takeaways. In this, the above-cited negative items do not disappoint.

On the relationship side, the takeaway is don’t settle for filling only a utilitarian role. Build personality into your app. Make it reflect who you are and what you stand for.** Make interacting with real people via chat and voice not just easy but inviting. While you’re at it, make darned sure that said real people are informed, capable, empowered, and likable. 

As for being out-utilitarianed, you best defense is to lead. Make your app so intuitive that a half-asleep customer couldn’t avoid successfully using it. Make it so fast that there’s minimal finger-drumming time while waiting for a feature to load. Make it save your clients money, perhaps by eliminating or reducing fees incurred with live transactions. Fill it with features that clients want, including a few that fall outside bank services. For instance, now that you know users check weather apps daily, why not build in an easy-to-access local weather report?

In short, have a brand, and let it show by making your app a great experience. The kind no customer would want to give up by going to a competitor. You can do all that, even through an app. If you can’t readily see how, you may have a brand problem to solve before worrying about solving your app problem.

High tech and high touch are normally presented as opposites. They needn’t be.


*Herewith I declare utilitarian a verb, with utilitarianed serving as its past and pluperfect.

**This begs the larger questions, Who are you and what do you stand for? How do these values set you apart from being just another bank? Do other banks make the same, tired claims? That’s another post, though I touched on the subject here.)

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Branding a Bank for the Rising Generation

A Peek Inside the Brainstorming Session

Here’s a macabre thought to start your day: Older customers will die sooner than younger ones.

It’s a fact of life that has many a financial institution concerned. Rightly so.

I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that bankers’ concern is only for the bottom line. Surely many wish their customers a long life out of pure altruism. Yet even the most altruistic understand that a bank’s life expectancy is tied to that of its customers. A bank that hopes to outlive older customers must attract younger ones.

The problem lies in how to go about trading the outdated image that appealed to prior generations for a new, more with-it image that appeals to younger ones.

CUT TO: THE BRAINSTORMING SESSION. “I have it!” someone says. “Let’s quit making tellers cover their tats!” (“What’s a tat?” asks the CEO.) Someone else suggests decorating branches à la the young person’s hangout. Another wonders aloud what it would cost to hire Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus as a spokesperson. (“Who?” asks the CEO.) Yet another, who happens to be a Garage Band enthusiast and wannabe rock star, thinks a rockin’ jingle will do the trick. A techie suggests overhauling the website with state-of-the-art animation, games, great colors, hot music, and downloadable tunes and videos. The advertising manager wants to shoot commercials telling viewers that the bank has been misjudged, that in reality no one is more hep. (“What’s hep?” asks the youngest person in the room.)

Were I in the room—come to think of it, I have been, more than once—I would point out that the discussion started off on the wrong foot. Contrived cosmetics do not make a brand. Substance does. If you are cool—whatever that means—it will be manifest in your look and messaging. If you are not, pretending will only make you look pathetic, like a boor who thinks changing his shirt rather than his approach will make people like him.

If the rising generation favors a competitor, dig deep to find out why. Odds are you’ll discover an underlying philosophy, approach, and values that a younger market responds to. You will also find that the outward look and feel, far from contrived, are a natural expression of said underlying philosophy, approach, and values.

Only claim to be what the market wants if you first become what the market wants. Then the outward trappings will speak for themselves.

It is easier said than done. In most banks, “senior management” is no metaphor. Fortunately, neither is “junior people.” Now would be a good time to identify the brightest, most promising ones and hear them out.

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A Most Promising Mess

When mine eyes behold what technology hath wrought upon today’s financial services industry, I cannot help but breathlessly marvel aloud, “What a mess.”

Ah, but a promising mess it is.

Estimote and JingIt want to feed product and pricing information to customers at point-of-sale while simultaneously feeding customer data back to merchants. PayPal Beacon promises to let shoppers leave plastic cards and smart phones tucked safely in a wallet or purse. Google Wallet lets people dispatch funds via email to anyone in the U.S., scan debit and credit cards for online purchases, store loyalty cards, and make retail purchases with participating merchants. VerifyValid and a host of others want to help businesses disburse, collect, and manage funds faster than a speeding bullet over tall buildings with a single bound. Kabbage, OnDeck, and—surprise, surprise—Amazon all want to make business loans. Visa hopes to fight back with

As for banks, they’re not exactly taking this lying down. Players like Chase, Bank of America, and others have been in the game all along. More than a matter of growth, it is a matter of survival. If non-banks succeed in taking over transaction services, banks risk becoming faceless depositories bookending the transactions. This would rather remove the “relationship” part from an industry that calls itself a “relationship business.” Rest assured that banks do not intend to settle for mere utility status.

Though there appears to be room for multiple players in the paperless-wireless-checkless-cardless game, appearances deceive. This is an arena where multiple players cannot win in any big way. Businesses are loath to commit to a system not universally used by customers; and customers are loath to commit to a system not universally accepted by businesses.

Some people describe this as a chicken-and-egg problem. That doesn’t quite work for me. (Besides, the egg was first.) Not to worry. Another, more apt analogy comes to mind: 

About six decades ago, just about every major retail chain issued its own credit card. No merchant accepted any other merchant’s card. Consumer wallets were growing fat with myriad pieces of plastic. Various companies began experimenting with ideas for a single card accepted by all. Trouble was—this may sound familiar—businesses were loath to commit to a card not universally used by customers; and customers were loath to commit to a card not universally accepted by businesses.

Contenders began emerging: Diners Club, American Express, Master Charge (later to become MasterCard), and BankAmericard. The initial result was anything but the desired effect of consolidation and simplification. Rather than reducing credit cards, issuers had only succeeded in adding more.

But markets have a way of sorting things out. In 1958, Bank of America signed up 20,000 merchants in California and issued a staggering 2 million consumer cards. In time, it was BankAmericard that took off, later morphing into Visa, today’s near-universal card.

(Unwittingly, the universal credit card industry spawned another new industry: credit card fraud. That may also sound familiar. Today’s high tech industries have spawned high tech criminals. It’s an arms race.)

If, like me, you weren’t around see it happen in the 1950s, don’t despair. You’re about to see it happen all over again. I for one can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

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