How your bank can build a brand with purpose

Heart illustration

By definition, community banks do good work in their communities. Whether it’s donating to charities or having staff volunteer, community banks find outlets for giving back. But today’s customers expect more from businesses. They want businesses to be actively engaged in social issues, too. Here’s how several community banks are making their missions part of their brand.

By Katie Kuehner-Hebert ❤ Illustrations by Randall Nelson


Today, businesses have to have a purpose-driven brand if they want to attract more customers, particularly younger ones. Community banks, by definition, have always had a purpose. Now the trick is to actively communicate their mission in a way that will resonate with today’s quickly growing demographic of socially conscious customers.

Indeed, 90% of Gen Z believe companies must act to help social and environmental issues and 75% will do research to see if a company is being honest when it takes a stand on issues, according to the 2019 Porter Novelli and Cone Communications Gen Z Purpose Study. And a 2017 Cone Communications study found that 90% of consumers are likely to switch brands to one associated with a good cause, given it has similar pricing and features, which is way up from 66% in 1993.

“Today, being good is table stakes. Being responsible and doing no harm is table stakes,” says Sandy Skees, executive vice president of Porter Novelli in San Francisco. “Going beyond that and being purpose driven is now what can distinguish a brand–which means being able to demonstrate how the business contributes to society, and making the world a better place through the business.”

For community banks in particular, she says, people want to have a very personal relationship, they want to know and trust their bank, and they want to know that the bank’s values are aligned with their values, specifically, a commitment to the local community and citizens.

“Table stakes for banks are being good neighbors and providing financial literacy among many withdrawn from the community, especially under-represented communities,” she says. “But people are also looking at banks to also be good to their employees, as well as support issues people care about.”

To determine which causes or issues a particular community bank should get behind, it’s important to take a step back and determine what aligns with its business model and what its stakeholders care about, Skees says. A community bank’s purpose should be its guiding light, and, above all, it needs to be authentic.

“It’s also important for banks to recognize that they can’t do everything all of the time. They don’t have to support everything or correct every wrong,” she says.

Community banks have always been driven by a purpose, says Aleis Stokes, ICBA’s senior vice president of communications. Their mission has always been to help their customers and their communities to succeed.

“There’s an incredible opportunity right now for community banks to articulate what distinguishes them, what gives them an edge in the marketplace, and how they serve their customers and fit into the fabric of their community,” Stokes says.

9 ways community banks market their mission

Susan Riel, EagleBank
Susan Riel

  1. In annual reports, showcase entrepreneurs whose businesses succeeded because of your community bank, or spotlight civic leaders who credit the bank with sustaining their mission.
  2. Maintain a robust social media presence to commend team members who are engaged in philanthropic efforts or to celebrate corporate responsibility milestones.
  3. Organize thought-leadership conferences in collaboration with nonprofits to explore challenges facing your region.

Melissa Beltrame, Lead Bank
Melissa Beltrame

  1. Profile bankers on social media. People like doing business with people they like.
  2. Teach people about the bank’s community sponsorships and highlight deserving people in underserved markets during events like Women in Business Month (October) and Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15–Oct. 15).
  3. Incorporate your bank’s values in all communications. Lead Bank defines its culture as COIN, or compassion, openness, imagination and nimbleness.

Julie Wilcox, Grand Rapids State Bank
Julie Wilcox

  1. Feature customer testimonials on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn within marketing campaigns.
  2. Have customer testimonials on highway billboards talking about how appreciative they are about what the bank does for the community.
  3. Get deeply involved by putting on events like music festivals, instead of just funding or showing up at community events.

Standing up for the arts

Marketing a purpose-driven brand helps distinguish a community bank from its peers, says Julie Wilcox, senior vice president of marketing, brand management and communications at $227 million-asset Grand Rapids State Bank in Grand Rapids, Minn.

“Grand Rapids State Bank was founded 105 years ago, and so our brand is based on the longevity of the bank,” she says. “The Wilcox name is an integral part of the bank and the community, and everyone knows that we are in full support of them at all times.”

Like most community banks, Grand Rapids State Bank supports schools, sporting events, Habitat for Humanity, the local food bank and highway litter clearing.

“But ask anyone in Grand Rapids what we really stand up for, and they’ll say the arts,” Wilcox says. “For a community our size, we have a huge amount of artists who live here—painters, sculptors, musicians. Because of our art culture, we also attract families who want to have a high quality of life in a small town.”

Grand Rapids is unique in that, for a town of 12,000 residents, the city has a 700-seat “world-class facility,” the Reif Performing Arts Center, which houses the Wilcox Theater named after the banking family, she says. Recently, Grand Rapids State Bank was a primary financial supporter of its $11 million renovation. Beyond the arts center, the community bank has spearheaded the Forest Jam music festival, which attracts tourists to the town.

“Customers recognize our contributions to the art culture here,” Wilcox says. “We were the first entity to receive the Mayor’s Arts Award when it was started in 2017.”

Grand Rapids State Bank’s purpose-driven brand is evident in its current marketing campaign, dubbed “My Community. My Bank.” As part of the campaign, the community bank’s social media features commercial and retail customers, as well as bank staff.

The Wilcox family, including ICBA chairman-elect Noah Wilcox, is also involved with Grand Rapids State Bank’s sister bank, $104 million-asset Minnesota Lakes Bank in Delano, Minn. When Wilcox Bancshares Inc. bought the community bank in 2014, it was called Crow River State Bank, Julie Wilcox says. The board didn’t want to rebrand it as Grand Rapids State Bank because the bank had no real ties to Grand Rapids, a city three hours away. So, they chose the name Minnesota Lakes Bank, which “would work quite well across the state” if it expands.

