The Most Commonly Used Four-Letter Word in the Mortgage Business: FICO

The Most Commonly Used Four-Letter Word in the Mortgage Business: FICO

December 7, 2004

Got branding?Tim Bryantbranding, trade media, advertisements
One minute everyone's trade ads look like a room full of
Jimmy Stewart. Then somebody paints a milk mustachio onto the
marketing plan and, next-thing-you-know, the entire mortgage
industry wants to kick off its shoes and get tattooed.
There you have it, the abridged "History of Branding in the
Mortgage Industry" as spoken during a Friday afternoon session
around our agency's pool table. It may sound a little off the wall,
but there is truth there. Let's get an Exacto blade from the art
department and dissect its many layers.
It's a wonderful life!
There are towns I know where you could be shot for not best
remembering-for not respecting-MISTER Stewart in this one. Who
could forget the clean-cut banker in his simpler times of black and
white, and varying shades of gray, wearing his same suit, tie and
white shirt? In fact, when you envision Jimmy Stewart, aren't you
inclined nine times out of ten to remember him this way? Think
about it, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington...Call Northside
777...Harvey. Gray suits in those films. My father, also a
banker, had 30 pairs of shoes, but all of them were wing tips. He
had a closet full of suits but all of them were black or varying
shades of gray. It was the look of the times; the look your
industry began with, adopted, and handed off to the marketing
department. You wanted your ads to stand out, but you also wanted
them to look like bankers.
However, as your competition continued heating up, you've
developed a serious thirst for change.
We noticed early in our relationship with Unicor Mortgage, a
national wholesale lender, that the mortgage industry, in person,
looks nothing like its photographs in the trade media. You people
are a lot of fun! Much more fun than your advertising. We realized
that there was an opportunity to break from the pack, and we came
up with the pepper sauce bottle "Hot & Spicy" guy, brightly
colored like a Saturday cartoon show. The "Hot & Spicy" concept
stood way out and had a look that was the opposite of a room full
of Jimmy Stewart. We created a brand that surged awareness levels
off the chart, increased market share, and was a slam dunk for
Unicor in the fragmented market. It enabled Unicor to kick off its
shoes and get tattooed.
Big bucks in them thar brands!
The potential impact of branding on your industry is huge. Recent
studies say that brand equity (the established recognition of a
brand identity) can impact stock prices as much as, and sometimes
more than, return on investment. Though at the present, there is no
commonly accepted approach to determining the dollar value of a
brand, undoubtedly value is there to be found. When Phillip Morris
bought the Kraft Foods brands, they paid 600% more than book value,
and when KKR acquired RJR/Nabisco brands, they paid nearly $20
billion above the balance sheet equity.
Makes you want to run out and build a brand, doesn't it? Before
you do, let's grab that Exacto blade again...
Back to the future on branding
I read somewhere that: "A brand is a symbol, sound, statement, or
other element (or combination of such elements) used to communicate
a message which, in turn, inspires a desired reaction, such as
usage or loyalty." Around the pool table, we just say a brand is,
"A nano-second communique that prompts customers to buy and
continue buying." A brand "says" something about a company, a
product, or service in an instant that makes it unique and
appealing enough to be desired over all others. Any of these
definitions will work and, regardless which one you choose, the
basic concept is nothing new.
Long before cowpokes were branding cattle, craftsmen of ancient
times were placing their unique "marks" on pottery, stoneware, and
metal work. There are documented examples of this, dating back to
1300 B.C. Though initially the marks may have been to insure
getting paid, they eventually came to signify superiority of one
person's work over another's. The same as today.
I promise you, the whole history of branding is pretty
interesting stuff and well worth looking into, but since I promised
The Mortgage Press not to write a book, we'd better scoot
Our Cliff's Notes overview on how to
Branding, like skydiving, requires knowledge of only a few
essentials to get you out of the cargo door. But, like skydiving,
those few essentials make a real difference in how the rest of your
day is going to turn out.
Chapter One: Find a critical point of
Think of an attribute that you can communicate about your company,
product or service to set it aside from the pack. Start at your
core competencies. Are you the first, the only, the most
experienced, the quickest, or the one with the most choices?
Imagine having less than 10 seconds to convince a prospect you are
The One. What would you say? Pretend your life depends on
Chapter Two: Test it
After you've found that special nugget, check to make sure it's not
Fool's Gold. Is it believable given your track record-it needs to
be palatable and easy to digest. Will it go where your company is
headed, and, better yet, will it go where your market is headed?
Pass it around the office and challenge your people to shoot holes
in it. Dare them, and then test it out on a few friends in the
industry or, if you really want to go the distance, run it through
a brand audit (a comprehensive survey that can be conducted over
the phone, through the mail, or in focus groups).
Chapter Three: Give it a personality
Your marketing message, as strong as it may be, will go nowhere
unless your audience is receptive to it. An understanding must be
established between them and you. A relationship is needed, and all
relationships begin with a decision-making process that takes place
somewhere deep in the brain where we cubbyhole our entire inventory
of past experiences. Right off the bat, people need to compare you
with something that they are familiar with in those cubbyholes.
They need to know where you fit in. They need to categorize you.
