Ideas for creating a sustainable, highly engaging branch experience
Last month, a family-owned bank requested a proposal to create a new branch prototype and brand experience that would entice current and potential customers to visit its branches. Yes, to increase rather than decrease visits to branches. The bank’s rationale is that 1) it cannot compete online with big market players, including a number of sophisticated and well branded credit unions; 2) its leadership is worried about future alternative financial providers that have customer-attracting and retaining inroads through heavy online promotion and consumer retail locations; 3) it needs to engage small business owners at the street level; 4) it must provide appropriately enhanced locations for providing wealth management services; and 5) it wants to buck the trend of branch closures with highly engaging retail centers in markets with below-average transaction migration. The newly designed branches will be a tangible way to promote its brand while the more unknown impacts of evolving technology and customer preferences plays out.
While this strategy seems to fly in the face of current thinking, there are a number of exceptionally well-branded branch models across the country that have succeeded in creating powerful bonding experiences and planting the brand experience in the subconscious.
Capital One’s advertising, which often includes images of its cafés, is a prime example of how the physical experience as well as the branch media experience is used to create a hook or platform upon which to build additional experiences. The physical branch experience is often the most connective to members due to its visceral nature. The visual experience through advertising may be less impactful, but it is controllable and a fraction of the cost per viewer, making the remote image as valuable as the in-person experience. This suggests the cost of developing a strong image in the branch and projecting it online may be as valuable or more so than the physical location. With these images, we are creating good feelings—rather than conveying facts—which is more effective for mass marketing.
If this is true, do all branches need to present the same level of brand image? Or can it be as effective to invest heavily in flagship branches and then apply a brand experience “wash” across all locations, reinforced with strong messaging? This depends on the concentration of target members required to support your specific branch model in a given market.
So, if we want to develop a highly engaging branch, how do we create a sustainable draw to support the investment? Here are a few thoughts:
1. Co-worker community spaces. Many office-based industries are looking for ways to let employees work outside the office. The impact of working remotely on work/life balance is a big deciding factor for many employees. It can also mean increased productivity by reducing commuting time. In response to this trend, we are starting to see success for credit unions that are transforming their branches into community workspaces. This is also a strategy for credit unions considering downsizing branches in high-density markets where workers, transportation and retail space converge. The Financial Brand provides a look at this concept in the article “Banks Should Turn Their Branches Into Branded Coworker Community Spaces,” not just for individual remote workers but for small businesses looking for “coworking” space.
2. Community centers. $17.9 billion Vancity Credit Union in Vancouver, British Columbia, has been mentioned in my articles for CU Management over the years for their commitment to community through its “Making Good Money” culture and designing their branches to physically engage and support consumers and businesses. The CU’s branches include conference rooms that can be reserved in advance for community functions. They also provide a forum to help small businesses prosper through education, mentoring and creating symbiotic relationships with other businesses.
3. Social engagement. Cultures vary from CU to CU and by location. For some members, the credit union remains a place for social engagement with staff and other members. Cultural preference may also be a design factor for credit unions like $96.9 billion Navy Federal Credit Union, Vienna, Virginia, where queues can be very long during peak periods. If socialization is the objective, the teller line needs to be formed in a way that allows visibility to most areas of the branch and provides places for people to stand or sit out of the way of traffic.
4. Events. Umpqua Bank made customer events famous on the West Coast. It holds events for kids on the weekends and was written up nationally for hosting “Stitch and Bitch” (group knitting) sessions in one of their Portland, Oregon, branches. Members look for upcoming events of interest, which gets them in the branches to create and enhance positive memories.
5. Small business displays. Vancity Credit Union provides a modest but prominent location in select branches for small business members to exhibit their products and services. This display changes every week, which makes each visit more engaging while promoting a business member.
6. Art sales. BlueShore Financial, a $3.7 billion credit union based in North Vancouver, studied several ways to draw customers into its branches and support the art community at the same time. Its “financial spa branches” are extremely successful and include local fine art pottery. This level of art aligns with the CU’s target members’ interests. The items are displayed adjacent to the queuing line and can be purchased from the teller. Some artists have told BlueShore that they earn more from branch sales than they do from galleries.
7. Education. Design branches to include space for seminars and other educational events. It is often too costly to develop a large conference room for this purpose, so consider designing the branch such that the lobby can be transformed into a learning center after hours.
Branches appear to have value for most financial institutions for the foreseeable future. Maximizing the physical and virtual member experience will provide a worthwhile return.
Paul Seibert, CMC, is an independent facilities and real estate consultant under Paul Seibert Consulting, Seattle.