Bank M&A Activity to Increase in 2021: Marketing’s Key Role in Merger Success

In recent months, there has been a series of significant U.S. bank M&A deals:

And there has also been a regular stream of smaller bank acquisitions. Deals announced in recent weeks include:

  • Seacoast Banking Corp. ($8.3 billion in assets) and Legacy Bank of Florida ($533 million)
  • Banc of California ($7.9 billion) and Pacific Mercantile ($1.6 billion)
  • Bank of Tampa ($2.7 billion) and Hillsboro Bank ($190 million)
  • Plumas Bancorp ($1.1 billion) and Feather River ($182 million)

We expect M&A activity to remain elevated throughout 2021, driven by the following factors:

  • The disruption in normal M&A activity in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic likely means that potential deals put on ice over the past 12 months may come back to the fore.
  • Multiple industry surveys show a strong appetite for bank deals.
  • The current very-low interest rates will hinder organic growth opportunities.
  • Regional banks want to build scale to compete with the super-regional and national banks.
  • Acquisitions can help banks fill gaps in their product portfolio.
  • Banks are also interested in divesting units that they do not consider to be part of their core operations, and these units may be attractive to other banks looking to expand in these areas.
  • The potential for more deals between banks and fintechs is great, as banks look to build their digital capabilities, and fintechs look to grow their banking operations.
  • There has been a long-term trend of bank consolidation. Although the number of U.S. banks has declined by 35% over the past decade, there is a broad consensus that there are still too many banks in the U.S.

In announcing their deals, bank have been highlighting a number of potential benefits and opportunities. The following are some key areas where marketing departments will play a crucial role to turn this potential into reality:

  • Auditing of Marketing Assets…Including Personnel. Banks should conduct detailed audits to identify each bank’s relative strengths in various marketing categories (e.g., a legacy bank might be strong in content generation and social media, but weak in advertising campaigns and branch merchandise). It is also important to assess each marketing department’s levels of expertise and experience.
  • Brand and Logo. The first question for marketing to address: what is the brand post-merger? Most mergers simply use the acquiring bank’s brand, but there are situations where the acquired bank has stronger brand equity. And there also also examples of merging banks creating a new brand (e.g., BB&T and SunTrust merging to form Truist).
  • Positioning and Value Proposition. The merged bank’s marketing team will need to develop new positioning, value proposition and messaging that not only encapsulate the combined bank’s new identity and priorities, but that also aim to recognize the heritage of each bank.
  • Customer Migration. One of greatest threats to a successful bank merger is the disruption and potential attrition in migrating clients to the new bank (with clients dealing with potential unfamiliar platforms, processes and personnel). To optimize retention, marketing needs to conduct a comprehensive audit of all customer touchpoints and develop a detailed plan to update all customer-facing systems, processes and correspondence.
  • Branch Rationalization (and Investment). Bank mergers typically have specific cost-cutting objectives, and branch closures are one way to help achieve this objective, by eliminating overlapping branches and reducing branch density. However, the branch network will continues to perform key roles for bank in service, sales and marketing. The merger provides a perfect opportunity for banks to reposition, redesign and re-equip branches to perform these roles into the future.

In summary, marketing plays a critical role in ensuring the ultimate success of any bank merger. Furthermore, the head of marketing/CMO should have significant input into the merger process, both pre- and post-merger.

Banks Cut Marketing Spend in 2020, But Expect to Ramp Up Investment in 2021

A detailed analysis of FFIEC call reports revealed that leading banks significantly reduced their advertising and marketing expenditure in 2020. However, as the economy rebounds strongly from the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic and increased competition from new entrants, banks seem poised to ramp up their marketing spending in the second half of 2021 and beyond.

Change in Marketing Spending Between 2019 and 2020

EMI Strategic Marketing studied data from 28 leading banks and found a 17% decline in advertising and marketing budgets, to $451 billion. This decline follows increases of 7% in 2019 and 15% in 2018.

Although most banks cut their marketing budgets, some banks bucked this trend, actually increasing their 2020 marketing spending:

  • Most notable in this regard was American Express, which at nearly $3.5 billion already has the largest advertising and marketing budget among leading U.S. financial firms. It spent $1 billion in 4Q20 alone as it ramped up investments in new card acquisition. Furthermore, it plans to continue this investment and recently reported that it could spend up to $4.5 billion in marketing in 2021.
  • Direct bank Ally Bank launched a new online advertising campaign in September 2020, which contributed to an 8% y/y increase in its marketing spend, to $161 million.
  • Challenger bank Radius Bank increased its advertising and marketing budget by 45% to $1.9 million in 2020, although its marketing ratio fell from 2.6% to 1.7% as its revenues jumped by 127%. (Radius Bank was recently acquired by LendingClub.)

