11/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Financial Identity Crisis

Last Monday I exited the subway at Hunter College in Manhattan. It was orientation day for the new students and the plaza outside the administrative office was packed with fresh-faced kids. In the middle of the action--geographically, if not topically--was an ugly, flimsy, synthetic blue tent emblazoned with the Chase bank logo.

Adults in bad suits manned the booth, scanning the crowd, handing out pens and plastic toys. They looked uncomfortable. As well they should. The contrast between the dynamic energy of the new students in their fashionable outfits, engaged in animated conversation about their exploits over the summer, and these...bankers...was stark.

The scene struck me as yet another sign of how lost our banks are.

I'm no economist, so I won't speak to the financial crisis, but as a cultural observer I do feel qualified to bring up the related, and building financial identity crisis. Though it's not making headlines, this is the crisis that will determine the future of banking as millions of Americans lose interest in the system and the players.

Historically, banking has been a relationship business. Until the mass consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s, many Americans were on a first name basis with the tellers at their local bank. Banks were venerable institutions, or at least dependable. Tellers were knowledgeable, or at least personable. Your bank was an ally, a partner and the relationship was one of mutual respect. From the décor to the demeanor, the banking experience was characterized by dignity. Banks understood their place in the American dream.

And because they were regional, or tied to a unique history and invested with a strong culture, they were each distinct.

From a branding perspective, what happened to banks as they grew and merged is what's happened in other industries: the inverse relationship between expansion and meaning kicks in. The brand tries to become all things to all people and in the process loses its specificity, its edge, its heart, its reason for being. As Bill Cosby said: "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody."

At the same time, the big category players are at parity in terms of what they offer. Coke and Pepsi figured this out in the 70s: In the cola wars the real battle is on the brand front, not the product front. Banks have become a commodity: big, expensive, hulking, massively important commodities competing (poorly) on price and product features. The more they engage on this front, the more alike they become and the less invested--literally--we become.

For banks, the response to their identity crisis has not been to solve it, but to ignore it. Advertising and communications seem to be getting more generic as the crisis progresses. People are just not loyal to banks anymore, and why should they be? Banks leveled the first blow to the relationship by becoming estranged, unfamiliar and impersonal.

It's time for banks to do some soul searching. If you work at a bank, own a bank, or market a bank, I recommend the following: 1) figure out why you're here (specifically and with feeling); 2) keep your eye on how the public's relationship to money is changing (hint: find a great semiotician or just ask around); 3) shout it out--chuck the bad suits and live loud.

As households change their relationship to money, they're going to be looking for partners to match their level of attention...and raise it. Money is the man of the hour right now. People who would never have discussed it in public are speaking freely, dinner tables where the subject was taboo have granted immunity; pop culture is actively trying to respond with information and entertainment (check out the new documentary: American Casino). Banks need to regain a sense of pride--not hubris--if they want to rebuild the relationship with the customer.

And while this may sound like an old-fashioned principle, I assure you it's not. A year ago I conducted informal focus groups with the children of high net worth individuals. These kids were college age and beginning to explore their options for banking. Like any kids, they were full of apprehension about the future and looking for guidance. Here they were, arguably the most desirable demographic for a bank, and they had no allegiance whatsoever to any particular brand. They pronounced them all "the same," "generic," and "not for me." When we got to the root of what a bank or financial institution of any order could offer to attract their attention--Loyalty programs? Points? Credit cards? Investment advice? Better mobile services?--We got a simple response: respect and a personal touch.

Financial experts may have ideas about which of the big banks is going to survive the current economic crisis, but I put my money on the bank that figures out who it is first.