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Building Remarkable Financial Brands

Updated: Mar 27

Our episode today features Ben Pankonin, Co-Founder of Social Assurance located in Lincoln, NE. Founded in 2011, Social Assurance provides the financial services industry with a suite of software solutions, services, and storytelling tools that help build Remarkable financial brands, cultures, and communities. With a mission to Empower, Ignite, and Enable financial brands to be Remarkable, Social Assurance now serves over 1,500 financial brands across the country, helping them to leave their mark and be the heroes of their community.

Tune in to The Stream of Conscience Podcast here to learn more!

Scroll down for this episode's transcript:

If you haven't noticed the world is changing. Consumer and talent demands are evolving and businesses are being held accountable to a broader purpose. This is The Stream of Conscience Podcast, where we celebrate the businesses that are prioritizing purpose to achieve both financial returns and greater impact.

These stories highlight business as a force for good and good as a force for business.


[Kyle] Hey there. It's your cohost Kyle Cartwright joined as always by my cohost Graham Pansing Brooks. Graham and I just want to take a quick moment to say a great big thank you to our listeners for taking the time to listen to our podcasts. Graham, and I are indeed your co-hosts of The Stream of Conscience Podcast.

And we also co-founded SEAchange a consulting firm with the vision that business and capitalism can do amazing things to improve our world while also rewarding those who do so. And today we are thrilled to be in the virtual studio with Ben Pankonin co-founder of Social Assurance in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Founded in 2011, Social Assurance provides the financial services industry with a suite of software solutions, services, and storytelling tools that help build remarkable financial brands, cultures, and communities with an, a mission to empower ignite and enable financial brands to be again remarkable.

Social Assurance now serves over 1500 financial brands across costs the country, helping them leave their mark and be the heroes of their community. So welcome Ben, and thank you for joining us.

[Ben] Well, it's wonderful to be with you guys. You know, I, I think I'm somewhat of a fan on the outside getting to watch, um, you just achieve a B Corp status, which is really fun.

And I love getting to see the way that you're trying to inspire other, uh, companies who are purpose-driven. And so, uh, as a fan, it's great to be on your.

[Graham] Well, thank you, Ben. And certainly there's there's components of, of overlap and mutual admiration and appreciation for the work that you're doing. And, and especially, you know, as, as Kyle just mentioned the storytelling component, so you're, you're no stranger to, uh, working to help find ways to amplify.

Organizations and businesses in the financial sector, uh, to be remarkable and to be a force for positive influence. So starting us off. Can you give our listeners a little bit more context and background about Social Assurance, the history of the company, you know, w the, the mission behind, uh, the work that you do.

[Ben] Yeah. Yeah. We, we started, you know, like a lot of other, uh, entrepreneurs do with, uh, you know, with a vision and, and sometimes that vision, a more sober time. Right. But you know, are part of our original vision was there's this sort of really difficult situation for financial brands that you probably don't go to your bank as often as you.

Right. You don't physically go through the drive-through or inside the lobby and really for them, um, that's, that was their big opportunity, um, to get to help you understand what they do and what other products they offer. And those sorts of solutions was when you would actually physically go to the bank, which I, I always sort of remember as a kid being kind of a fun.

I did, my dad had a small business and I would go with him and, uh, he would, he would sometimes give them chocolates and things like that. So we just kind of had this like fun relationship, uh, with our financial brand. Yeah. Um, that was kind of, you know, a different experience than we have today. And so we saw that on the horizon, uh, you know, years ago.

And I was talking to one of my clients at that time, working with some financial brands and said, what's going to happen when nobody comes to the bank anymore. Uh, and it's not that nobody comes to the bank. And I think that's the really important piece is that, you know, the financial brands who are really doing a lot of great work in their community, um, are still having a physical presence.

And they need help in this digital space. And so we had originally started with this sort of vision of how do we help them jump this? How do we help them adapt quicker? Right. And I think then the thing that that really starts to hit you once you get in a and a lot of entrepreneurs would tell you, this is you sort of give in and you start to fall in love with some of your customers where you start to say, Hey, I really want this one too, like do really well. And like, what does that take to really help them? Because some of them have a really driven purpose for their community and some of them quite honestly have less of that purpose. And, and as you start to get to know them, you start to understand, Hey, I want to help this.

