Bank of America's Student Pulse community homepage

Building Better Banking by Listening

Bank of America

A new opportunity for growth

Bank of America had been one of the first financial service providers to recognize the need to create a unique young-adult platform. They developed a holistic communications platform aimed specifically at college-aged Millennials that would encourage them to open a primary checking account with Bank of America and increase brand consideration, favorability and engagement with the Bank of America brand.

The Bank’s integrated “Morris on Campus” campaign, developed with its agencies, BBDO and Organic, was targeted at college students only and drove favorable results across all channels. By the third quarter of 2008, Bank of America was the leader in student banking, in terms of student checking and credit cards. However, post-campaign research showed that 90 percent of students had their first bank account before entering college, yet only 11 percent of Bank of America’s student-banking sales came from high school students in 2008. Bank of America saw the discrepancy as an opportunity to broaden its target market by expanding the Morris on Campus campaign to attract high school students prior to college enrollment.

By finding the right formula to extend the successful Morris on Campus campaign to high school students, BAC not only increased brand favorability and consideration among high school students, but also helped the student segment become one of the fastest-growing segments in the bank.

Great marketing starts with listening

Bank of America had never marketed to high school students before embarking on the “Morris Code” campaign. From a business perspective, it made sense to target a younger cohort, but from a public relations and consumer-perception perspective, it created considerable headline risk. The new high school-focused campaign was set to launch during graduation season (Q2 2009) when trust in banks had plummeted to an all-time low.

With the dual goal of increasing the number of high school students within its student banking portfolio of customers, and improving brand perception and consideration during a time when the banking industry was suffering, BAC set out to learn about high school students’ relationships to their finances and how to make the campaign relevant to them. Earlier research had surfaced that high school students acknowledged their financial ineptitude, understood the shortcomings of this situation and were eager to learn how to manage money better. And while many young people asked for their parents’ help, those same parents hoped that banks would provide more guidance. These findings were game-changing for Bank of America, because the financial institution saw an opportunity to act as the “starting point” for students’ progress toward financial literacy – more so even than their parents – rather than a financial-solution provider.

With this key consumer insight in hand, Bank of America sought to provide a simple and integrated experience – offering high school students both education and products – and Morris was the key. Morris was the main character of the campaign, already a friendly and knowledgeable financial role model, who was easily accessible for students needing financial advice. The Morris Code came from Morris’s realization that there should be a single source to promote financial literacy for his high school audience.

Using its private online community of high school students, dubbed “Student Pulse,” co-created with Communispace, Bank of America was able to listen closely to students in order to help them refine the Morris Code initiative. The team conducted months of community work to help understand this customer mindset. Through a series of online discussions, qualitative surveys and other exploratory exercises, the community provided significant insight and improvements to the campaign. Insights and areas of exploration included the following; BAC:

  • Learned how the financial downturn had affected high school students’ attitudes toward financial institutions – struggling banks had high school students confused about whom they could trust or turn to for advice.
  • Dug into past student marketing strategy shortcomings, how high school students want to learn about financial services and in what context they would be most receptive. This included asking them to scout competitors’ websites and compare them to BAC’s efforts.
  • Brainstormed ideas with students for what should be included in a checking account for first-time checking account owners.
  • Explored how relatable the current incarnation of the Morris campaign was and how it needed to change in order to be relevant to high school students.
  • Received feedback on elements of the Morris integrated marketing approach such as website design and functionality, advertising and webisodes.

Undeniable success

The Morris Code proved to be a powerful and relevant campaign for high school students:

  • High School sales in 2009 increased 40 percent over 2008.
  • The Bank of America portfolio mix of high school students increased by 27 percent.
  • The Morris Code site saw as many visitors in two months as in 11 months on the original Morris on Campus site.
  • Of site visitors, 22 percent were repeat visitors, coming back for more.
  • The awareness generated by the Morris Code advertisements created a halo effect, which simultaneously increased student checking sales on and on the Morris Code microsite.

In addition to the documented return on investment, exposure to the site led to increases in all brand metrics among the target audience, including favorability and consideration:

  • Unaided brand awareness increased 30 percent.
  • Brand favorability increased 40 percent.
  • Brand consideration increased 13 percent.

By listening carefully to how to meet the needs of high school students and how they related to the original Morris on Campus concept, Bank of America was able to craft a new campaign that helped it reach beyond its expectations. The team successfully expanded the student segment to include a younger and untapped audience, and in the process, Bank of America created a source of information that was entertaining and increased financial comprehension among their youngest consumers. Bank of America also helped high school students obtain financial services with a confidence they previously lacked, while positively building the Bank of America brand early in its customers’ financial cycle.