Can You Make a Banking Brand Contagious?

Dr. Jonah Berger, featured keynote speaker at The Financial Brand Forum 2017, knows what makes consumers tick. As the professor of marketing at Wharton, he has researched consumer behavior for nearly two decades — everything from how people pick baby names, to what makes New York Times articles share-worthy and YouTube videos go viral.

Can he help bank and credit union marketers like you turn your financial institution’s brand into something contagious and irresistible?

Yes. And according to Berger, there are proven principles that make things go viral.


If you’re like most people, you think that your choices and behaviors are driven by your individual, personal tastes, and opinions. You wear a certain jacket because you liked the way it looked. You picked a particular career because you found it interesting. The notion that our choices are driven by our own personal thoughts and opinions is patently obvious. Right? Wrong.

Without our realizing it, other people’s behavior has a huge influence on everything we do at every moment of our lives, from the mundane to the momentous occasion.

It’s what Dr. Berger calls “invisible influence.”

“We see things go viral or certain brands catch on, and there’s really a science there,” Dr. Berger says. “There’s a recipe — characteristics that you can follow that will drive people to talk and share.”

One of those concepts is what Berger calls “social currency” — make people feel that they are smart, cool and have “inside information,” and they will be motivated to share and engage with things.

But generating word-of-mouth buzz isn’t all about gimmicks and social media.

“People think it’s all about Facebook, Twitter, but only 7% of word of mouth is online,” says Berger. “Word of mouth didn’t start when the internet was invented. We’ve been sharing it for thousands of years. Our ancestors would talk about where to hunt and which berries were poisonous. Most word of mouth is actually offline.”

Marketers often think they have to do something crazy to get noticed and go viral. Not so, says Berger. Guerilla marketing stunts may get attention, but that’s really not the right answer.

It’s about telling stories — driving conversation.

Berger uses the parable about the boy who cried wolf to illustrate his point. Parents could tell their kids that lying is bad idea, but they’re probably just going to say “Okay mom,” and then go back to doing what they were doing.

“But if you tell them the story of the boy who cried wolf, they want to listen, and then that message about lying being a bad thing comes along for the ride.”

This is what Berger calls a “Trojan Horse Story.”

“Good stories have an exterior shell that’s engaging, but inside there’s the kernel of the message,” he explains.

With a good Trojan horse story, Berger says it isn’t about making something funny or engaging.

“That’s good, but make sure that someone can’t tell that story without bringing your brand message along for the ride,” Berger continues. “Too often organizations just do something they think it’s creative, it’s engaging, but someone can’t remember what it’s for or what the key message is.

Doesn’t Everyone Have ‘Great Customer Service?’

This is where Berger brings up Maui Jim as an example. Maui Jim is a company that sells sunglasses, and they want to be known for good customer service.

Now they could say they have good customer service until they’re blue in the face — just like everyone else — or they could embrace Berger’s principles of story-telling. So much like Nordstrom’s story about the woman returning tires to one of their stores, Maui Jim has baked one customer experience into the lexicon of its corporate culture.

One of Maui Jim’s customers loved his sunglasses, but unfortunately his dog got ahold of them and ripped them to pieces. He didn’t know what model they were, so he sent them back to the company offering to buy a new pair — providing that someone could figure out what pair they were. The company sent him back a new pair for free, along with some dog bones. And the story went viral.

“What I love about that story is it carries the message along for the ride,” Berger says. “Anyone can say they have great customer service, but that story shows that they have great customer service.”

Crafting an emotionally compelling story with relevance to your brand isn’t easy — something Berger admits: “Most companies get stuck because they say, ‘Well our product isn’t naturally emotional or remarkable, and there’s nothing we can do about it.'”

But Berger wants to show both companies and individuals that anyone can craft contagious stories.

“It’s not about having to have the right product,” he says. “You have to think about what makes people talk about and share and then build that into your product or messaging. Any product can be remarkable. Any product can be emotional. Think about what makes people feel emotion or what makes them think something is remarkable, and then build that into your product or idea.”

Berger says savvy brand marketers will often put money into an initiative that may make no money, but will frame public opinion about the brand in the right ways.

“It may not be a big initiative within the organization, but something that will drive conversation and paint the organization with a story that carries the ethos of the brand along for the ride,” Berger explains.