And I think as an entrepreneur, I started to become. Uh, a little bit part-time journalist, like the thing I love about journalism is that journalists will go into an environment like that. And they're looking for. And I think as an entrepreneur, uh, that's, that's a muscle we need to flex as well as we need to go in and look for that story amongst our customer base.

And we started to find some incredible stories, uh, out of our customers and what they were doing. And we said, that's something that. That we really want to rearrange a lot of our purpose for, and, um, it was a really fun, uh, journey to come to some of that. So it, you know, to take a, a really high level view of what we do or what we did and where we're going.

Uh, a lot of that is, Hey, we, we, uh, we started out with this really simple purpose. Like how do we help you, um, to overcome these little. Uh, you know, some of those are compliance hurdles. Some of those are our marketing. How do you adapt to new technologies, new channels, things like social media, things like digital marketing, um, how do we help you adapt to those?

Um, but if we approach it with a really inquisitive mind, you start to become more journalists than entrepreneur.

[Kyle] Yeah, I love that. And I love the term remarkable that we've used a couple of times and that I think we've, we've pilfered from you a little bit here in the intro. So I'd love to, you know, the, the idea of cultivating and just kind of unburying these great stories of the relationships between the customer and the bank or the financial institution.

Unpack that term remarkable. What does that mean to social insurance and how do you, how do you consult to that?

[Ben] Yeah. Like I said, you know, as you start to get to know some of your clients, you start to realize that, that they have some really incredible stories. And so, you know, we started to find some of those and they would be stories like, um, you know, Hey, there was a business in our town that was going under and here we came in and helped them and we helped them in a really.

Remarkable way. Right. Um, or, or, or they would sort of come to us and say, Hey, you know, we're looking at a tragedy that struck our community, you know, we're, I was just with, uh, a group of financial brands out of, um, there were a few banks that were, uh, from Kentucky, right at ground zero, where that tornado struck this past year and just leveled some of the communities they were a part of.

And so you talk to some of them after that fact and they go, Hey, our community is really hurting and there's a multitude of different ways that we can help them. Um, but we're trying to figure out how to get things funneled to really help in a sustainable way in our community. And so, you know, we'd sort of pull back and go, well, well, there's the story.

Like I don't have to make up a story. It's it's, they're like here's a purpose-driven organization. That's doing really remarkable things. How do I help them to leave their mark? Right. That's part of my role as a marketer coming in. But part of my role as an entrepreneur and technologist is saying if we have software that helps them to uncover and start to quantify these things.

So when we had first started, one of the things that tripped me up a lot was we would talk with our clients and I would say, what differentiates you from, you know, the other financial breakdowns. And like, isn't it, you know, isn't it a commodity or like what's different. And I would get this response, which would say things like we care more about our community, then that one down the street and I would sort of stop and go, well, How do you quantify that?

Like, how do you say that? How did you like what different, like, and so fortunately we didn't stop with that sort of like, I mean, I got frustrated for a little bit, but we started asking deeper questions and saying like, well, well, so like, how do you do. Like, um, and they'd say, well, what we do, you know, it's, it's a hard thing to quantify sometimes, right?

Like purpose and community action is like, it's a really a morphous thing a lot of times. So we sort of ask them a deeper level question and say, well, is there a way that you quantify that? And we started getting introduced to. Uh, some of the ways that they would quantify it, some of those were compliance, driven things, right?

Like there's a, there's a whole regulation called the community reinvestment act that, you know, that banks for instance have to comply with, but, but other financial brands also want to comply with it in many ways. So you sort of see this opportunity and say, well, if we can help you quantify this and, uh, implement better storytelling, then.

Truly remarkable financial brands should stick out, right. There should be a clear opportunity, uh, for them to really do great things. And so that was, uh, a huge, uh, transition for us to say, how do we help help them to be remarkable? And, uh, like the other part of our, our real aspiration in there is how do we help them to leave their mark?

