Inspiration can be a powerful tool. But it doesn't happen by accident.

With almost 6,000 U.S. banks (not including the 6,200 credit unions), operating nearly 100,000 financial branches, there is generally very little difference in their design, operations, or customer experiences. It is easy for consumers to get lost in the sea of financial brand “sameness.” Only rarely do consumers find a bold and modern branch experience as branded or well designed as an Apple Store or a boutique hotel.

The dated branch model poses a huge competitive growth challenge for community banks attempting to stand out among well-funded megabanks like Wells, Chase and Citi, and even strong regional banks like US Bank and PNC.

For one community bank, First Merchants Bank, the second largest financial services holding company in Indiana, their leaders decided to step up and take on the challenge of competing for brand distinction — and even inspiring employees head on. First Merchants President and CEO Mike Rechin shared, “our goal was to go from a fairly traditional bank branch toward a vision of community banking where customers, neighborhood business owners and community partners get the support and guidance they need to flourish financially, aligned with today’s technology and digital banking habits. We knew this differentiated approach would require a strong brand partner to help us design a completely distinctive experience.”

So how does a bank take on the challenge of attracting customers?

When people hear the word ‘bank’ today, many have a well-defined perception of a very traditional brick and mortar branch with long teller lines. And who wants to spend one extra minute waiting inside a branch?

That’s exactly the stigma the $7 billion First Merchants wanted to alter. The First Merchants team reached out to national financial brand experts Weber Marketing Group of Seattle, WA. They wanted to shatter the perceptions of a boring bank by finding fresh inspiration and brand relevance in the design of a brand new prototype branch: one that looked more like 2020 than 1980.

We knew this differentiated approach would require a strong brand partner to help us design a completely distinctive experience.
— Mike Rechin, President & CEO, First Merchants Bank
A cross-functional design team collaborated with the Weber team to create a distinctive new branch prototype.

A cross-functional design team collaborated with the Weber team to create a distinctive new branch prototype.

Their journey first took them on the road to a series of Weber-led Seattle experience tours to explore brand leaders. From Starbucks new flagship Roastery prototype, to REI, Umpqua Bank, Pike Place Market, and finally the world’s largest foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it was the first step in their Prototype Visioning Process to create an experience completely unique to their Indiana bank brand.

Finding brand inspiration in unlikely places.

When you think of non-profit organizations, rarely do you think of world-class architecture, an 11,000 sq ft curated visitors center filled with life-changing stories, hands-on activities, global partner features and videos of real-life community struggles.

Bank leaders found their inspiration in the halls of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center, during their brand tours in Seattle, WA. They heard compelling stories and inspiring conversations that help support a paradigm shift  in their approach to creating a differentiated banking experience. 

But why inspire? This is a bank, after all. There are financial targets to hit, customers to retain, new customers to attract. What can inspiration do to help increase performance or growth?

First Merchants Bank’s First Vice President, Retail Banking, Deborah Robinson shared, “we began to realize we had to answer the question of ‘why’ first. It was even more important than ‘what’ we were trying to do with a new prototype. For us, The Gates Visitor Center humanized hundreds of global poverty obstacles they tackle daily by sharing why they are motivated to improve lives.” It struck a huge chord from a community bank perspective and provided affirmation that doing things differently – delivering a truly differentiated experience – could in fact make a positive impact in the quality of our customers’ lives and their own communities.”

The Gates Visitor Center features brand engaging storytelling and displays to inspire corporate and personal philanthropy.

The Gates Visitor Center features brand engaging storytelling and displays to inspire corporate and personal philanthropy.

“Action might be what we care about, but inspiration will lead us there. Inspiration is a tool, not just a byproduct that must be managed if you hope to attract new customers,” says Josh Streufert, Creative Director, Principal at Weber Marketing.

From those early Seattle brand tours and ensuing Visioning sessions and personal storytelling, came the inspirational goal to fuse old and new technologies into key design focal points to be seen throughout the new Broad Ripple branch prototype. 

Targeting a dynamic & competitive urban market.