It is also worth noting that some banks cut marketing budgets in 2020 following a ramp up in spending the previous year. A good example is BBVA, which grew its marketing budget from $83 million in 2017 to $111 million in both 2018 and 2019 as it changed its brand name from BBVA Compass to BBVA. It then cut the budget back to $76 million in 2020.

With Wells Fargo cutting its budget by 45% to $600 million, it reduced the number of banks with billion-dollar marketing budgets to five (American Express, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One, Bank of America and Citi).

Trends in Bank Marketing Ratios

The average 2020 marketing ratio was 2.8%, down more than 40 basis points from 2019, and back at levels seen in 2017.

Only 3 of the 28 banks – American Express, Ally and Bank of the West – increased their marketing ratios in the past year.

American Express and Discover – which have national card franchises that account for a significant percentage of assets and do not have to support branch networks – have the highest marketing ratios. Capital One’s marketing ratio is a mix of its card unit (6.8%) and retail bank unit (3.1%). Regional banks tend to have marketing ratio of 1% to 3%.

It is interesting that digital banks like Ally Bank, Axos Bank, Radius Bank and CIBC U.S. – which like American Express and Discover do not have to support branch networks – have marketing ratios that are in line with their regional bank competitors. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including devoting significant time and resources into improving the digital experience rather than brand advertising.

Bank Marketing Spend Trends for 2021

Looking forward to 2021, we expect that bank marketing spend will recover as the economy gradually reopens following COVID-19 (The Congressional Budget Office expects real GDP to return to pre-pandemic levels by mid-2021). Many banks have signaled their intent to increase their marketing spending in 2021. JPMorgan Chase stated that it expects marketing spend to return to pre-COVID levels in 2021. And while Citi’s marketing spend fell by 20% in 2020, it actually grew spending 2% y/y in 4Q20.

Bank marketing budgets will be impacted by growing merger and acquisition activity in the industry. Mergers that are expected to be completed in 2021 include First Citizens and CIT, Huntington and TCF Financial, PNC and BBVA USA, and M&T Bank and People’s United. Merging banks typically highlight long-term cost savings, but there will be a critical short- to medium-term need for marketing investment as they create new branding, launch new advertising campaigns, update branch signage, and revamp digital and social media channels).

While overall bank marketing spend is likely to recover in 2021, the composition of marketing budgets should change, in particular due to banks investing more in digital and social media marketing channels to match customer preferences and behavior. In addition, banks will be developing new messaging to address post-pandemic financial challenges and to communicate an effective and consistent experience across all their service channels.

New Entrants Turn to Segmentation to Compete in (Digital) Banking Space

With the arrival of COVID-19, consumers have accelerated their transition to digital banking, which in turn has lowered barriers to entry into the consumer banking space.

New entrants comprise both fintechs as well as other financial firms (e.g., robo advisors, financing providers) who have not previously offered banking services. These firms typically cannot compete with the brand equity, product range and heritage of the established retail banks. However, in this new environment, by identifying an attractive and/or underserved segment and building a tailored digital banking experience, new entrants can establish a market presence, while differentiating themselves from both incumbent banks and other new entrants.

The following is a snapshot of recent segment-specific initiatives by new entrants to enter the retail banking market:

For similar companies looking to break into the banking space, once you have identified your desired segment, you will need to tackle the following questions to determine your go-to-market strategy:

  • What is the size and growth potential of the desired segment? Is it concentrated in certain geographic markets?
  • Do people in this segment tend to have unique financial needs?
  • How loyal are they to their current financial provider(s)?
  • What are their preferred banking channels for conducting day-to-day banking activities, and for signing up for new solutions?
  • What are their most important factors (e.g., price, customer service, convenience, innovation, security, sustainability) in selecting a financial product or provider?
  • What are their preferred media and information channels?
  • Do other financial firms current target this segment? If so, who are the standout providers? Are any new entrants targeting the segment?
  • Outside of financial, which sectors (or individual firms) are best in class in targeting the segment? What are they doing that makes them successful?
  • What capabilities do you current have in-house to initiate a segment-based strategy? What additional resources do you need?

Finally, it is important to note that established retail banks are endeavoring to counter the threat from new entrants with broad initiatives (e.g., enhancing the omnichannel experience) and segment-specific programs. For example, KeyBank recently announced plans to launch a national digital bank, targeting medical professionals. Expect to see more of the same in 2021.