“Are Branch Locations Still Relevant?” And Other Questions to Ask in the Digital Age

I don’t know about your town, but it seems like any time there’s an available lot in mine, another bank branch sprouts there. Given the rise of digital banking, who is visiting these locations? And at what stage of the customer journey are physical branches still important to the banking experience? Banks are trying to crack the bank customer code in this era of mobile banking – some by testing new branch concepts, while others by eliminating branches all together. In our work with financial services companies, we’ve explored a variety of strategic challenges like optimal messaging and even location design because our approach is ideal for mining beyond surface consumer attitudes and expectations at each age and stage.

There’s a variety of questions we can explore. What’s the right blend of online and physical presence? And for actual locations, what’s the right footprint and service mix? Does it have to be a flashy, tech-driven self-serve pop-up, or is white-glove, high-touch attention required when a customer does finally venture into the branch? What services can be completely digitized? Which ones will always require an in-person interaction? How do banks capture digital-native millennials just starting out, with low expectations for their bank and low need for services, and shepherd them along the journey to homeownership, parenthood, and retirement savings? Will Boomers fully embrace mobile banking? How are customers segmented – and how does the brand speak to DIY bank user versus the “Do it all for me” group?

For one of our clients exploring the customer/brand connection, we used our tool SceneBuilder to get a sense of what customers wanted from a physical location. This forward thinking financial services firm understood that the branch was a dimension of the brand, and the experience from a look and feel perspective needed to align with consumer expectations. Projective tools like Thought Bubble and Blobs can also be helpful in extracting deepest attitudes and emotions around services offered, message receptivity, or attitudes about banking in general – all pointing  the way toward brand value optimization as well as white space opportunity.

Even in what might be considered a non-sexy category, asking the right questions can help companies discover the emotions, attitudes and behaviors that drive consumer decision making. The truth is money – the lack of it, the earning of it, the saving of it, the growing of it – spurs a lot of strong feelings. Our goal is always to provide the richest insights for financial services clients – both the visual and verbal language that will positively influence consumer interaction with their brand.

Trust Me: But don’t ask for evidence?

As manufacturers continue to fight for shelf space, the retailers continue to look for products they are convinced will sell. Retailers are looking to build loyalty through their own label, especially in these promiscuous times, when shoppers are using more than one retailer for their weekly shop and diluting that loyalty.  One way retailers are gaining share has been to provide almost identical packaging to the manufacturer brand, so it becomes increasingly difficult to tell them apart. For those of you around in the 1970’s, it is similar to trying to differentiate the boys from the girls when they both had long hair.

Despite this hyper-competitive environment, we are observing a notable polarisation taking place among manufacturers, where some are doing more research, while others are conducting less and replacing it with ‘gut feel’. As for the latter approach, that’s great if your product is successful but what happens if it fails?  The retailers will question future listings without supporting evidence that the product will succeed and/or make you pay heavily for shelf space. Not only that, but it becomes an uphill struggle to get future listings without customer insights that strongly support your business case.

Retailers are increasingly asking more questions around ‘why’ consumers buy your product or the category. Nowadays, ‘the trust me, it will sell’ speech, does not work.  An investment in research not only brings a quantifiable reason to believe in your prediction, but proactive research also helps refine the product offering while providing the consumer language that will appeal and motivate the consumer to make the purchase. Without the evidence, it is all guess work and similar to gambling, the odds are stacked against you!