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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 26, 2007 14 years ago


Honing a corporate identity, while an important task for any business, falls short of true company branding. A Gulf Coast marketing guru highlights the differences.


MARKETING by Mark Gordon | Managing Editor

Honing a corporate identity, while an important task for any business, falls short of true company branding. A Gulf Coast marketing guru highlights the differences.

About two years ago, Sarasota Coastal Credit Union executives approached marketing expert Mike Sisti with their biggest problem, one that gnaws constantly at just about any business: A large pool of potential customers had no idea the institution existed.

So naturally, job one for Sisti, a former advertising and branding executive with Blue Cross who also previously ran his own New Jersey-based ad firm, was to commission a survey to see just where the credit union was in the minds of potential customers, both individuals and business.

"And we were nowhere," Sisti says. "The results of the survey were dismal."

But the results of Sisti's branding campaign, currently going into its second year, are decidedly bright and cheery. The campaign, parts of which Sisti has been asked to present to both Sarasota-area and national marketing and financial organizations, is a prime example of how to do branding right on a limited budget - Sarasota Coastal Credit Union, with six branches in three Gulf Coast counties and about in $250 million in assets, devoted about $500,000 to marketing and advertising the past year.

"Any advertising you do will work," says Sisti. "The trick is to get the best return on the investment."

For the credit union, that investment included a top-down retraining of all of the organization's employees, focusing on the daily importance of maintaining a brand and image. The campaign also utilized a combination of quirky and serious newspaper, radio and TV ads. (Sarasota Coastal bought several ads in the Review as part of the campaign.)

A developing brand

When Sisti, founder of Sarasota-based Sisti & Others, commissioned the first perception survey soon after he was hired by the credit union in the summer of 2006, just over half of the respondents had heard of Sarasota Coastal - and of the ones that did, some of those randomly called people were already customers.

Worse, Sisti says, was that the number of people aware that membership was open to all Sarasota and neighboring county residents and that the credit union offered more than just car loans and checking accounts was also painfully low. Says Sisti: "Nobody had a clue as to what this organization was all about."

The branding challenge, therefore, was daunting but not uncommon. Many businesses give little attention to branding until it takes on a high-fever, sense-of-urgency status, advertising and marketing experts say. And even then, many businesses fall into the trap of going for a quick fix, something just to solve the current problem, such as a sales slump or a new competitor.

"Branding doesn't make the cash register ring right away," says Sisti, echoing the standard rule most marketing experts live by. "It is something that happens long-term."

Thinking in that vein, the second step Sisti took after seeing where the credit union stood - or failed to stand - in the minds of possible customers, was to train and retrain the credit union's staff, from president and chief executive officer Tom Randle and the institution's board members right down to the newest hire. The goal was to make sure the message employees were sending matched the brand the credit union had been developing: That Sarasota Coastal, with its relaxed and inviting branches and its easy-going attitude, was a comforting place to do business.

The training involved showing the employees, especially the ones dealing face-to-face with customers, how each and every customer experience goes a long way toward shaping the institution's image. This was key, Sisti says, in getting positive word-of-mouth comments circulating about the credit union.

Next up came the series of advertisements. Sisti spread the ads around to nearly every possible medium, reasoning that since he started from such a low point, there were multiple audiences he could reach. He placed print ads in several Sarasota-area publications, ran TV commercials on Sarasota's ABC affiliate and, in one of the more popular spots, used personal endorsements from national talk radio hosts. Some of the radio spots, from Michael Medved and Michael Gallagher, continue to run on WLSS 930, a Sarasota AM station.

A big deal

Sarasota Coastal opened in 1953 as a credit union for teachers, when its receipts were kept in a cigar box. Fast-forward one year and awareness of the financial institution has increased significantly.

For example, according to a new survey recently commissioned by Sisti to gauge how he and the credit union have been doing, Sarasota Coastal's unaided recall, or what people think of when thinking about financial institutions, is up 71%. That puts the credit union slightly behind Sun Trust and Wachovia in Sarasota County, but ahead of some other national banks with a local presence, such as Fifth-Third and AmSouth.

Some other new survey results: Overall, 65% of survey respondents have now heard of the credit union, up 11% from last year; awareness that anyone can join is up 6 points, from 36% to 42%, while at the same time, the belief that some residents aren't qualified dropped four points; and consumers' awareness of the credit union's commercial banking services, which it just started last year, is up 30%.

Branding campaign results are a big deal in the world of credit unions, which continuously battling with banks nationwide that claim some of the larger credit unions have unfair marketplace advantages, as some of the big ones act like banks while maintaining privileged credit union status.

Sisti recently presented the nuts and bolts of the campaign at a recent national conference of eastern U.S.-based credit unions and the response was so positive, several of the organizations asked Sisti about syndicating some of the TV and radio commercials.

What's more, the credit union requiring the branding upgrade in the first place is pleased with the results, too

While still puny by Gulf Coast banking standards, Sarasota Coastal has seen a rise in several financial measurements since the campaign began, Randle says.

Membership numbers have risen each month, albeit slightly, he says, adding that the monthly average savings and loan balances have shown a more significant increase.

On savings, the average monthly account, from September 2005 to September 2007, climbed $1,200, from $7,400 to $8,600, while the average loan balance almost doubled over that time, from $9,700 to $19,000. Says Randle: "The branding campaign has opened a lot of doors for us."

Power of the Brand

Mike Sisti, founder of Sarasota-based marketing firm Sisti & Others, says small businesses often overlook the long-term negative impact of not having an ongoing branding plan. It shouldn't just be a campaign or a one-time project, he says, but a culture change. That's the process he's led at the Sarasota Coastal Credit Union the past year.

"Most entrepreneurs really don't understand the power of branding," Sisti says, "and fail to embrace it for their business."

Here are some of Sisti's branding tips for entrepreneurs and executives in any industry:

• Conduct unbiased research on your existing brand perception, even if it's unscientific or anecdotal;

• Create a brand foundation and, through leading by example, make sure every function and task supports and reflects it;

• Train and involve every employee in branding. The front-line people, not the chief executive, might be the customer's only personal experience with the business;

• Communicate the brand message in a variety of ways and include every aspect of the business in the process. Graphics are important, but do not concentrate solely on them;

• Carefully examine all customer touch-points, particularly obscure ones, such as company vehicles or office appearance.

• Building a brand is a permanent process. Don't get discouraged by lack of short-term results.


Industry. Marketing, Advertising

Who. Sisti & Others, Sarasota

Key. A branding campaign designed by the firm increased awareness of a Sarasota-based credit union by as much as 70% in one year.

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