Months after completing its merger in 2018 with 1st Mariner Bank, Howard Bank’s marketing team embarked on a major initiative to rebrand the entire company. The rebrand was meant to deliver a consistent and relevant brand experience no matter when, where, or how Howard engaged with customers or colleagues. The team completely revamped the look and feel of the Howard Bank brand across all assets and mediums. It was an extensive undertaking, but it is paying off as the bank continues to grow and attract customers.
Erica Starr, Director of Marketing at Howard Bank, provides insight into the steps taken, challenges faced, and the results. Could your company benefit from a rebrand? Read more below.
Q: How did you determine Howard Bank was in need of a rebrand?
A: After merging with 1st Mariner in March of 2018, we felt like we might have a bit of an identity crisis. Howard Bank has always been focused on small business banking and traditionally didn’t put a lot of emphasis on branding and advertising, while 1st Mariner had been focused on personal banking and had spent over 20 years positioning themselves as Baltimore’s Community Bank. On top of that, we had two similar-sized companies coming together so we knew it was important for us to help foster a culture and brand that was something our colleagues at both companies could get behind and call their own. The merger also allowed Howard to expand our focus and physical reach while gaining the capital to support medium-sized business banking.
Q: How did you decide when and what to change for the rebrand?
A: The rebrand was something we knew we would need to do, but we wanted to make sure the dust had settled, so to speak. We wanted to align our external branding with our internal culture but we didn’t want it to get lost in the mix. So that meant we needed time to figure out our internal culture. Our approach to the rebrand was “inside-out.” We didn’t really have a set list of things we wanted to change. We just felt like we needed to start looking inside to see what would resonate outwardly.
Q: What steps did you take for the “inside-out” approach?
A: We wanted our brand’s voice to be authentic - meaning no matter who, how, where, when, or why, our voice would be consistent. We also wanted to avoid the redundancies of other banks’ marketing efforts. With the “inside-out” approach, our first step was researching. We spent months confidentially interviewing and surveying employees from every department of the bank and the executive team, and even some of our own customers. Whatever we came up with needed to be genuine and authentic.
Q. What was the biggest challenge in making your advertising authentic?
A: We wanted to avoid being redundant at all costs. We wanted our ads to be fresh, positive, and tell a story. The biggest thing in advertising is convincing someone to buy your product and establish credibility. If potential buyers see the same photo of a product in five different brands, you begin to question what is legitimate. So, for us, it was all about avoiding redundancy and creating our own footprint in the mark. We are Howard Bank, we aren’t Wells Fargo or M&T, so we work hard to make our own images that reflect what we value at Howard Bank, which are businesses in Greater Baltimore and the people who live and work in these communities.
Q: Was it easy to rebrand the bank as a local institution versus a large regional bank?
A: It was definitely easier to rebrand ourselves as a local bank. We aren’t a “plug-and-play” bank, meaning that megabanks from other cities likely use a template to create ads that they can plug and play in markets across the country. There is often little feeling behind them, no real caring. It is based on completing a transaction and them moving on with business. In our case the framework of our business is built upon our Baltimore roots. We are local, which made it that much easier to tell a story we and our customers could believe in. We knew we had a good story to tell so we let it roll. It wasn’t forced like some of the ads we see running in the market from larger institutions.
Q: Did anything from the interviews or surveys surprise you?
A: We were pleasantly surprised to know what we thought of ourselves was consistent with the views of our customers. At the end of the day, we want to help our customers. As a local bank, we’re focused on supporting our communities. And that’s really what differentiates us from the other banks. We’re Invested, Insightful, Passionate, and Agile – because we’re a community bank. Those four differentiating factors have become our core values, which we lovingly refer to as our “Double-IPA”.
Q: Who was the creative genius to come up with the “Double-IPA” acronym, and what exactly do each of them mean?
A: I actually came up with the acronym myself, but defining them was a joint effort between our marketing team and our rebranding partners over at Gigawatt Group. We don’t just work here, we’re from here, so we’re invested in helping our communities succeed. Being from here means we’re insightful – we don’t rely on algorithms to make decisions on the local market; we’ve got the local market knowledge right here in our backyards. And that makes us agile – we’re not hopping on planes, trains, or buses to make decisions. Our executives are at arms-length. And we’re passionate, simply because we know what we do matters. We want to be a place where we are making a difference. Whether we're making someone’s dreams come true, making their dollar stretch a bit further, or simply making their day a little brighter.
Q: What exactly ended up changing and why?
A: Our name obviously didn’t change and that’s because our name is our legacy and holds sentimental value denoting our humble beginnings. Our logo remains the same with its red, yellow, and black color palette to represent Maryland, where we’re from. But pretty much everything else ended up changing! Our tagline “We care about here” points simply to our local dedication. Our mission and vision statements were adjusted to expand on the fact that we’re literally helping to fund people’s dreams and helping to build their legacies. Once we ironed those details out, we were ready to start getting into the visuals.
Q: Do you think being known as a local bank gives you an edge over more large scale national or global banks that have set up shop in the Baltimore area?
A: No question about it. I think being a local bank for sure gives us a competitive edge over large national or global banks that are in Baltimore. It’s got that home team-feel. We’re run by Baltimoreans, for Baltimoreans. Your banker at Howard could be your neighbor or a parent you’ll see on your kids’ back to school night. Our motto is “We care about here,” because we mean it. I just don’t think that a bank that has set up shop in countries across the world can have that same connection to the community.”
Q: How important was it to you to rebrand yourselves as a community bank that serves small businesses?
A: That is what we do, serve small and medium-sized businesses. We live, breathe, eat, and sleep small and medium-sized businesses. In the Baltimore market, there are thousands of small businesses. It is what makes Baltimore go. Being known as a bank that serves that market is critical. So, when we are contemplating rebranding, the small and mid-size business market was front and center.
Q: What was your biggest challenge throughout the entire process?
A: To be honest, we had the help of great partners. The Gigawatt Group really helped to guide us and helped harness the creative. I’m not really sure there’s been any challenge in the discovery portion. Although, we did try to capture footage by drone out on a customer’s tugboat in the bay during an Orioles game which turns out to cast a pretty wide “no-fly” zone – but we made it work. That was fun though! But in all seriousness, the entire process was smooth. We had so many customers willing to let us shoot footage of them and in their facilities (or on their tugboats), our colleagues were supportive and involved, and it was all happening right here, at home.
Q: Where do you go from here? How do you measure success?
A: Right now, we’re focused on helping our customers maintain their legacies during this difficult time. The pandemic has caused so much disruption and we’re dedicated to making sure our communities are equipped to bounce back stronger than ever. In March of this year, we opened a new Bel Air branch that reflects our new look and we’re currently working to revamp the rest of our branch network later this year. Since launching our new brand we’re seeing success from everything we’ve done. We’ve seen a lift in customer engagement, we’ve attracted some top-tier talent from some of the larger-name banks, and according to a recent market research analysis, we’re seeing an impressive lift in both aided and unaided market awareness. To top it off, Howard Bank recently received two MX (Marketing Excellence) Awards from the AMA Baltimore chapter for Best New Brand Identity Campaign of the Year and Runner-Up for Grand MX Campaign of the Year. We’ve been really thrilled with the results and are appreciative of the recognition from the AMA.