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.

Steady Growth in Marketing Spend and Marketing Ratios for Top U.S. Banks in 2019

EMI’s annual analysis of marketing expenditure for 25 leading U.S. banks reveals that they grew marketing spending by 7% in 2019 to $15.4 billion. This rate was down from the 13% growth between 2017 and 2018.

The banks’ marketing ratio (defined as advertising and marketing spend as a percentage of net revenue) has risen steadily in recent years, growing 18 basis points (bps) to 2.92% in 2018, and by an additional 21 bps to 3.13% in 2019.

The chart below summarizes marketing ratios, marketing budgets and y/y change in marketing spending for these 25 banks.

The following are some additional takeaways from our bank marketing spend analysis:

  • 16 of the 25 banks increased their marketing spending in 2019, with 5 increasing their budgets by more than 10%.
  • 6 banks invested more than $1 billion in advertising and marketing. Wells Fargo joined this group for the first time in 2019, with marketing spending rising by 26%, driven in large part by the launch of the ‘This is Wells Fargo’ integrated marketing campaign in January 2019 . It has invested strongly in advertising in recent years as it seeks to rebuild its reputation following the fallout from fake account and mortgage mishandling scandals.
  • 11 banks increased their marketing ratios in 2019, with 6 of these growing the ratios by more than 10 basis points. The largest rise was reported by Bank of America, whose 15% increase in its marketing spend led to a 38 bps rise in its marketing ratio (to 2.3%).
  • Banks that do not have branch networks and have national credit card franchises (American Express and Discover) had the highest marketing ratios. Capital One’s credit card bank charter – Capital One Bank (USA), National Association – had a marketing ratio of 10.3% in 2019, while its retail banking charter – Capital One, National Association – had a ratio (3.2%) more in line with peer regional banks.

It is almost impossible to project bank marketing spending for 2020, given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the U.S. economy in general, and the banking sector in particular. In the short term, marketing budgets will trend downwards as bank revenues are impacted by decreased economic activity. However, unlike the 2018-09 Financial Crisis, the country’s fundamentals were strong heading into this disruption, which increases optimism that the economy can recover quickly once the pandemic abates. This may lead to a robust bank marketing spending in the second half of 2020. What is more clear is banks will continue to shift their marketing budgets from traditional media (e.g., TV and print) to digital and other nontraditional media.

An Analysis of Leading U.S. Banks’ 2018 Marketing Spending

EMI analyzed 2018 marketing spend by 27 of the leading U.S. banks, and found that most banks are ramping up their investment in marketing.  The rise in marketing budgets is driven by a number of factors, including:

  • The continued growth of the U.S. economy.
  • The ongoing scaling back of bank’s branch networks.  This reduces their on-the-ground presence, so banks need to invest more in marketing to maintain brand awareness.  In addition, cost savings from smaller branch networks can be redirected to other functions, including marketing.
  • The need for established banks to reposition themselves in a changing financial services ecosystem, characterized by the emergence of fintech firms and direct (branchless) banks.

Overall, marketing spending by the banks rose 13% to $13.0 billion in 2018. 

  • 17 banks grew their marketing budgets.
  • 14 banks increased their marketing spend by double-digit rates, led by Wells Fargo (+40%), BBVA Compass (+34%) and Capital One (+30%).

5 banks spent more than $1 billion on marketing: JPMorgan Chase ($3,290MM), American Express ($2,578MM), Capital One ($2,174MM), Bank of America ($1,513MM) and Citibank ($1,419MM).

The 27 banks’ cumulative marketing spend represented 2.9% of their 2018 net revenues, which represents a 17 basis point rise from the banks’ 2017 marketing ratio. 

  • The marketing ratios of the 27 banks ranged from 11.2% for American Express to 1.0% for Wells Fargo. 
  • A majority of the banks (16 of the 27) had marketing ratios in the 1.5% – 2.5% range.

The variation in marketing ratios is due to on a number of factors, including product concentration, size of branch networks, perceived importance of strong brand equity, as well as the timing of marketing investments (such as the launch of new advertising campaigns).

  • For example, American Express and Discover have no branch networks, are primarily focused on selling credit and charge cards, and have traditionally invested to maintain strong brand awareness. Therefore, their marketing ratios are more in line with fast moving consumer goods firms, rather than financial institutions.

15 banks increased their marketing ratios between 2017 and 2018.

  • Wells Fargo, which has traditionally had a low marketing ratio as it focused resources of its large branch network, increased its marketing spend by 40% to more than $850 million in 2018, and its marketing ratio grew by 30 bps.  The strong rise in spend was in large part due to the launch of the “Re-Established” integrated marketing campaign in May 2018.  It is worth noting that Wells Fargo remains well below national bank peers, such as JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.
  • Other banks with strong increases in their marketing ratios include Capital One (+161 bps to 7.7%) and BBVA Compass (+57 bps to 3.3%).