It's a survival mechanism inherited from our days back in the cave.
Basically, we're not much different from dogs that must give a
quick sniff before wagging tails or baring teeth. The bottom line
is that all relationships begin at being put in your place-your
personality type scanned, sorted, and filed for future
In his book Building strong brands, author David Aaker
notes that the brand personality for Hallmark and Kodak can be
categorized as old fashioned, down-to-earth, and family-oriented,
all of which convey sincerity. BMW's pretentious, wealthy, and even
condescending persona spells sophistication, and Nike's
personality, described as athletic and outdoorsy, translates to
rugged. These are just a few examples demonstrating how brand
personality support the product.
Chapter Four: Now create it
This is where the fun begins. This is when you put on a big shirt
backwards and start finger-painting.
By now, you know what your brand is supposed to mean (the
message) and what it sort of feels like (the personality) and
that's better than starting with nothing. All that's left is to see
what it looks like.
All that's left you say? Well, okay, this can take a
little doing.
Our approach, and maybe it'll work for you too, is to send a
Word Guy and a Picture Guy into separate cages at opposite ends of
the building. We lock them in and put them on a strict diet of
stale beer, raw meat, Corn Nuts and M&M's until they come out
claiming to have "The Big Idea." After that, we throw them in
another room together and wait around to see what Big Idea walks
Good hunting and have a nice day.
Chapter Five: Wear body armor during creative
This is really Phase II of the Chapter Four above. I've set it
aside only to call your attention to the fur flying.
Creative is usually tested as it develops. This is a nice way of
saying most of us don't come out with The Big Idea the first time
out of the cage. This is also a nice way of saying there are
sometimes a thousand pencils hanging from the acoustic tile and
sticking out of people's foreheads as the Word Guy and the Picture
Guy duke it out over whether or not a concept:
a) readily communicates the message
b) readily communicates the personality
c) has longevity (can run forever without wearing out)
d) will be understood by less superior minds
Then, just as the Word Guy and the Picture Guy are speaking to
one another again, we test the creative on outsiders and, if
needed, send it back to the cages for spit-shining.
Chapter Six: Spread it out
After you nailed The Big Idea, the next step is to line it out
across all fronts on the game board so as to completely overwhelm
your enemies.
In this phase, a plan is created for implementing the concept
across the various components of your marketing plan: direct mail,
PR, trade show program, etc. You know the drill. Don't leave the
dock until you've plotted a course.
Chapter Seven: Give it a big launch
We are firm believers that first impressions are the most powerful
ones and that you should go into them with everything the budget
will bear, and then some. In the mortgage industry, placement of
ads in print media is very important to branding. Negotiate premium
positioning for your ads or create unusual placement to correspond
with, and call attention to, the look of your ads. Run your ads as
often as you can, in as many targeted publications as possible.
(Incidentally, in reader surveys we conducted, The Mortgage
Press scored among the most read.) In addition to print
advertising, blow open doors with a great direct mail piece and go
to trade shows with a "take no prisoners" attitude. Keep the ball
rolling and the plates spinning. Juggle a few chainsaws if you have
Chapter Eight: Follow through
After you've built up some steam, don't lose it. Repetition means
everything to building your presence. Repetition means everything
to building your presence. Repetition means everything to building
your presence. Repetition means everything to building your
presence. Repetition means everything to building your
Whatever you do, don't come out of the gate with a big splash
during your launch phase and then suddenly disappear. People will
wonder why. Be consistent both in your message and in its presence
in the market.
Chapter Nine: Our black powder litmus test for
If your child played Backstreet Boys songs repeatedly, you know
that too much of a good thing, and especially too much Backstreet
Boys, can do a body harm.
One of our guys has an extra bone in his inner ear that tells
him the precise moment when a concept needs refreshing. He can
predict this like a dog can predict a fire truck even before the
rest of us hear the siren. He says that if you're in on it from the
beginning, about the time you are becoming tired of your concept is
when others start to take notice. He says that about the time
you're seeing it on the windshield of your car during a fit of road
rage, the concept is "setting in" with your audience. When we see
him cleaning his great grandfather's old musket, we know it's time
to go digging for new ideas. It should be pointed out that
refreshing a campaign is not about a total overhaul and not about
trading it in for something younger. All we are talking about is a
little nip and tuck around the crow's feet and jowls: Outpatient
Chapter Ten: Be prepared to evolve
The Lowenbrau brand has been around since 1383. Baker's Chocolate,
Lipton, and Ivory Soap are all old timers too. "If it ain't broke,
don't fix it." But then again, one must stay on top of the market.
RCA is a good example of a brand that has changed with the times
via its introduction of new products reflecting technology far
beyond anything imagined by the original founders of "Radio
Corporation of America."
Of course, there is more than one way to skin a cat (and at the
office pool table we've come up with lots of them), and one won't
learn every nook and cranny of branding from an article of less
than 2,500 words.
Still, these basic essentials will get you out of your shoes and
into the neighborhood of a good tattoo.
Tim Bryant is vice president and director of Public
Relations for full-service ad agency, The Creative Edge. He may be
reached at (800) 583-3343 ext.111 or on the Internet at