Since the community bank is much younger than Grand Rapids State Bank, the board chose “a very crisp, clean-looking brand” that was “a little more techy” but had a local feel in its art and interior design, Wilcox says. But Grand Rapids State Bank’s brand in getting deeply involved in community events is replicated in its sister bank.

“We even had a customer go as far to say, ‘Why do you do so much in the community?’ We told him, we’re a community bank and that’s what we’re all about,” Wilcox says. “We live and work among our customers and our friends. Our success is derived from our customers’ success, and likewise, they potentially could not be successful without us. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

“We even had a customer go as far to say, ‘Why do you do so much in the community?’ We told him, we’re a community bank and that’s what we’re all about.”
—Julie Wilcox, Grand Rapids State Bank

“We’ve measured success in a number of ways,” she adds. “We’ve never seen a larger loan portfolio. Our monthly surveys at both banks are at an all-time high. Our community recognition is at an all-time high. We’ve also received lots of national attention, including with ICBA.”

Tackling community challenges

EagleBank in Bethesda, Md., is also driven by a purpose: to foster business growth, create jobs and generate a strong sense of giving back, says president and CEO Susan Riel.

The $9 billion-asset community bank has a partnership with George Mason University, which not only gave EagleBank naming rights to their arena (EagleBank Arena), but it also provides scholarships to students, hires alumni, and sponsors internships.

“EagleBank has long believed in the importance of neighborhood knowledge, experience and vision,” Riel says. She explains that the bank identified and supported iconic Washington institutions like the Whitman-Walker Clinic, Howard Theater and Politics & Prose. “Each of these organizations spoke to a different but critical element of Washington’s common purpose: respectively, serving the LGBTQ communities, African American cultural aspirations, and the area’s love for and commitment to independent bookstores.”

EagleBank has supported broad education initiatives through its Scholar Program and health issues through its long-term campaign to fund kidney disease research conducted at George Washington University. The foundation also funds breast cancer research, Riel says.

“EagleBank has always placed a premium on community engagement, both with the corporate philanthropy efforts described and with smaller but meaningful campaigns, ranging from local Habitat for Humanity projects to efforts to [preserving] and [protecting] the National Mall,” she says.

When asked how community banks can realize a purpose-driven mission, Riel says it starts at the top.

“We are fortunate to have fostered a corporate climate of community responsiveness and commitment,” she says. “Our management and executive teams have been focused on not just serving an evolving business clientele but also on identifying issues that have challenged the community.”

“Our management and executive teams have been focused on not just serving an evolving business clientele but also on identifying issues that have challenged the community.”
—Susan Riel, EagleBank

Use your spotlight

In Garden City, Mo., $357 million-asset Lead Bank’s purpose is right there in its mission statement: “To be at the heart of success of our communities.”

“We take our charter seriously, being financially responsible to lead the economic development of the communities we serve,” says Melissa Beltrame, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Lead Bank. “Unfortunately, the public perception of the banking industry is not as positive as what we would like, so we’ve tried to shine a light on the good things happening within the community that we’ve supported.”

Lead Bank used a program called the Spotlight, which showcased a small business each quarter in its downtown Kansas City, Mo., branch, a predominately commercial office. Each business would set up a display and products, such as sweets from the Bizz & Weezy chocolate shop, which gives these businesses more exposure.

“To be at the heart of the success of our community, we want to shine a spotlight on the good things that businesses are doing and the other things that are happening in the community,” Beltrame says. “The feedback we’ve received from other customers has been great. It introduces them to a business that they might not have been on their radar.”

Another program Lead Bank offers for local businesses is its civic contractor funding program. Through the program, construction companies that are certified as Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, Minority Business Enterprises or Women Business Enterprises are offered special financing when they bid on city government projects.

“They might not have the best credit history, but we give them the opportunity to help their businesses grow, which also enables us to make our community better,” Beltrame says. “This is really a concrete example of not just our mission statement, but also the way Lead Bank is responsible for moving our community forward.”

For customers, Lead Bank has partnered with Self Inc., a fintech in Austin, Texas, to provide an online credit builder savings program for consumers trying to build or reestablish their credit score, Beltrame says. The program enables them to borrow money to invest in a Lead Bank certificate of deposit, or CD. After the loan is paid off, the customer owns the CD, and the year-long payment process helps create a positive credit history.

When Lead Bank communicates its purpose, “it’s all about relationships,” Beltrame says.

“It’s not really about communicating the lowest and best CD rates. It’s more about the intangible benefits that clients can have when they bank with us.”

Community bankers on developing a purpose-driven brand

“Do your market research, go through the whole process of defining your purpose, or else you’ll stub your toe with something that doesn’t truly represent your bank. Be prospective on things that naturally demonstrate your brand, whether it’s providing financial literacy in your local schools, helping the homeless or supporting some type of healthcare.”
—Julie Wilcox, Grand Rapids State Bank

Heart illustration

“Every community bank is founded with special ties to the area served. Since 1998, EagleBank’s mission has been to foster business growth, create jobs and generate a strong sense of giving back. We were able to accomplish these goals because of the vitality and generosity that existed in our region—dozens of entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas and a commitment to hard work and diversity.”
—Susan Riel, EagleBank

“Having a purpose-driven marketing method allows you and your bank to communicate something real, genuine and authentic. Anyone can develop talking points and pieces of collateral, but communicating your culture is what’s really integral to purpose-driven marketing.”
—Melissa Beltrame, Lead Bank


Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a writer in California.

Top