In a small Indianapolis neighborhood known for its artsy vibe, innovators, and unique entrepreneurial ways of thinking, First Merchants decided to take on the challenge of tackling a hip, urban market called Broad Ripple. Market research revealed three key audience lifestyle targets to which this new experience would likely appeal. In addition to focusing on the young professionals and small business owners with tech- savvy habits, First Merchants wanted to spark conversations, provide engagement opportunities and shake up status quo banking in the market.

“We used bold language to challenge the status quo of banking and inspire a partnership, like “What can we build together?” said Weber’s Streufert.

Inspiring customers and leveraging positive culture shifts with a welcoming vibe.

It is important to grow inspiration not only from the people in front of the counter but also behind it. To the First Merchants team this meant creating a branch that inspired positive interactions, not only with staff and customers, but with smart phones, personal social media content and tablet technologies. 

A bank, like home isn’t just about the physical space, but the people inside it. First Merchants values their employees as their greatest asset, and thoughtfully sought employees who were willing to bring their authentic self to work. They sought individuals who wanted to engage and interact with customers and people in the community, not just monotonously going to a job at a bank.

From the locally roasted coffee bar, to conversation starting visual messaging, every detail of the prototype is tailored to the brand experience.

From the locally roasted coffee bar, to conversation starting visual messaging, every detail of the prototype is tailored to the brand experience.

The Weber Marketing team worked very closely with a hand-picked team of cross- functional leaders at First Merchants to help develop an inspiration-rich environment. Together, they created a space that tapped the most meaningful desires and life needs of the Broad Ripple community: a first child; a new home or a move; or funding for a growing small business.

In an effort to focus on the uber-local centric nature of the Broad Ripple community, First Merchants sourced local products for all of the branch features, down to the locally roasted coffee beans for their coffee bar and local artists whose work was showcased on digital displays and offices. 

This new branch prototype ‘brings a fresh and inspiring perspective to the future of preserving and growing wealth, as well as inspiring entrepreneurs far beyond just their money,’ according to Ruth Kapcia, Director of Retail Experience at Weber Marketing.

The inspiring new brand vision for First Merchants is realised in every detail.
— Deborah Robinson, First Vice President, Retail Banking

Building an innovative mobile & social interactive channel "first". 

In banking today, mobile technology is reshaping consumer experiences with highly developed smart phones, apps, and social media. There are vast ways to connect people that banks have not yet learned to fully tap.

Weber and First Merchants set out to develop a new mobile application for their customers that would inspire “social conversations” around what was important in their lives, and the causes and local non- profits they most cared about.

So Weber Marketing turned to their digital partner Codigo to help create a “first to market” Omni-channel “Social Media Wall.” It updates in real time, smart phone user comments that are simultaneously uploaded in the branch and on social sites.

Guests are invited to be part of the branch experience. With a mobile app and interactive social wall, their photos and stories are easily shared.

Guests are invited to be part of the branch experience. With a mobile app and interactive social wall, their photos and stories are easily shared.

The custom designed Social Wall gives customers a voice in community impact by uploading mobile user content to social media sites.
— Josh Streufert, Creative Director, Weber Marketing Group

The inspiring new brand vision for First Merchants is realized in every detail of the branch, from local artifacts, to workspaces open to the community for hosting meetings or talking through financial options from a banking specialist. The bold colors, graphics and inspiring quotes resonate with the eclectic Broad Ripple community. Robinson added, “people almost can’t believe it’s a bank branch, but we’ve seen people inspired to move their banking relationships to a place that defines how they want to be treated and recognizes and celebrates the uniqueness of their community. The banking center is additive to Broad Ripple. Our goal was to recognize, serve and celebrate what makes them unique.”

Showcased to a sold out house at BAI retail deliverY 2015.

The new branch prototype was showcased during a panel presentation featuring First Merchants’ Robinson and Weber Marketing’s Streufert at the 2015 BAI Retail Delivery Conference.

The standing room only crowd was hungry to learn how a branch prototype might transform a typical transaction relationship into a differentiated experience that inspires customers, employees, and communities alike.

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Branch photography used by permission of First Merchants Bank.

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