Uh, and that's different than just saying, Hey, we want to be known, uh, in our community. It's that we want to be known for the things that we do that are positive to really build those communities. So to answer your short question, where does that remarkable come from? We started using it internally. Uh, we started talking a little bit more about it and it became a lot more of our language.

[Graham] One of the things that we often talk about at SEAchange is, uh, purpose being the new competitive advantage. And as you look around the countries, you look at low unemployment rates. As you look at, you know, all of the things to your, to your, the point of the question that. Your clients, how do you differentiate yourself?

Um, one of the things that we, we recognize and see is exactly what you just said. There's, there's sort of this high level ethos and the more, an amorphous thing that's going on. And so as you have started to have these conversations and, and clearly there's, you know, you, you look out in the financial sector and institutions and there's conversations happening with Larry Fink and, and this approach to stakeholder capitalism, as opposed to shareholder capitalism. How have you seen these conversations evolve and, and, and why now what's sort of driving this, these conversations and evolving a financial institution perspective of, you know, we exist to do more than just making money.

[Ben] Yeah. Yeah. I think it's, I've got a number of fun, fun stories to share in there, but one of the ways that I think it really plays out is this area of trust.

Right. Uh, and when we start to. I sort of aspirational goals of like, how would my clients or my community, or how would they come to trust more? Um, you know, as I've shared with you with both of you, we work in two different markets. We work with financial brands and we also work with, uh, schools and school districts.

Right. So we work with about 15. Financial brands and about 700 schools. And in that capacity, what we've found is they're both very misunderstood organisms. And, you know, for many of you, you might, you know, you might be in an organization where you feel like they're misunderstood too. Um, but in, in, in these, in particular, you sort of don't know what happens, uh, in your bank, right?

Uh, you sort of don't know what happens with money. You don't necessarily know what, what happens in those capacities and what you're trusting is that they have your best interest in. Uh, it's a high trust relationship. This isn't like when we walk into a big box retailer and we have a complaint on social media, right.

We have no idea why they complained or someone, you know, you walked into a restaurant, you complained on Yelp, you don't know them. Um, it's really hard to make that shift, uh, with a financial brand. Uh, it's painful to make that jump from one to. And you don't want to do it in a lot of capacities. So, you know, what happens there in trust is a as a consumer, I'm trusting them a lot, uh, with my money, I'm trusting them that they're doing great things with it.

And, you know, that's where purpose starts to be really important in that type of relationship because I'm trusting them. And I, I know it's not easy to switch. I know it's not easy to do. And what happens on the other side, uh, which I actually find kind of intriguing as well as, so as a consumer, I'm trusting them a lot and I want to make sure that, uh, that they're doing great things.

I want to be in a community that's supporting itself. And, and I want to see what happens when a really community minded financial brands, uh, is active. Because I know, uh, some of those brands around our community and if just one of those institutions went away, a number of nonprofits would just close up.

Um, it's very clearly evident. Uh, we get to see because we track a lot of philanthropy and things like that. Uh, just how big of an impact that is. But, uh, but just on the surface level, right? Like. That's a significant challenge. Um, but on the other side as financial brands, um, they're also looking to build trust and they're, they're looking for a way to market.

And like you said, there's the competitive advantage with purpose? Uh, I was on a call, not that long ago. I shared this with you, grandma. We had coffee the other day and we were talking about, I said, you know, I had a, uh, somebody on my team kind of made an introduction to me. And, um, I'm on a zoom call and, and in this conversation, The, uh, uh, the person on the other end of the call, they said, well, he's really old school.

And I said, okay, what does that mean? And, uh, you know, kind of like have my own expectation. And so we kind of get to that moment in the call where he says towards the end of the call, he says, um, so Ben here, look, look, I'm a capitalist. And you're talking to me about purpose. Uh, Like, what difference does it make to me and my friends, we're all capitalists and I kind of laughed and I don't know, maybe, maybe I had a little extra coffee that day, but I was like, Hey, um, I just don't think you're a very good capitalist.

It was kind of one of those moments where, uh, he kind of stopped and I said, look, let me explain myself. Um, the reality is you want to find great employees. You want to find great customers who appreciate you, not just because you have the lowest rate or the best, whatever you, you actually want them to buy into who you are and that's called brand loyalty.