For a banking brand, that might involve opening a new high-tech digital branch — one loaded with iPads, touchscreens, robots and other gizmos. It’s not that the financial institution actually expects a ton of people flooding through the doors to use tech inside it’s branch. But rather the financial institution wants to reposition its brand with the public, and generating a bunch of positive press can shift the perspective from “stuffy, traditional bank” to “cool, innovative and tech-savvy.”

Berger says many of the world’s most admired marketers including Google and Tesla/SpaceX leverage the principle’s of storytelling to position their brands strategically. Companies like Google and Tesla/SpaceX face intense competition for brainpower, so Google rolls out innovations like Glass while Tesla’s Elon Musk talks about building a supertrain from LA to San Francisco not because they necessarily believe these ideas are viable or profitable; they want the world’s smartest engineers and programmers to think that their company is the most innovative place on the planet — where *it* is going on right now.

Donald Trump uses storytelling very effectively to build his brand. For instance, he might brag about a project he has planned that will be the “biggest, tallest, most luxurious and amazing property ever built” with no real intent to follow through. But by putting the spotlight on his brand in the right ways, he can make many of his other projects go more smoothly (e.g., easier to secure funding, or to push a project through a metropolitan planning department).

Register now, before it's too late!

The Financial Brand Forum 2017 kicks off May 17th. Don’t wait, time is running out!

Please Don’t Tell

Another example Dr. Berger likes to share illustrating the power of storytelling involves a hot dog restaurant in New York City. Anyone walking into this restaurant wouldn’t notice anything particularly interesting or unusual. Except for perhaps the phone booth in the corner. Inside the phone booth, there’s an old rotary dial phone. Pick it up, dial the number “3,” and someone will pick up.

“Do you have a reservation?” the voice on the other end of the line asks.

A reservation for what?? You’re in a phone booth inside of a hot dog restaurant. But if you are one of the lucky ones who were able to book a reservation when they happened to have space available, the back of that phone booth will open and you’ll be led into a secret bar called “Please Don’t Tell.”

Now this bar, “Please Don’t Tell,” doesn’t advertise. There’s no sign on the street, nor sign inside the restaurant. And yet, they are always full. In fact, it’s impossible to get into. And the reason why is very simple: they made themselves a “secret” — much like In-and-Out Burger’s not-so-secret “Secret Menu.”

“When you think about it, there’s a secret to secrets,” says Dr. Berger. “Think about the first time someone told you something and they told you not to tell anybody. What do you do with that information? You often tell someone else. Why? Because knowing a secret makes you look good. It makes you look smart, special and in the know. You talk about a hidden bar, and you look smart like you know the city well.”

Beyond fascinating marketing insights like these, Berger offers tips that everyone can use in their everyday lives. For instance, the next time you’re in a tricky negotiation — whether for a raise, a big sale, or a better price on a new car — try this. If the other party leans back in their chair, wait a few seconds, then lean back in yours. If they run their hand through their hair, do the same — not blatantly, but discreetly enough that the other person doesn’t notice.

Why? Dr. Berger says that in his research, people who subtly mimicked their opponent were five times more likely to get what they wanted in negotiations than people who didn’t.

Berger’s point is that we all imitate each other, and react to being imitated, all the time whether we realize it or not (and he says that we usually don’t). For marketers, this is a crucial insight. It explains why the more information consumers have about how many other people are buying something, the more likely they are to try it themselves.

Berger says this could work for financial advisors: “If you’re out at lunch with a client, you could order the same thing as your client and they will be much more likely to want to invest with you because they see you as part of the same tribe.”

It may be subtle, but that’s what invisible influence is all about.

Learn More From Dr. Jonah Berger

Dr. Berger has spent over 15 years studying how social influence works and how it drives products and ideas to catch on. He has published dozens of articles in top-tier academic journals, and popular accounts of his work frequently appear in popular outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, Harvard Business Review, Wired, Business Week, The Atlantic, and The Economist.

Why do some things catch on while others fail? What makes online content viral? And why do some products, ideas, and behaviors get more word of mouth than others? At The Financial Brand Forum 2017, Professor Jonah Berger will explore the behavioral science that underlies these questions, and examine how people make decisions, how ideas diffuse, and how social influence shapes behavior.

Over 1,500+ of the best and brightest in banking will be at The Financial Brand Forum when it gets underway this May, making it the biggest conference anywhere in the world for senior-level marketing executives in the financial industry. Register nowyou can’t afford to miss it!

Register Now