The One that Got Away . . . !

During the course of your career, you will more than likely have a few opportunities to brand or rebrand a business from scratch.  While very exciting, recognize that such moments occur sparingly . . . so be sure to approach the task with appropriate enthusiasm and seriousness of purpose.  Also, be forewarned that – once you become personally invested in the process – some serious disappointment can follow.

Failure is just part of a normal learning curve!

Many years ago, I had one such chance very early in my career – in this case, to brand a bank.  My employer at the time had just purchased a very small, rather archaic financial institution and was planning to broaden and modernize the level of services provided under a new national charter . . . while hopefully maintaining the modest, existing customer base within the immediate community.

Clearly, this circumstance called for some advertising and publicity to let customers know about present and future plans (trying to generate some enthusiasm for the changes) while reassuring them that the key qualities they already liked would not be lost.

An interesting . . .and difficult challenge!

To get started, we looked at the bank’s name and byline.  Since we hoped to build a bridge between the past and future, we retained part of the original name . . . but with some tweaking.  We were also looking to build upon the existing community identity but signal that enhancements in size, scope, and capability were coming, so we adopted the byline “Your Neighborhood National Bank,” which seemed to capture the idea (and benefits) of big and small in few words. With those two decisions and a few more about logo, color, and font already behind us, we were off and running to the next phase of our rebranding.

Working with a graphic artist, the two of us developed a proposal for an extensive branding campaign.  Since funds were available but somewhat limited, we knew such an initiative would have to unfold over time.

Deciding to give life to our new corporate byline (“Your Neighborhood National Bank”), we created a line drawing/cartoon of a typical community, showing the various elements – both commercial and residential – that would be touched by the bank throughout the course of the year.  For each structure portrayed, we saw a story being featured.  For example, the houses would be used to tell the tale of a family’s first mortgage with another involving the tale of a home improvement loan to add a new bedroom for the addition of a child.  A contractor’s truck in front of the latter provided a vehicle for illustrating small business loans . . . while a tale of college tuition being made available could be triggered by the photo of a teenager in a cap and gown getting a family picture taken up the street.  We would even try to highlight our bank’s growth into areas like new car auto loans by showing a billboard featuring the product.  Basically, we believed this flexible theme could be used to highlight every possible product while a consistent neighborhood brand got promoted that emphasized the very real human stories that got affected every day by the actions of our community bank.

Over time, we figured the regularly reused neighborhood artwork would become very familiar and well-known . . . and people would eventually understand, identify with, and care about the stories being told. Furthermore, the slice of the community shown could be enlarged as needed to accommodate new products and services featured by the bank . . . AND the overall approach worked well across multiple media – from print ads and brochures to TV and radio spots as well as billboards and novelty items.

In other words, we had a very broad vision for developing a brand that could support years of repetition while retaining sufficient flexibility to change and grow as needed to reflect reality in a fresh way and ever-evolving goals.  In our minds, we already saw the customers of the bank getting sufficiently attached to this neighborhood to do whatever was necessary to get the latest Christmas Club toy bank giveaway item for their homes.   Obviously, we had a vision for this brand and had allowed ourselves to get very excited by the possibilities.

So, Was this Campaign and Brand Strategy Successful?

Given the buildup I’ve already presented and the clear sense of the faith we had in our plan, the logical question that comes to mind is – WAS THE CAMPAIGN SUCCESSFUL?

Unfortunately, we will never know because this proposal is the one that got away!

At that time, funds were somewhat limited because the bank had just been purchased and lots of systems modernized with newer technology – all of which represented a significant investment AND expense.  While a certain amount of money had been allocated for advertising and publicity, some of the senior sales staff was proposing the available funds be used instead for a shorter-term promotion aimed at encouraging growth of a passbook savings product (a once very popular form of saving account that had already become a bit passe).  While we pitched our use of the funds for our longer-term branding plan, the head of sales was all for publicizing a 6% return on passbook savings with the focus of all publicity being a BIG  6 – including a full-sized Formica sculpture to sit outside the bank as well as in huge ads in the local newspaper.  Convinced this approach would do some immediate, short-term good, the sales team backed this pitch with full enthusiasm and argued that a branding proposal would not address our immediate need for growth.

In the end, the “BIG 6” campaign carried the day and was launched shortly thereafter.

Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda

In my mind, our extensive and elaborate branding plan woulda/shoulda/coulda worked to build a loyal and solid base of customers – a foundation for long-term growth.  Instead, the prototype artwork for the neighborhood sat in my desk for many, many years gathering dust.

Decades have now passed since this missed opportunity first occurred . . . but I still look back with disappointment and wonder whether the plan would have been successful. However, I’ll never know because this pitch is the one that got away.

On the other hand, the promotion that was implemented (with my help and participation I might add) was moderately successful and basically accomplished the more modest, very specific intended goal of savings account growth.  Furthermore, the bank increased in size and scope over time before eventually being sold to a much larger bank that was eventually swallowed up by an even larger bank.

So, was the decision to go with the Big 6 campaign the wrong one?  I’m quite certain that I’m the only one who was left with a sense of unanswered questions about this choice . . . and a few regrets.

The Moral of this Story

 I guess this particular story and experience come with several “morals”:

  • When developing a new brand, think BIG.  Come up with a plan that’s broad enough to encompass many initiatives in many different media over time . . . while still promoting the same basic, simple brand message.
  • Branding is a long-term effort that will often (if not always) end up competing with short-term needs for the use of the same funds (i.e., promotions).  Therefore, select branding that can support both long- and short-term strategies . . . if at all possible.
  • Learn to be resilient in dealing with failures – those magnificent pitches that lose out to “lesser” plans.  As an entrepreneur, you understand that loses are just part of the learning curve to success and that nine ideas out of ten will “crash and burn” . . . but you only need that one to make progress.   In other words, learn to “live to fight another day” and give yourself time and opportunity to find your one victory among the defeats. 

Overtime, the key role of branding has become more widely recognized and appreciated . . . but is still a “hard sell” very often because the benefits are not always either immediate or easy to quantify.  I kind of suspect that anyone involved in product branding long enough will have their own sad story about a plan that would woulda/shoulda/coulda transformed the company to a billion-dollar enterprise – in other words, their own versions of the one that got away.