Right? We would, we have all of these terms that we make up in business. But actually what they are is someone who really buys in and trusts you and they trust not just you as a person, but they begin to trust your brand as a whole. And that's where, what you're talking about with sea change, that that's really where we get to see that magic happen.

When we start to align with the same, with the same purpose, and we start to align with that vision. And now all of a sudden your customer and you are sharing the same path going forward. And that's an incredibly valuable thing to have as a business.

[Kyle] Totally. Yeah. You know, you've brought up the term trust a lot and I think that's, that's really where we are driving towards as well is developing structures and accountability that developed structure, uh, sorry, that develop trust and it's really hard to quantify that. And you've kind of started to, to signify that. And it's the storytelling component is key there. Uh, but some somebody wise once told me never a story without data, never data without a story. Right. So I guess I've got a, maybe a few part question here for you.

Um, kind of relating back to social assurance and your business model. How do you define your stakeholders and what, what metrics do you kind of put at play for them or, or for yourself through. To measure that trust to start to see that you've, that you've made that you've moved the needle on these, these brands that really care and take care of their people, their communities, their customers, in ways that develops that trust.

How do you elevate those companies above those that maybe are just business as usual and, um, yeah.

[Ben] You know, so one of the fun things about, uh, measuring the digital marketing spaces, we get to measure things down to a penny. Um, so we do, we do paid campaigns for our clients, uh, where they're doing, you know, paid advertisements on things like Google, Facebook, you know, Microsoft, some other platforms and, and, you know, Placing those advertisements.

What you start to get to see is you start to get to behind the scenes measure. If I can convert a customer on this platform for $10, uh, for this financial brand, but another one, uh, it costs me. $10 and 63 cents. I start to get to measure that in between the metric and you start to get to actually right.

You start to get to say, what is it that causes this one to convert at this. And this one to convert that right now, there's a ridiculous number of variables in that type of situation, right? Like one of those is size of community where they're located, um, you know, what technologies they have in place, you know, is it easier to convert on one than the other?

And you know, when you start to strip some of those back and you say, Some of them are converting, uh, faster because they have better technology in place. Some of them are converting at a lower rate, right? It's literally costing them less to acquire each new customer because their brand is resonating in their community.

And there's a number of ways that can be, uh, maybe they have simpler, uh, marketing, um, but maybe it's because their community understands their impact. And they know the importance of what they're doing there and that's allowing them to have that access and opportunity. Some of those happen, you know, we watched a lot of this happen in PPP lending, right.

Where we had, you know, financial brands, some which. Rose to this occasion. And we're able to take advantage of that opportunity because they had a pre-built trust in that community. And it allowed them an opportunity to really connect to a lot of entrepreneurs in a short amount of time. And they were able to get through that process.

Um, we had a lot of, uh, our clients who were very successful in that process. And a lot of that, um, I believe is because they ha they already had that. Pre-built. So, who are you going to call when things are difficult? And if you've already given them out your cell phone number, um, you know, that was, that was a pretty easy path for them to convert on that type of person.

[Graham] So Ben taking the focus a little bit more internally at this point in time. How have you seen the work that you're doing impact your own organization, your own team, uh, in terms of building trust and, and how have you been able to take, uh, you know, leverage the, the best examples that you're, you're helping preach and experience and see, and, and telling these stories about, and, and turn those interns.

[Ben] That is a great question. Uh, so one of the things that happens is as you start to uncover these stories, uh, sometimes I get to uncover them first, right? Because I have had this relationship to a client for years. Um, and what we try to do is really start to surface those right. As, as often as we can. So we sort of bring those into the organization and we say, Hey, you know, as I referenced, we work.

Uh, a lot of schools. Um, so, you know, I, I just got to visit, uh, one of the poorest schools, uh, in California, uh, about two weeks ago. And, um, you've been a client for awhile and there, um, our principal just brought us into a new school as she came in to really recover, uh, that school and really wants to make a huge impact in that school, in that school.

And, you know, as I, as I come in to visit with her, uh, she says, Hey, I like, you know, we're in what looked like a makeshift. And I start to understand why, why were we one of the first vendors you brought in, uh, to help, uh, recover a school district? Why does social media matter? Right? As part of our conversation.

