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Interviews/ General Management

The Interview: SunTrust Bank CMO Rilla Delorier

by Steven Cook

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Article Highlights:

  • "I am really passionate about the movement for companies to change their focus from 'brands' to 'stands.'"
  • "When you find what your origin is, it helps you identify your culture and generate amazing organizational pull and momentum."
  • "Our consideration for spending is getting back $1.52 for every $1 we are spending in marketing."

The banking and financial services industry was one of the most impacted sectors during the recession, and it is in a rebuilding phase on many levels. From a CMO’s perspective, there is much work to be done to regain trust and engagement, among other areas, with banking clients and prospects.

At last month’s Customer Experience Exchange, a SunTrust Bank marketing SVP discussed in his keynote how the financial institution repositioned itself, leading to a new campaign and client experience. Atlanta-based SunTrust Bank, which is the seventh largest bank in the United States with nearly 1,700 branches, made an informed decision to be a purpose-driven culture, not focusing on the “what” behind its products and services, but rather on the “why”  they are providing.

A client-centric empathetic approach is a compelling way forward for many verticals and brands. To find out more, sent contributing editor Steven Cook to see Rilla Delorier, SunTrust Bank’s EVP, chief marketing and client experience officer, to learn more about her efforts to drive a purpose-driven culture and client-centric bank, as well as initial results. Here is that conversation. What do you believe are the biggest challenges marketers in banking and financial services are dealing with as the U.S. pulls out of the recession?
For the industry, the biggest challenges are reputation and re-earning trust, regulatory pressure, channel expansion, and regrowing revenue and margins. We have to redefine our industry. But at the same time, our clients need help. We need to provide value and help that they are willing to pay for. We need to reinvent the value we provide, the revenue sources we have, and our cost structure. As SunTrust's chief marketing and client experience officer, what are you most passionate about?
That changes over time. The marketing role has gotten bigger over time. Right now, I am really passionate about the movement for companies to change their focus from “brands” to “stands” [what does your brand and company stand for], and becoming more purpose-oriented to not just focus on what we sell, but what good companies can do.

When a company does something to make a difference in the world, it generates sustainable differentiation--for example, in talent attraction and retention--and also creates value in the marketplace that creates value for shareholders. We are about one year into this transformation at SunTrust. It is a long-term journey to repositioning the company to what we really stand for. I am very much leading this with my team across SunTrust. What does SunTrust Bank want to stand for, and why is this important?
It has been tough times in the banking industry. We realized we had an opportunity to focus on the inspiration of why we do what we do in banking and the noble work we do to make a difference in people’s lives, communities, and companies. I researched companies that were purpose-driven and set out to really make a difference. How did you identify this purpose with your clients and internally?
As a marketer, timing your message to match shifting consumer attitudes is a perfect opportunity for a brand. We do an incredible amount of consumer research, such as 1,000 client surveys a night, co-creation sessions with clients, brand trackers, etc. During the recession, the insights we heard from people were that they wanted to get back to living a life grounded in principles, priorities, and values versus stuff. They wanted to get real with what really mattered. . .having a solid life, getting back to basics, being frugal, focusing on savings, and living within their means. We captured this consumer shift really well with our previous campaign, “Live Solid. Bank Solid.” It was right for the times.

Post-recession, we started to hear shifts from our clients. . .they wanted to move forward. They wanted to start making financial decisions again and move out of the holding patterns they were in during the recession. They were ready to start taking steps, and they were asking for a banking partner that could help them. We asked clients what this would feel like. They said things like: “I want to feel that I can actually shine, succeed, and be my best.” This was inspiration for our client-purpose “Lighting the way to financial well-being” and our client-facing “How can we help you shine today? campaigns. When you were developing and implementing these campaigns, what did you do to engage the C-suite and your teammates to get enrollment?
We reminded people of the “why” we are here, and why we are committed to “Lighting [their] way to financial well-being.” Part of this was going back to excavating and exploring the heritage of the company and why we started. From its roots, SunTrust Bank has always backed dreams for people, communities, and companies. We make dreams happen, helping people achieve what they are trying to achieve. When you find what your origin is, it helps you identify your culture and generate amazing organizational pull and momentum. This purpose fit us, so we did not have to push. Our teammates felt this was what we were here to do. . .helping our clients achieve financial well-being. The Shine campaign became the outward expression.

[pagebreak] What are key lessons you’ve learned by focusing on purpose that you believe are relevant for other verticals and brands?
You need to follow a very thoughtful process of reconnecting who you are as a company, or changing who you want to become as a company, before you start saying it and doing commercial activity. I’ve seen companies that have fallen in love with their purpose and start to declare it to the world before they are fully ready to execute it, and this creates an integrity gap. You need to hit the pause button until your entire organization is ready. You also need to understand how your purpose affects your values, guiding principles, and metrics for success, and adjust those. This then gets integrated into the client experience. It has to be real. What kind of results have you seen so far as a result of the new purpose and Shine campaign?
It is still early. . .we are just two quarters into the Shine campaign. Our consideration for spending is getting back $1.52 for every $1 we are spending in marketing, which is well ahead of our big bank national media competitors. This is a lead indicator to things we care about. Household acquisition has also gone up 20 percent in the past couple of months, putting us in the top of our peer group. How does the Shine campaign differentiate SunTrust versus other customer options?
There are different ways you can compete in banking. Chase is playing the “product innovation” game. Bank of America is playing the “convenience, access, transaction” game. Wells Fargo is playing the “cross sell” game. SunTrust is playing the “help” game. Part of this is loyalty. But what we really want to do is look at our client’s life to provide them with the holistic support for the products they are asking for, but also for their specific circumstances. We want to understand what is going on in people’s lives so we can provide help that goes beyond just the account and transactions. We want to help with the “life” part of the money. Given your client’s changing behavior with more transactions now being digital versus analog, how are you allocating your campaign media spend across digital, social media, and traditional channels to engage current and prospective customers?
We are significantly outspending our competitors in digital as a category in our media mix. We are not playing the “mass message to everybody” game, which would be more appropriate for a convenience or product approach. We are trying to find people who are going through different circumstances, target them, and then tell them how we can help them. Using digital is much easier, more productive, and targeting is better in this approach.

Digital is a higher return opportunity because we can deliver a more relevant, specific message to the right audience at the right time with the right help that then leads them to see that we can provide the right kind of help they may not have expected to get from a bank. For example, if a consumer is searching for information to take care of an elderly parent, by SunTrust providing helpful content inside of this context, like advice, tips, and questions that you should ask an elder care facility, consumers see SunTrust as being helpful. Then you earn the right to take the conversation to the next level. Are you and your CIO partnering?
My CIO and I are like Siamese twins. We have partnered to put together the business case to significantly expand our digital investments into digital channel capabilities, what are the best ways to accelerate our progress, and looking at who does this really well. From a CMO's perspective in the client-centric banking world, what are some key insights and lessons you think are relevant to other client-centric verticals?
Be a trusted listener. Purpose is a higher order. . .it is about doing good, and when you do that you get momentum. I also think that just solving for shareholder value is not enough. Client lifetime value should be considered. We need to figure out new metrics that go beyond just today to understand long-term customer value.

About Steven Cook

Steven Cook (@StevenCook) is a 25-plus year Fortune 500 global strategic consumer brand marketer, transformational innovator, and business development executive with P&G, Coca-Cola, and as Samsung Electronics SVP, CMO North America. Steven's works with Silicon Valley startups to Fortune 1000 companies in branded CPG, durables, lifestyle services, and digital and social media.