Image of gecko with sign that says FREE ATMS and the words, Go Find Your Gecko!

Go Find Your Gecko!

By Jeff Keller, Creative Director

A few weekends back, I was tooling around town, doing some errands and listening to a podcast from Planet Money on NPR called The Gecko Effect. It was all about the marketing transformation a little lizard initiated in the insurance industry back in the ‘90s. It caught my attention because insurance has a lot in common with banking. Both are industries that tend to have highly regulated, relatively undifferentiated product sets. (Life insurance policies are largely alike, and let’s face it, so are checking accounts!)

Back in the day, insurance companies were airing very dry and sober commercials about the “what ifs” in life. People counted themselves lucky to be in good hands with Allstate. Then one day, a gecko stepped to the mike and made one of the most influential commercials in TV history, giving rise to an advertising tsunami that brought us the Aflac duck, Flo from Progressive, Mayhem from Allstate, Jake from State Farm, Limu Emu from Liberty Mutual, and Geico’s additional can-you-top-this entry, the Hump Day Camel (a personal favorite!)

In other words, insurance marketing took a serious left turn and bank marketing didn’t. Curious, isn’t it? Clearly, the Geico gecko was a major differentiator in a “me-too” industry: cute and memorable instead of stodgy and forgettable. So why hasn’t a bank come up with a spokesperson (or spokescritter) that’s similarly unconventional and effective?

Then I got to thinking about other industries that, like banking and insurance, face the same challenge of working with products that are difficult to differentiate from the competition. And I wondered: What ideas have these companies used to rise above the pack in their industry? Is there something bank marketers can learn from these parallel efforts?

Take gasoline companies. Gas is gas, right? Apart from price, there isn’t much to separate them. Yet, for decades, Sunoco has distinguished itself from the competition by offering five grades of gasoline instead of the normal three, and has earned a loyal following among car aficionados as a result. Could there be a parallel route in rethinking certain banking products or services to find an unserved niche?

And consider the strategy of BP, a global oil corporation that boldly and somewhat quixotically rebranded itself as a green company, winning loyalists in the process. In what ways could your bank become an unexpectedly different kind of bank that would appeal to the passions and principles of certain customer segments?

From another “me too” industry, it might be helpful to take a lesson from National Car Rental’s “take any car in the aisle and go” campaign. Their strategy was to remove a key pain point from the rental car process: those endless, painfully slo-oooooow lines you have to endure in order to get your car. What are the parallels in banking? Is it the 20 minutes of repeated jingles we listen to before we get to speak with a human being? Or the chat programs that ask us question after question, each one less helpful than the last? What pain points could you remove to help make your bank different?

And let’s not forget everyone’s favorite “me too” industry, the airlines and their omnipresent mileage rewards programs. Sure, these programs are arcane and probably unfair, but what’s brilliant about offering miles is that it gives customers a constant incentive to keep building miles with their airline. Banks, on the other hand, tend to set minimum balance levels to qualify for enhanced services for their deposit customers, and then do nothing more except punish those customers with fees when they fail to maintain that balance. To me, that’s too much stick and not enough carrot. Is there a way to turn that paradigm on its head and incent customers continually for preferred behaviors, just like rewards programs do?

There are many other companies out there with marketing challenges that parallel yours, and they are following many diverse paths to differentiate themselves to their customers. Take a close look at what they’re doing and see what might work for you. Somewhere along one of those pathways, you may just find your gecko!

MKP communications inc. is a New York City-based communications company specializing in financial services marketing and merger/change communication.