And she goes, look, the perception of my school is so bad that. We need help to recover that and start telling stories internally and externally. Right? So it was, it was amazing to see is how, how she saw that impact and said, I need to start telling these stories and I need to start telling these stories right here, uh, to impact this community.

And, and so that's one of the ones that, you know, resonates with me just in the last couple of weeks. But, you know, we have, uh, we have another, uh, you know, bank that, uh, has been working with for years and, um, the bank presidents, uh, they were under a consent order, which means literally the bank was, uh, in the penalty box from, uh, from the federal government saying we may have to shut down your bank.

And the day she got that letter, she jumped on Twitter and said, I'm going to start sharing the story of our financial brands because, um, I need an outlet for this and I need to share with our community. They need to know that I'm here fighting and I'm going to be transparent in the way that I'm doing it.

And so those stories start to fuel us as an organization because we bring them back in and share them. Um, you know, whether it's on slack or we share them in our all company meetings, we share those stories as consistent. And as often as we can and remind other people in our organization to be uncovering those, just like journalists would write, like, what is the story behind the story that helps to fuel us.

So, whether we're making code or we're helping write a campaign, or we're doing a communications activity for that client, we need to know that it matters and that it matters in a deeper way than just, you know, we added a client or we did this activity and, and that becomes really fun for us to see that impact and, and see, uh, our clients touched and ultimately the communities they're serving related to.

[Kyle] Yeah, you're, you're highlighting something. And I'll be honest. When, when you mentioned school districts and financial institutions, I was like, okay, how do these, what's the cross-cutting theme? How do these reconcile with each other, for, you know, one company to be, but, but as you've talked. It's again, the cross cutting theme of, of trust, but it's also that these institutions are core from a public and a private component in a, in a small community, especially, but any community that has to have a strong functioning bank.

And it has to have a strong functioning school system in order for a place to be viable and vibrant for a community to grow around. Right. Um, And so I guess before we start to maybe move towards, uh, the closing for our, our episode, I'd love to just ask a little bit more about how that plays out. I mean, how did you come to the school system, the financial institution, and maybe are you looking out beyond banks as well?

Or, yeah, just maybe, maybe talk a little bit about, more about what that client stakeholder, how that came up.

[Ben] Yeah. Yeah. We work with investment firms. We work with, uh, banks, credit unions, um, you know, other, you know, trust departments, things like that, that, um, that are all leveraging, um, you know, different opportunities in the financial space.

And, and in schools, we work with public schools. We work with private school. Um, and you know, really, we started in the financial space, uh, with that really small meat. I think, uh, most entrepreneurs need, you need a very small problem to solve at first, uh, you know, you need, you need that problem that you can kind of isolate.

Right. And so. Uh, so we start, we started with that. Right. But that, that really small solution. And then, you know, we kinda got impacted, right? You see, you start to understand your customer better. And he starts to understand what the real problems are behind that solution. And you start to say, well, why do I need to help them grow?

I need to help them adapt to a lot of these changes. Right? Uh, we do also work with fintechs and fintechs provide, you know, both some really clear opportunities in certain spaces, but they also could be competitive to our corporate. Uh, so that gets to be a really interesting thing is as you start to shake up, uh, you know, different, uh, financial opportunity.

Um, and then, you know, we actually, uh, moved into this school space, uh, somewhat reluctantly. Uh, so we, uh, I had a friend that had invited me to speak to a group of about a hundred high school students, uh, and said, would you talk about new media? You know, you're doing this space and, and kind of, you know, it was just a good friend and said, would you share this, uh, with this group of a hundred students?

And so I thought it was show and tell day. And, uh, I thought. Honestly thought it was going to be, you know, two hours of presenting and kind of collaborating with students. And that was it. And, uh, I kinda got done with that presentation and, um, I had challenged some of the students who were creating social media content for their school.

And some of them were doing it directly onto those platforms. And I said, well, we have some, we have some software that could help with that. Like, and so I literally just gave it to five schools that were there that day. And, uh, uh, four months later I followed up with them and they were all still using it.

