We believe relevance—how meaningful brands are in people’s daily lives—is the single biggest determining factor of a brand’s long-term success. It’s what makes companies like Amazon, Android and Netflix, which are at the top of Prophet’s Brand Relevance Index™ (BRI), successful. They have made themselves so indispensable that their fans can’t imagine a day without them. But relevance is a currency most financial brands just don’t have. Only three financial services companies crack our top 50: PayPal, TurboTax and Visa. And the bottom of the list is a different story – it is jammed with banks, insurance companies and wealth-management firms that struggle to achieve meaningful engagement with their customers.

The Pragmatism of Financial Brands

The BRI, which is based on a survey of 15,000 U.S. consumers, measures what we believe are the four drivers of relevance: customer obsession, distinctive inspiration, pervasive innovation and ruthless pragmatism. Financial brands scored the best in ruthless pragmatism—as they should. Pragmatism is measured by consumer responses to statements like “I know I can depend on this brand,” “it makes my life easier” and “it’s available when and where I need it.” Consumers are sending the message that basics matter: if a bank can’t handle mobile deposits or an insurance company doesn’t pay claims, what good is it?

 But this pragmatism doesn’t stand on its own, and for the brands that ranked higher than most,  pragmatism was coupled  with high levels of customer obsession. Meaning they took the millions of data points at their disposal and translated them  into relevant services, products and experiences that make consumers’ lives run a little more smoothly.

Examples of Successful Financial Customer Experiences

The financial brands that embrace ruthless pragmatism and customer obsession can be just as fiercely beloved as those in other categories. Let’s look at three brand examples:

  1. Most people only turn to TurboTax once a year, but they love how it makes a difficult task in their lives easier. More people in the U.S. said TurboTax “meets an important need in my life” than any of the 300-plus brands we measured.
  2. Visa is an “old reliable” that has become a digital-first thinker.
  3. PayPal, which emerged as a super-dependable way to make online payments when it was still on the eBay platform, is safer and faster than ever.

All three excel in mobile technology. And most of all, they understand that they are not in the business of creating financial products. They know their role is enabling better customer experiences.

Build Experiences, Not Products

In our work with financial companies, we push toward experience-led thinking by asking our clients to reimagine the industry and what their brand would look like if they were starting from scratch today.

It would probably look something like Mint, Intuit’s personal finance software, which lets customers see all their money and expenses in one place.

It would likely include something like Venmo, the PayPal-owned payment app millennials love so much, or SnapCash, the payment platform preferred by Gen Z.

It might even borrow elements from WeChat, which ranks as the second most relevant brand in our Brand Relevance Index in China. (Started as a chat app, WeChat added digital payments, e-commerce, fundraising and microloans.) From this platform, what’s needed next is translating all that information into personalized products, services and experiences.

It’s the Holy Grail. No one has done it yet, and many branding experts can’t believe mainstream financial services companies, with all that marketing muscle, are still so behind the curve.

That’s a little glib. Those of us working in the industry know that the obstacles are real. For one thing, changing regulations, like the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, have created challenges. For another, unlike start-ups from Silicon Valley that can get away with years of losing money, the investors who own these established companies demand profits, not losses.

But the biggest problem they face is their own organizational structures. Historically, each type of product—retail banking, mortgages, retirement, and various policies—are housed in distinct silos, governed by separate profit-and-loss statements. Internally, there is no unified view, which makes creating one for their customers very difficult. And the reality is that employees are incented to focus on products, not experiences, in order to meet their product sales goals.

Think Holistically About Customer Experience

Solutions can only come from thinking holistically. At companies that are becoming more customer obsessed, there’s a growing understanding that “brand” isn’t something that comes from the marketing department. It develops and grows in every department—sales, distribution, product, and technology. Similarly, the mindset throughout the organization needs to shift from “what can we sell?” to “what value exchange can we create?” In building long-term relationships with customers, what types of products and services make people say, “This brand isn’t just out to make a quick sale—it really has my back?”

This requires taking giant steps away from “business as usual” thinking. Ford CEO Mark Fields, for example, shook up the automotive world with the announcement that the company is striving to be “a mobility company,” not just a car manufacturer. This has enabled it to develop brand-new approaches to the way today’s consumers think about urban transportation. What will be the equivalent shift in financial services?

The most important step financial companies can take to gain relevance is getting every division on the same page: Improving customer experience and engagement. And that can only come from customer obsession, constantly pushing all departments to work harder to see things from the consumer’s point of view.

Final Thoughts

Most financial companies aren’t able to do this yet, but they are trying. That’s evident in the widespread acceptance of multichannel offerings, with banks understanding that customers expect to be able to have their needs met no matter where they are or what time it is. And many are closer to making their offerings channel agnostic, with ultra-pragmatic mobile solutions.

Sometimes, companies ask us about increasing the other drivers of relevance– distinctive inspiration and pervasive innovation. We discourage them, unless they are already performing well on more pragmatic measures and customer obsession. If a bank is staffed by surly tellers or brokers provide confusing statements, even the best performance on other measures can’t help. These may seem like table stakes, but our rankings prove otherwise.

For today’s consumers, relevance requires delivering useful and engaging experiences powered by technology. The only thing that will work is improving the experience at every touch point, providing relevant content and taking the broadest view of customers. It’s not about making a better financial product. It’s about making consumers’ lives better. Relevance doesn’t come through branding. It’s built on these rewarding experiences.

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