Branding: Be authentic and honor your roots
‘Be relatable, approachable, and inclusive,’ says Marketing Professional of the Year Marella Nardotti.
In the competitive Northern Virginia market, Marella Nardotti aims to create an authentic brand consumers find relevant, and leverage that brand to drive product and service growth.
“With all the distrust of big bank behavior and security breaches, we have an opportunity to highlight our trusted reputation and authentically help our members reach financial independence,” says Nardotti, vice president of marketing at $503 million asset NextMark Credit Union in Fairfax, Va. “Engaging with our community and finding out what consumers want from a financial institution will drive us to become a relevant partner in their financial lives.
“Doing so will build trust, which will lead to an increase in product and service use ultimately resulting in profitability,” she adds. “It’s all about understanding our target market. The goal is to be relatable, approachable, and inclusive.”
That, in a nutshell, is Nardotti’s approach to marketing. The CUNA Marketing & Business Development Council named her the 2020 Marketing Professional of the Year during its recent virtual Diamond Awards.
Nardotti explains her efforts to rebrand and rename NextMark, what the experience taught her about branding, advice for other marketing leaders, and more.
Credit Union Magazine: How does it feel to be named 2020 Marketing Professional of the Year?
Nardotti: It is quite an honor, especially since I am surrounded by so many talented credit union marketing professionals. Executing our rebrand would not have been possible without the collaboration and dedication of so many individuals at NextMark.
The teamwork and support was truly amazing. I would especially like to thank CEO Joe Thomas for trusting me to lead the effort. I also want to recognize Ziba Design for helping us redefine our brand, Jackson Walker Design for graphic design, and Pixelspoke for our beautiful storytelling website.
Q: Tell me about your efforts to rebrand and rename NextMark.
A: I spearheaded the rebranding and renaming of the 60-year old organization. Certainly, this involved coming up with an amazing new name and brand, but it also involved a complete website and digital platform redesign, credit and debit card redesign, video production, and coordination of the new brand reveal event.
- Performing research to identify and define our brand DNA and our target market.
- Reaffirming our tone of voice and value proposition.
- Holding focus groups and individual interviews with current and prospective members.
- Redefining our brand guidelines, colors, fonts, and overall look and feel.
- Creating and executing a communication strategy for the launch and introduction of the new brand to internal and external stakeholders.
- Rebranding our digital channels, including online and mobile banking, account opening, and loan application.
- Designing and launching a new website.
- Redesigning credit and debit cards with contactless technology.
- Handling member concerns and reactions of the new brand.
- Branch redesign concepts.
As part of our research and focus groups to identify our DNA and persona, I had the opportunity to sit in strangers’ homes and talk to them about their finances. We discussed what kept them up at night, what their goals and dreams were, what their ideal financial institution looked like, and what they thought about credit unions vs. banks.
It was emotional and eye-opening. It made me feel uncomfortable and uneasy. But it was real.
Each participant had a story—and their stories helped write ours.
Q: What did this experience teach you about branding?
A: The journey has been a marketer's dream, and I'm so grateful my organization trusted me to lead the effort. It was stressful and exhausting at times, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
We had a lot at stake, and I knew from the get-go that we needed to do it right to be successful.
I learned that branding is so much more than just colors and a beautiful logo. It’s about redefining your DNA so you can truly understand who you are, who you serve, and what you do to emotionally connect with people.
When we started our rebranding and renaming journey, I knew we needed to learn more about the community we serve to create a brand that spoke to our target market.
We invited members and nonmembers to participate in one-on-one and small focus group discussions in neutral environments. This allowed participants to comfortably share information about their finances that’s often viewed as personal and private.
Although this was time-consuming and costly, it helped us gather important information about who we serve. When you know your strategic target, you can more effectively create marketing campaigns that speak to their wants and needs.
NEXT: Common branding shortcomings
Q: Where do organizations typically fall short with branding?
A: Organizations typically fall short in the way they position themselves in their target market. Some of the world’s most recognized brands are successful because they dig deep into people’s emotions and they find what make people tick—they anticipate customers’ needs.
Renowned brands create an emotional connection with consumers—that’s what drives them to brand loyalty.
Think about Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Nike, or Apple. Consumers love these iconic brands because they somehow make them feel a certain way that’s almost indescribable. It’s all about the experience—the emotional connection.
Q: What advice would you offer other marketers about successful branding?
A: Define your DNA, your position, and your story, and determine your reason for rebranding. Is it because your current brand doesn’t relate with your market? Does your current brand create a misconception?
• Invest in research and analysis, and understand who you are serving. Why do your members choose you as their primary financial institution, and what do your nonmembers think of you?
• Communicate early and often. Be transparent, and get everyone involved and excited for the change.
• Be authentic. Stay true to your values. Your members chose you for a reason, so leverage what you do well and do it even better.
• Honor your roots. Most credit unions started with a single select employee group and expanded to a larger footprint.
When we were communicating the name change to our members we used a tone of voice that demonstrated our appreciation for our loyal members—those who had been with us for decades.
After all, if it wasn’t for those members using our products and services, and referring us to others, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
• Know your members and the community you serve. Dig deep and truly understand their behaviors. Find out what keeps them up at night, what their goals and dreams are, what life stage they’re in.
• Don’t try to be everything to everyone. When you lose focus and try to please everyone, you increase the risk of being nothing.
Q: How has the pandemic affected your marketing efforts?
A: We shifted our marketing strategy to focus more on reassurance and business continuity. We leveraged email marketing to provide updates, changes, and resourceful information.
We focused our communication on financial relief products, stimulus payment updates, branch operations and protocols, and safety measures. We kept using the word “we” to let members know we’re in this together. Most important, we listen and we empathize.
Our staff has always been great with knowing when to demonstrate empathy. But during such an unforeseen crisis, I was truly amazed and inspired at how patient, understanding, and flexible they were and continue to be.
My favorite recent effort was providing lunch to county emergency personnel, such as police and firefighters. We delivered three rounds of lunches to demonstrate our appreciation for them risking their lives to keep our community safe.
Q: What’s one thing people don’t know about you?
A: People don’t know I was born in Greece and moved to the U.S. when I was 11 years old. English is my second language, but now I speak three languages, including Spanish.
Also, before I entered the credit union industry, I ran my family’s restaurants in Washington, D.C. I was like the woman from the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
My parents taught me the importance of hard work from an early age and I hope I am instilling the same values in my children. Leaving the family business was a gutsy move, but if I didn’t push through the fear, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Q: What’s the best marketing advice you’ve ever received?
A: You can’t be everything to everyone—and that’s totally okay.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: I received the Credit Union Development Educator designation in 2018, and the experience reaffirmed my passion for the movement. It also opened my eyes to many volunteer opportunities in my community.
My advice to other marketers is to get involved in your community. Now more than ever, people are looking for reassurance and support. Remind them that we are here for them, we are accessible, and we are the best choice.