In many ways, COVID-19 laid bare a lack of digital preparedness in seemingly sophisticated industries. Industries like financial services.

2020 was the year that “digital-first” finally went from an aspiration to a reality. Of course, the transition was already well under way. Amazon was replacing the mall. Twitter was displacing PR feeds and newswires. But on the heels of a global pandemic, the existing digital trends went into hyperdrive. With so much changing all at once, the digital-first transformation hasn’t always been pretty. At times it has looked more like a forced march than a graceful evolution.

Financial services firms like yours were already online. However, the reality is that many in the industry weren’t fully leveraging digital to create cohesive and compelling brand experiences. But in 2021, a digital-first marketing and operational model is no longer optional. Today, your ability to effectively manage your digital presence (and deliver user-friendly digital services) is critical to your firm’s success—now and moving forward.

So, how can you make your brand more sustainable and agile in the future? Here’s what you need to do to future-proof your financial services brand.

7 Steps to Creating a More Sustainable Financial Services Brand

1. Reassess your brand with generations Y and Z in mind

How is your brand aging? Before building out your digital presence, pause to make sure your brand is still relevant. Baby boomers are aging out. Millennials are entering their prime. And over the next ten years, generations Y and Z will control an increasing percentage of the world’s disposable income. Is your brand capable of connecting with your up-and-coming customers?

Talk to your younger colleagues and look for opportunities to stress-test your brand with your future market in mind. Which parts of your brand need to be refreshed or jettisoned? Prioritize those updates now. If you don’t have your finger on the pulse of what matters to millennials and their successors, you aren’t creating a truly sustainable brand.

2. Craft an audience-focused marketing strategy

Too many organizations talk more about themselves in their marketing than the people they actually serve. For example, if your marketing focuses on how your culture sets you apart, then you must connect your culture to improved outcomes for your customers. Otherwise, your audience won’t care.

Always start with your customers’ needs, then demonstrate your firm’s ability to meet them better than the competition.

3. Improve your user experience (UX)

Every aspect of your organization’s customer service and digital user experience (UX) impacts your audience’s perception of your brand. The question is whether it does so positively or negatively. As you develop your website, member portal and other digital properties, you must keep UX concerns top of mind. Think about your audience and what information they most need when they visit your website or member portal. Do they need contact information? Product details? Support? Or something else? The way you design your digital experiences can spell the difference between frustration and brand loyalty.

As the world leans into digital-first modes of operating, technology is continuing to disrupt and transform “analog” experiences in ways that would have been difficult to imagine twenty years ago. For example, the pandemic may be the nail in the coffin for movie theaters. Streaming services, high-bandwidth internet and high-definition screens are working together to create an experience that now seems preferable to many movie buffs.

With that in mind, look at your own business and service models. Banking used to mean visiting a local branch and performing transactions in person. Now, it’s possible to do most banking activities online. In the future, firms that find ways to further innovate with digital and streamline their customers’ journey will come out on top.

4. Prioritize marketing and business development—even when it’s scary

Coming out of 2020, many organizations are ratcheting down their marketing budgets. But that’s a big mistake. Now is the time to pour resources into your financial services firm’s digital infrastructure and marketing. That’s especially true if your firm lags behind others in the industry when it comes to digital sophistication.

It will take time to develop your brand’s digital presence and cultivate new audiences and followers. It all starts with the right positioning. From there, you can construct your digital marketing engine, starting with a strategically designed website and leading up to expertise-based marketing, paid media and other digital marketing activities. Start now—when many other financial services firms are tapping the brakes—and you’ll put your business miles ahead of the competition.

5. Invest appropriately in external partnerships (and resist the urge to bargain shop)

As you grow your firm’s digital capabilities, you’ll likely want to leverage the expertise of external creative partners. As you consider design and marketing agencies, avoid falling into a “bargain-hunting” mentality. Creative firms are separated by much more than just price point. Often, the comparison isn’t apples to apples.

If you want the best results, you must hire the best talent. That boils down to more than just design or marketing chops. You want to connect with partners that offer the right structure, approach and cultural fit, too. The best partnerships are more than just vendor relationships. They are extensions of your team—with the unique ability to take your brand to new heights.

6. Use digital channels and tools to forge stronger relationships, enhance experiences and increase visibility

Where does your audience spend time online? And how do they prefer to consume information? New digital channels and technologies are always emerging. Which means that your digital marketing efforts will always need to be on the move. You must stay on top of trends and explore new and different ways to connect with your audiences.

Start by looking at how you are using the most common digital channels—from LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube to email and paid media. The right mix for your firm will depend on both your business objectives and your audience’s current digital activities. Key word: current. Nothing about digital marketing is set-it-and-forget-it. Commit to proactively following digital trends so you can place your firm at the leading edge.

7. Create sustainable digital marketing systems that promote agility

Agility is key to your firm’s ability to make an ongoing impact with digital marketing. But the irony is that you can’t be agile without first investing in the right systems and structure to keep your team on track. That may sound contradictory, but it’s true. You can only move quickly and effectively with a well-established digital marketing playbook to guide you. Who is responsible for what? How does your organization handle approvals? What are your brand guidelines, and how should they be applied? Until you develop clear answers to these questions, your efforts to move quickly could devolve into chaos.

Now is the time to invest in your brand’s infrastructure, architecture and operations. Doing so won’t just help you become more agile in the future. It will also enable you to execute your brand more consistently, decrease your time to market and improve your team’s morale, too.

From your website to your service offerings, the future of your financial services firm rests on your ability to create robust and sustainable digital brand experiences. Make that your goal in 2021, and you’ll set your brand up for success for years to come.

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