Is Your Organisation A Passion Brand?

Last week we asked are you the most of anything? The two pieces of feedback that resonated with me were: Why does everyone use online companies to illustrate ‘great’ culture? As I did last week with Zappos And how does ‘bricks and mortar’ companies avoid being ‘vanilla’? Seth Godin, the marketing guru, wrote a funny line about poultry with serious implications for standout performances in fields with lots of competition. “Tastes like chicken,”he cracked, “is not a compliment.”Having come back from Peru where one of the National delicacies is guinea pig, I can testify that yes it is not a compliment. One company that proves that you don’t need to be online, nor be ‘vanilla’ is Umpqua Bank.

When Ray Davis took over Umpqua in 2004, the bank was a ‘pipsqueak’ of an outfit with six branches, with assets of $140M and in his words a ‘plain vanilla’ strategy. Since then it has now 184 branches with assets of $11.5 billion, and a unique strategy that positions Umpqua as a ‘lifestyle’ brand rather than just another local bank. Davis and his colleagues like to answer their phones with the greeting “Welcome to the World’s Greatest Bank, how can I help you?” and the training department is called “World’s Greatest Bank University.”It’s corny, maybe even goofy, but it’s a declaration of independence from business as usual. “If the only way you compete is on price, offering the highest interest rate, then you might as well as close your doors,”Davis says. “Is it unreasonable for us to aspire to be the world’s greatest bank? Sure. But that’s how you succeed, by being unreasonable.”

It’s not unreasonable to argue that Umpqua’s fifteen-year track record of growth has little to do with the products it markets, which are similar (if not virtually identical) to the products offered by other banks. What’s distinctive about Umpqua has to do with how it offers those products – its commitment to reimagining the experience of interacting with a bank. Davis puts it this way: “If you took a person, blindfolded them, sent them to a bank, and took the blindfold off, 99% of them would say, ‘I’m in some bank somewhere.’ We want our customers, when they take off that blindfold to say, ‘I’m in an Umpqua bank.’ We don’t want the experience of banking here to feel like banking anywhere else.”

That’s why Umpqua designs its branches to appeal to all the senses. What should a bank look like? In Umpqua’s case, its branches evoke the spirit of a sleek hangout space, more like Starbucks or a well-appointed art gallery than the neighborhood savings and loam. Many of the branches are decorated with works from local artists, a way to keep the environment fresh and visually arresting.What should a bank sound like?In Umpqua’s case, it’s the sound of music. The bank signs up and coming bands to its Discover Local Music project (slogan: “Bank to your own beat”) and invites customers to listen to songs on in-branch kiosks or download them. What should a bank smell like?The answer of course is coffee. Branch employees are happy to brew customers a cup of the bank’s own Umpqua Blend, and they end every transaction with a piece of gold wrapped chocolate served on a silver platter. (That’s what Umpqua tastes like).

Moreover, during and after hours, the beautifully appointed branches host community activities as well as banking activities. There are book clubs, movie nights, neighborhood meetings, ‘business therapy’ gatherings, and ‘stich and bitch’sessions where participants knit and gossip.

Why does Umpqua bother? To answer the make or break question that confounds so many other banks: Why should I choose you over the competition? To change the conversation with customers and the community, to make itself interesting in a world where most banks are boring, to become a passion brand in an industry, mostly devoid of passion. The lesson is as simple as it is subversive: it’s not good enough to be ‘pretty good’ at everything anymore. You have to be the most of something, the most elegant, the most colourful, the most responsive, the most focused. For decades, organisations and their leaders were comfortable with strategies and practices that kept them in the middle of the road – that’s where the customers were, that’s what felt safe and secure. In the new world of business, with so much change, so much pressure, and so many new ways to do just about everything, the middle of the road has become the road to nowhere.

Most companies, in most industries have a kind of tunnel vision. They chase the same opportunities that every company is chasing; they miss the same opportunities that everyone else is missing because those opportunities are hiding in plain sight. The most successful entrepreneurs and organisations aim to create ‘passion’ brands – products and services whose performance and personality challenge the limits and assumptions of entire categories. Passion brand share three characteristics: they offer something that is hard to come by, they reflect a commitment to a big idea, and they are intensely human. Cirque du Soleil is a passion brand, a circus that reimagined and reinvented what a circus could be. So is Harley Davidson, which invented the concept of the white collar, weekend ‘biker outlaw’. So is something as prosaic as Dove soap, whose Campaign for Real Beauty rejected preconceived ideas from the world of fashion and style about glamour and body type. It created a beauty brand for women who are tired of trying to be beautiful.

No one would accuse Zappos or Umpqua Bank of playing in the middle of the road – even if no one would confuse one company’s strategy with the other’s. Umpqua is built around physical retailing, while Zappos operates in the virtual realm. Umpqua is colourful and entertaining, but as a bank, does not embrace the zanier sides of life that help to define life at Zappos. And that’s the point” there’s no one right strategy that separates a company from the crowd, no one experience that brings a strategy to life. As different as they are from each other, Umpqua and Zappos are even more different from the other players in their fields. They have made big bets on ideas that they consider indispensable, and that most of their rivals find unfathomable. They don’t just have strategies, they have opinions – opinions, it should be said, that don’t appeal to everyone, which is what makes them so much more appealing than organisations that think like everyone else.

“Tastes like chicken is not a compliment.” says Seth Godin. Translation: in a world in which so many companies present the same bland, nondescript fare, is it any wonder that so few customers feel energized about what these customers have to offer? That’s what makes it so jarring to encounter free-spirited Zappos and experience minded Umpqua Bank. They are organisations with strong opinions about where their industry can and should be going, about what really matters to their customers and which customers matter more to their long-term success.

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