MARKET FOCUS: Banking on diversity

Financial institutions find creative ways to reach multicultural audiences.

Financial institutions find creative ways to reach multicultural audiences.

Step into any Bank of America branch in Los Angeles, and you?re likely to find a multicultural montage with as much diversity as the city outside. During a recent lunch hour at the busy Los Feliz branch on the east side of town, a dozen tellers speak half as many languages ? from Russian to Spanish ? as they help the neighborhood?s ethnic mix of residents cash paychecks, open accounts, and apply for mortgages. ?We?ve projected that [the Hispanic market] is the second-largest growth engine for our consumer bank,? says Luis Casanova, Bank of America?s SVP of media relations, highlighting just one of the ethnic communities the bank targets. ?It?s a wonderful opportunity, so how can you ignore such potential revenue growth and a sizable market?? Bank of America is hardly alone. In recent years, financial-services companies across the country have moved to the forefront of multicultural PR and marketing as they take note that in both urban and rural areas, the face of America is changing. ?They are now beginning to recognize that a lot of the new immigrants are not the tired and poor yearning to be free,? says Colette Phillips of Boston-based Colette Phillips Communications, which has handled multicultural PR for multiple banking clients, including Fleet and Chase Manhattan. ?Many immigrants are highly successful, achieving individuals, and they have come here to enhance their opportunities. They are extremely loyal, but the trick is you have to be willing to understand their idiosyncrasies. They moved to America, but they did not leave their patterns behind.? Meeting ethnic consumers? needs Most forward-thinking companies are more than happy to tailor their services to those idiosyncrasies if it means new customers, and they have become quite sophisticated in figuring out exactly what this blooming consumer base needs. Although most experts agree that each ethnic community needs to be targeted with a custom campaign, they also agree that many immigrants also share characteristics based on how long they have been in the country. ?If you?re talking about the new immigrants, the cultural barriers with them are completely different,? explains Armando Azarloza, Weber Shandwick EVP and Los Angeles GM. ?Those immigrants who have been here less than two years, they have some very interesting issues in terms of financial institutions.? He says that many recent immigrants share a ?significant distrust? of banks, fearing that they are not secure or stable. They also lack any experience with basic banking services, such as checks or ATMs. Without targeted outreach to fill in those gaps in understanding and create a comfort zone, many will never even open the door of a bank, preferring instead the more expensive but less intimidating option of check-cashing centers and other similar services. ?The newer they are to this county, the more in need they are of financial literacy,? says Frances Ryan, VP of communications and leadership at Banco Popular, a Puerto Rico-based institution whose core audience in the US is immigrants of all nationalities. And often these potential customers are invisible to banks who don?t seek them out with non-traditional methods, simply because they lack typical financial histories that put them on marketing lists and into the files of credit bureaus. Casanova says that immigrants who have been in the US for less than five years ?tend to have thin or no credit history and little to no previous banking relationships.? But, he adds, they ?are hardworking. They?ve got this wonderful work ethic,? and most important, they have a personal image of the American Dream. Many banks are crafting outreach campaigns to position themselves and their services as the first step in achieving that dream, whether it?s purchasing a home, sending a child to college, or opening a business. ?You have to educate them first of all that financial services are available to them, and then you have to make it inspirational and connect it to an emotional message,? says Azarloza. Part of creating a message that is on target with those emotions is understanding each individual community?s relationship with money. For example, ?in the Asian community and in the Caribbean community, we are very debt adverse,? explains Phillips. ?They do not believe in debt accumulation. They believe in buying things with cash and pooling their resources. They can have thousands of dollars sitting in a bank with no credit history.? That means that banks need to be willing to look at more than two incomes for a mortgage, or talk to landlords and employers instead of relying on credit scores. Azarloza adds that many immigrants also lack the documentation that US citizens take for granted, so banks need to be flexible, such as in Los Angeles, where many institutions now accept IDs issued by the Mexican consulate. Building community trust But the most important aspect of reaching ethnic communities is creating comfort and trust, which is best done by branch employees who interact with customers and potential customers daily. In order to become an accepted part of an ethnic community, employees need to at least understand the nuances of it, if not be a member of it. ?Credibility is very important,? says Phillips. ?You build it by showing respect, by being involved in our communities, by having people work for the company that look like us.? She adds that by hiring from within the community, banks tap into not only the relationships that people bring, but also the cultural knowledge. For example, she points out that ?red is a powerful color in the Asian community. The number four is a number that you don?t use for Asian people because it is bad luck, like 13.? Those are insights and benefits that can?t be gained without being an active part of the community. It?s a reality of which many banks are cognizant. ?We pay very special attention to the demographics at branches and pay attention so that the staff mirrors the community,? says Rossina Gallegos, VP and Hispanic segment manager for Union Bank of California. Casanova echoes that sentiment, pointing out that nearly half of his bank?s new hires in the last year were from communities of color, which helps the bank with building relationships with diverse customers. ?When a Mexican male walks in and says, ?I need to send money to my mother,? the Mexican teller can relate. There is that cultural connection,? he says. ?We had a guy who walked in with $150,000 in cash. He started pulling money out of every pocket and sock. And why was that? He knew the teller. He did it there because he knew her.? Connecting with the neighborhood Successful outreach doesn?t stop with hiring the right staff. Many banks are following the model of creating branches that act as a kind of community center for the neighborhood. ?The retail centers provide an opportunity for a bank to connect with the community,? says Azarloza. ?If banks begin to look at themselves as community centers, they are going to be more successful in the community.? Casanova says Bank of America has been very successful with this approach. In some branches, the company has installed internet terminals that allow customers to check accounts online. The side effect has been increased family traffic. ?Now they come and hang out at the bank and play around with the internet,? he says. At Union Bank of California, the community idea has been incorporated through a children?s art contest centered on Hispanic Heritage Month, but open to kids of all ethnicities. The bank partners with local schools, so that winners and their schools both receive a cash award and attend a VIP reception at a local museum. The bank benefits when parents come to the branch to drop off entries. ?We get great exposure,? says Gallegos. ?Its very much a branding campaign. Last year, we really did not have an offer attached to it, but when they come and drop off the entries at the bank, that gives an opportunity to show some products that are not just for adults but for children.? For Banco Popular, being a part of the community can have more serious aspects, as well. The bank is currently running a series of financial education forums for survivors and families of the 2001 crash of Flight 587 in Queens, NY, in which a large number of Dominicans were killed. ?The literacy program was geared toward the families of the victims, who are about to get their settlements,? says Ryan. ?They need to become aware of all the financial options that are available.? But not everything community oriented happens in the branches. Many banks also look for non-traditional venues to brand with to reach consumers where they are comfortable. Azarloza points to client First USA Bank One. Weber Shandwick helped the company take better advantage of an existing sponsorship with a mariachi festival in Arizona and craft it into a marketing opportunity. ?We created a financial day at the Bank One Park,? he says. ?For a Hispanic in Tucson to be introduced to financial services at a mariachi conference makes a lot of sense.? But whether it?s in the branch or out on the streets, the key to reaching emerging markets is teaching customers that the banks have an authentic interest in helping them achieve their goals. ?We look at ourselves in a way as really redefining the home of the American Dream,? says Ryan. ?We can speak to that not in a corny or blas? way, but from a position of experience.?

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