How Banks Can Win Women

Last Updated Oct 27, 2010 3:04 PM EDT

Banks have been kissing up to women ever since they started giving out toasters for opening saving accounts. Times change, but most banks haven't. Now, women are a gathering global economic force. Some banks are catching on.

The Global Banking Alliance for Women is meeting this week to fix that. With 21 members and backed by the International Finance Corporation, it aims to be the resource that equips mainline banks to effectively serve women and women business owners.

This is not about slapping pink banners on branches to remind us all to be against breast cancer. It's not about websites that deliver generically useless information about being a mompreneur. It is about aligning bank growth with women's ambitions, executive director Teri Cavanagh told me. Helping women become economically independent - often through small business ownership - is a direct route to economic stability for their families and their communities. Cavanagh thinks it's high time that banks in the developed world use this dynamic to better serve women business owners - and local communities in the process.

In an upcoming post I'll get into the specifics of how this has worked out for WestPac, one of the biggest banks in the world. But first, here's the big picture.

Reaching women is not just a numbers game. U.S. banks, dazzled by the sheer size and scope of the women's market, have largely taken the approach that rebranding their standard small business products with gal-friendly logos and events will draw in enough women clients to capture a net gain. "That's where the cynicism comes in," says Cavanagh. No kidding. Who is fooled by flower-print checkbook covers or a bunch of clip-art business ladies decorating bank websites? Not me.

There are a few models of outreach that work for all types of lending, from microfinance to venture capital. Lenders need to start adopting these best practices and tailor them for their markets. The GBA exists to make that happen.

Cavanagh knows what she's talking about. When at Fleet Bank, she designed and then ran for seven years its women's marketing program. By creating financial literacy and marketing programs specifically for women, she boosted Fleet's market share with women business owners from below 15% to over 25%. "It wasn't just a one-shot deal," she says. "It was an integration of training, financial literacy and business skills, and connections to resources within the bank and outside the bank."

Banks need to repair relationships with pretty much all Americans. Winning women is a critical first step. If Cavanagh's right - and I believe she is -- the banks that master this will crush the ones that don't.

Image courtesy of Morguefile contributor clarita.