And I said, well, what would you pay money for this? And he said, yes. And so we ended up there. You know, uh, you know, that's kind of the short story, but, you know, realistically, we, we saw that really, as we were evaluating whether or not to enter that market, we said, Hey, there's, there is a lot of overlap here in a really weird way that normally people wouldn't put these together.

Um, but you know, since we're not intimidated to ask questions of young people, um, that really has made us much better at working with financial brands as well, because, you know, I don't even know thousands and thousands of students that use our platform today. And, you know, just to understand what they're doing and how those trends are formulating, uh, is incredibly valuable for us.

And so I, I think we also, you know, just as community citizens often don't know what's happening in a school and, um, That's not an indictment on the school. It, but it is partly the school's responsibility to help us understand. And sometimes as a school, we don't think about that until we're looking for the next bond issue or we're looking for, you know, the next opportunity where we need something from the community.

But if we can be readily sharing that type of information and we can share it right from the source, from students who are learning activities and we can start to help empower them to really be the next generation of content creators. And we have a whole series that we call the content generation because we see this opportunity for, for students to really be an active role and take a leadership role in the content creation process.

So when they get out and get their first job, they can help empower that purpose driven organization that needs to create a podcast like you're on and they already have the skills and they've already been, been holding those in their high school.

[Kyle] I absolutely love that. Thank you for sharing that. And I have to believe, uh, I'm going to let this lead into kind of a final question here, but I also don't want it to be a leading question.

So, so feel free to leave some of the context here, but I have to believe that if you've, if you've crafted something so powerful for financial institutions, there's great application within school systems, where else might there be some great application, uh, across business, public private, nonprofit sectors.

So I'm going to lead that into what's what's next for social assurance, what goals and accomplishes accomplishments do you foresee here in the next few years?

[Ben] Yeah. Well, I hope you can appreciate this as a purpose-driven organization that we're really reluctant to leave that purpose. Uh, you know, we really see some incredible opportunities in the markets.

And the stories that come out of that are just rich and, uh, we have no shortage of those. And so we're, we're focusing heavily in those. Um, but you know, part of what that's led us to is, like I said, getting to know them better. So, you know, in the financial space, uh, like I said, the, the big thing that's disrupting that is fintechs. Right. So understanding how do we help fintechs, uh, be collaborators, uh, with, you know, financial brands? How do we help the inverse of that? Right? How do we help accelerate growth for fintechs, um, that are doing things the right way. And do care about community. Uh, I think that's one of the things that, uh, that we often miss in new innovation, right?

Is some of them are doing this in a way that, uh, that they can see a long-term benefit, uh, to their communities. You know, we have a phrase sometimes that says, well, if we're successful and the community doesn't benefit at all, What difference does it make? You know, so, so we have to find those ways to help that to happen.

And, and really we get this front row seat to get to see it in communities all across our country. And, um, you know, the same as is in many ways, true in education. And that, you know, when educators have a better connection with their community, uh, the community starts to support them in new and innovative ways.

Uh, you start to see, um, people that having a direct connection with high school students and saying, Hey, I, you know, I really saw what you were doing at your school and that I want to help. Yeah, I want to help you to be successful as an individual, but I want, see the school do more of this as well. And so, um, you know, we get to work with a lot of educators who are just incredible heroes, you know, uh, during the pandemic we saw this, uh, you know, uh, on, on a lot of zoom calls as they were getting extremely creative.

But we're seeing that happen now was they're really inspiring this next generation to, to do really innovative things. And I think they have just such a voice, uh, that we'd love to see told and, and, um, you know, we, we get to work with schools, um, all around our country and, and in a handful of other countries.

And so it's really fun to get, to see that impact and realize that, um, I think our vision and purposes couldn't be more spot on for where we want to be in the next five, 10 years.

[Graham] Agreed then thank you so much for taking the time to join us on the podcast today for our listeners that are interested in finding out more information about you, about Social Assurance, where can they find.

[Ben] Yeah. Check us You can follow me at Ben Pankonin, uh, on all of the social channels and all of the places. Uh we'll uh, we'll continue to have shenanigans on social media and, and plenty of fun things to do.

[Kyle] I wouldn't expect anything less. Thanks a lot.


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