Shaping the Message

“It’s becoming more and more important for community banks to emphasize that they have the same products and services as large banks.”  —Eric Morse,  Needham Bank

“It’s becoming more and more important for community banks to emphasize that they have the same products and services as large banks.” —Eric Morse, Needham Bank

Eric Morse counters megabanks through judicious marketing and branding

By Cheryl Winokur Munk

Mental cobwebs of outdated perceptions can sometimes be hard for a community bank to shake off. Misperceptions can linger, particularly those nesting under the surface, making it harder for a bank to grow. That’s the job of marketing to overcome.

Needham Bank
Needham, Mass.
Assets: $1.9 billion
Retail locations: Eight
Full-time employees: 186
Chartered: 1892
Website: www.needhambank.com


Getting To Know—Eric Morse

  • Boston native
  • Skidmore College grad
  • Lifelong Boston Bruins fan
  • Enjoys being a dad and a friend
  • Cycled Sicily recently
  • Rang the New York Stock Exchange’s opening bell
  • Keeps an old black-and-white picture of Needham Bank’s headquarters in his office, as a reminder of the bank’s beginnings
  • Favorite quote: “Be somebody.”

Financial consumers are sometimes wary about leaving a megabank for a community bank. That’s because some still cling to the outdated idea that community banks may not have all of the first-rate products, services and technology to meet their needs, says Eric Morse, senior vice president of marketing and business development of Needham Bank, a $1.9 billion-asset community bank in Needham, Mass.

Such hoary notions are what Morse has worked hard in recent years to refute. “We want to make sure that our products are at least as good, if not better, than what you can get at a big bank,” he says.

Most consumers readily know that community banks offer the best customer service, says Morse, a former big-bank executive. But that’s only half the marketing message community banks need to project or reinforce today, he says. For that reason, every community bank should consider whether its marketing and branding are adequately communicating that second message, however directly or indirectly.

“It’s becoming more and more important for community banks to emphasize that they have the same products and services as large banks,” Morse says.

However, before a community bank embarks on a marketing campaign to address outdated perceptions, it should ensure it actually has a solid lineup of products and services that can mirror what any large bank offers, Morse advises. Lineups can and probably should be different for every community bank, but every community bank should make sure it delivers on any overt or implicit branding message it pursues, he says.

For Needham Bank, a comprehensive product and technology lineup means having a highly functional and easy-to-use mobile banking app and offering person-to-person payments, online banking, remote deposit capture, instant debit card issuance, cash back rewards and more.

Musing Over Marketing—Eric Morse talks marketing and branding issues with colleagues Julie White, Needham Bank’s assistant vice president-business development (left), and Erica McLaughlin, the bank’s marketing officer.

Musing Over Marketing—Eric Morse talks marketing and branding issues with colleagues Julie White, Needham Bank’s assistant vice president-business development (left), and Erica McLaughlin, the bank’s marketing officer.

Backing the message

About four years ago, Needham Bank conducted a major rebranding campaign designed to woo customers away from big regional banks and megabanks prominent in its Boston marketplace. The starting point was making sure the bank had the underlying products, services and technology to fully compete with megabanks (and, in fact, any bank), Morse says.

“In our case, we determined that our target audience was the disenfranchised big-bank customer,” he says. “We actually prefer competing with the big banks.”

When it carefully reviewed its product and service lineup, Needham Bank was largely satisfied, but saw some areas for improvement. For example, the bank decided to introduce person-to-person payments so customers could transfer funds from their bank account to another individual’s account via their mobile phones. The bank began allowing customers to open accounts online or on their mobile phones. It also began offering customers the ability to schedule appointments with its staff online.

In addition, Needham Bank felt it needed to simplify its promotion of the top-notch value of its overall product and service lineup. Instead of providing four different checking account options, the bank decided to offer and then heavily market a single interest-paying checking account that would meet the needs of all of its customers. With its NB Checking account, every customer has access to online banking, mobile banking, cash-back rewards and a debit card that can be used free of charge at any ATM in the world. Its checking account has no fees, no minimum required balance and no minimum transactions.

Through such simplification of its product lineup, the high-quality features of Needham Bank’s accounts and services shine through, Morse says.

To determine whether your community bank’s product lineup and technology are what your customers may want or need, closely examine the competition, Morse advises. “Take a look at their products and figure out what you have to do to make yours at least as good, if not better.”

Making the message

After Needham Bank was confident that its products, services and technology were complete and universally competitive, the bank next focused on rebranding and reshaping its overall marketing message. Ironically, the bank’s executives found that, after years of emphasizing certain products and services in its advertising, the bank needed to adopt human-interest story lines in its advertising to reemphasize its commitment to upholding strong personal customer relationships. Redesigning its website was an integral part of its refocused marketing effort.

Today, Needham Bank’s award-winning advertising tells a personable story or engages in a conversation with a consumer. Woven into its advertising dialogue is the point that the bank can compete from a product, service and technology standpoint with any bank, regardless of its size or resources.

“In banking, people are attracted to brands, not to products,” Morse says. “We want people to be intrigued by our brand.” If Needham Bank’s advertising can lead consumers to its website or into one of its retail offices, he explains, he’s confident that they will learn how the bank’s products and services are competitive with what any of the largest institutions offer.

It took about a year before Needham Bank started to see traction behind remolding its product lineup and branding. However, during the last three years the bank’s checking account dollars on deposit have grown 111 percent and its total bank deposits have grown 54 percent.

Morse encourages other community banks to follow in Needham Bank’s marketing footsteps, saying that having the right mix of products, technology and desire is enough to get the process started. “I honestly believe that if you have the will you can accomplish anything,” he says. “It’s just a matter of being willing to try to do things differently.”

Community banks shouldn’t be afraid to take calculated risks in reinforcing their branding and marketing, Morse adds. For example, when Needham Bank first offered to reimburse its customers for foreign bank ATM fees, there was concern about the cost. However, cost hasn’t been a factor at all because of the interchange revenue from debit card transactions, but if the bank had been afraid to try something new, it never would have known, Morse says.

“You have to be willing to take some chances,” he says.


Cheryl Winokur Munk is a freelance financial writer in New Jersey.

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