What Are You Banking On?

(Listen to this post, here.)

I got an email from my bank yesterday morning.

I don’t want to mention their name specifically, other than to say that it kind of rhymes with Bank of America.

Here is the complete text of the email:

Thank you for allowing us to be a part of your everyday. As the new year begins, we’d like to thank you for being a Bank of America® client and reinforce our commitment to connecting you to products, guidance and services that help make your financial life better. Let’s make this year the best year.

It included a photo of a hand inserting a bank card into a machine (see image).


The message was perfectly, completely, 100% fine. And … it had zero impact on my view of the bank, in either direction.

It was an email incarnation of “Have a nice day.” Appropriate, inoffensive, and conspicuously unremarkable.

So what should the bank have done instead?

Nothing. There’s nothing else they could have done – they live in a world of unbreakable constraints:

  • They are constrained by the number of people in the room.

    When you work in the marketing department of a large company (been there), your value is closely tied to your ability to voice an opinion. So when somebody shows up at a meeting with a “draft message to our customers,” you, along with everyone else in the room, feel obligated to chime in:

    Should we write “… part of your everyday,” or just “… part of your day”?

    Should we call these people “clients” or “customers”?

    Should the hand in the image be male or female, young or old, black or white? (I shudder to think how much discussion was devoted to whether or not the thumb should wear a ring.)

    When the meeting ends, the final draft inevitably emerges as compromised, middle of the road, blah blah. Too many cooks in the kitchen.

    You and I, on the other (possibly thumb-ringed) hand, have no such constraints. As solo professionals, we can talk about whatever we want, using whatever words we choose. Hippopotamus! (See what I mean?)

  • They are constrained by the breadth of their audience.

    A bank needs to appeal to everyone. It operates everywhere; it offers a complete array of financial services; its target market is Planet Earth.

    Taken together, this means that when they write an email, or build a web site, or develop an ad, or give a presentation, they must drive straight down the middle of the road.

    Even the name of their business – Bank of America – is pretty much a white stripe on the white wall of company names (I guess “Acme Bank” was already taken).

    We are not similarly limited. We can (and should) tap the power of the niche, speaking directly to whatever narrow audience we’ve chosen to serve. We have the freedom to be specific, saying things like, “As solo professionals…” (if that’s your audience) when we write.

    Does that turn off the people outside our area of focus? Often. But it’s sticky marketing magic to those within it.

  • They are constrained by fear.

    When you work for a highly visible, name brand company, and your job is to publish information out in the world, you know that big mistakes can be fatal (just ask the [former] marketing folks at Dove soap).

    In that environment, it doesn’t take long before life is about playing defense, rather than offense.

    Can you and I make big blunders too? Definitely. But the spotlight is nowhere near as bright – there’s freedom in that too. Bad words/decisions by the solo almost always result in anonymity, not disgrace.

Here’s the bottom line. I don’t blame the people at Bank of America or any other large company for their exceptionally unexceptional emails; they have no other options.

You and I, though, we can do whatever we want.

And while there are plenty of things you can learn from a huge company, how to connect with other humans is not one of them.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Could you spell “hippopotamus” without looking it up?
  1. Me either.
  1. What’s your favorite example of large company constraints?

Share your comments below!

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10 thoughts on “What Are You Banking On?

  1. David

    1. No
    2. That surprises me.
    3. I often observe in larger organizations what is known as the highest paid persons opinion (HIPPO) effect. Marketing research says green. Data analytics says green. Consumer surveys say green. Operations/production says green.

    In the end, when presented to the highest level of final approval (highest paid person in the room), that individual says blue because it’s his/her old high school football team color. Guess what? Suddenly, everyone agrees blue is best.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That’s a great description of what happens, David! You are bringing back some big company memories.

  2. Ira Bryck

    Yesterday I booked a flight on an American Airlines flight, using my American Airlines credit card, and I’m a frequent flyer, etc… using Orbitz. It didn’t give me the chance to pick a seat, and when I “chatted” with them, they said the seat I bought doesn’t allow me to pick a seat, and I can only bring a bag that will fit under the seat – not even in the overhead (the credit card is supposed to get me a free checked bag). When they said I’d need to spend another $40 to get either of those privileges, I suggested that all they do to win or keep a customer pales in comparison by what they do to lose a customer, without even trying. They SUCK! as does almost every large company I ever do business with. Thus, when I have a problem with them, I enjoy torturing them in any way I can (I’m good at it, too!)

  3. Alisa

    I am on hold with Bank of America right now…after all sorts of nonsense just for the privilege of waiting for a real person to talk to about a simple thing they screwed up on. So all I can say is “yes.” Except for the hippopotamus thing. To that I say no. Michael Katz is THE BEST!

  4. Randy

    In a quick search through my brain-pan, I didn’t notice any large companies with ad constraints. When I think of big companies I think of Budweiser, especially during the NFL play-offs. Budweiser is not constrained much. Next up were the Auto manufacturers, but they are fairly unconstrained as well.

    I guess I can’t remember the boring constrained ones… maybe Ace Hardware?

    Regardless of what I know or don’t know I think you are on to something and do present an interesting point.


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