Waiting in the lounge area for my flight back to New York City on American last week, I overheard a fellow passenger grumble that “I have a zillion upgrade credits but can never use them.” Having not been upgraded either despite my lifetime Platinum status and early check-in, I thought for a moment about my loyalty to American — why did I keep choosing them? The answer, it turns out, is a melange of actions both on the product and marketing sides:
- New planes: on its transcontinental flights, AA flies new planes with power at every seat so I can work the whole way if I want;
- Online booking: speedy process and my Platinum status insures that I get preferential seats without paying extra;
- App: makes it really easy to check-in and get my electronic boarding pass;
- Upgrades: every once in a while it really does happen!
None of this had to do with their marketing messages although I will say that @AmericanAir is always responsive to my tweets. My point here is simple — brands are built on genuine actions (not vacuous promises) that are of meaningful benefit to existing customers. A prime example of this comes from Suzanne Copeland, CMO of Sterling National Bank, who shares her insights in our interview below (by the way this is just part 1 of our conversation!). And assuming you enjoy what you read below, feel free to join us at the Incite Group Marketing Summit (October 27-28) where both of us will be speaking.
Drew: Can you provide a quick recap of your career path?
Suzanne: It’s interesting. I didn’t necessarily set out to be in banking per se. Some people start out their careers in financial services and I really didn’t. It’s just a place that I ended up. I actually started my career on the advertising agency side. I got out of college and I was an art director. And I think that’s a good background to have, but it definitely was not my strongest skill set. And so, I moved quickly to the dark side! Later I had an opportunity, my first sort of bigger corporate leadership job, at a medical device manufacturer. Then a bank opportunity in my home town of Memphis opened up and that’s really where I got into banking. I spent quite a bit of time there. And then I was really ready for some new challenges and this opportunity presented itself to come to Sterling in suburban New York and build the marketing discipline.
Drew: Very interesting. I’m curious how being an art director and having worked on the agency side informed your approach to dealing with agency partners.
Suzanne: So this is what they tell me, and I think they are telling me the truth, that actually I’m easier to work with. I may be more demanding, but I also understand how things work on that side of the fence. And so when I give feedback, I understand what it is they need from me to move forward. I’m not the person that says, yeah yeah, what else do you have? I am very demanding, but I think the respect is there simply because I also know where they’re coming from and I help them get there.
Drew: Do you think about your personal brand at all and if so, how would you describe your brand?
Suzanne: I do think having a personal brand is really important. I think that it’s like anything else. You’re interacting with people and how you’re coming across and what you’re like, it definitely influences the outcome of that relationship. So, I do think about that. I’d like to think that my brand is smart, creative and fun. I’d like to think that people think I know what I’m doing, that I have unique perspectives and have unique problem-solving skills, but then I’m still fun to be around!
Drew: I can see that. I’ll credit that to your agency training! Speaking of creativity, you’re now in an industry that isn’t exactly famous for innovative marketing. Do you see banking as a unique marketing challenge?
Suzanne: It does come with some unique challenges. I think it also has some great opportunities associated with it as well. Way back, banks were some of the first companies that actually had in their possession that big data that everyone talks about; it was necessary to do the job, to do the business of banking. And they were among the first to leverage that information for marketing, particularly direct channels. So I’ve had a lot of great direct marketing experience by working for a bank.
Drew: Interesting. So what are some of the other challenges?
Suzanne: I think the biggest challenges are that it is very much a commodity marketplace and it is difficult to differentiate your brand. I think it’s hard to say you’re really doing something that different. I mean being an intermediary for funds, well, there are plenty of companies that do that. Everybody tells you that their customer relationship is better. It’s kind of hard to really tease that out to some specifics that explain exactly how you’re better. And then I think the competitive marketplace is also extremely strong in banking. There are lot of non-bank competitors and they’re making great strides with regard to innovation, which is something that the clients are looking for. So, that’s a challenge too.
Drew: Let’s talk about Sterling and how you have differentiated the bank.
Suzanne: Well, our business model is probably the stronger driver of what the differentiation is. We’re set up with dedicated commercial teams. Our key target is the commercial middle market client. This is a business that’s pretty big, that’s established, but they’re not large global corporations. Having that one stop shopping, dedicated person that you can go to work with on your finances is important. You have to have a big enough organization that can meet your credit needs that has a sophistication on the deposit side and cash management, but at the same time, you don’t want to be at a huge organization that you’re going to have to find those services on your own throughout their different silos.
Drew: Got it. So how do you communicate that?
Suzanne: One of the things that we did early on is to initiate a content marketing strategy and I think that is a really effective way to engage with this audience. We have been publishing Connect Magazine for over seven years now, and a key feature is that we do client profiles. We have a cover story with a client talking about their business. So, it’s a great value to them. And with that, they do sprinkle in where Sterling has helped them with their business, where we have helped them establish the credit necessary to move into new markets or expand their manufacturing or just manage their cash flows better so they’re more profitable.
Drew: To me, that’s a renegade move. You’re “zigging” to print when everyone else is “zagging” to digital particularly in content marketing.
Suzanne: Well, I think digital is certainly a piece of it and we are taking all the content from the publication and putting it on our new website and making it searchable. This means we have a huge database of information for businesses on how to run their business better. So, we definitely haven’t forgotten about digital, but I still think because everyone else is so focused on it, I think the “zigging” instead of “zagging” is to your benefit to help you stand out. I still get feedback that now what people get in their mail, instead of being overwhelmed and throwing it away, that it’s sort of a novelty especially if it is a quality piece. “Connect” is a beautifully produced magazine. This is a small magazine, but it’s something that you would stop and take a few minutes to look at.
Drew: I bet your customers love seeing their stories in print as opposed to on digital and being able to leave it on the desk and — the waiting desk when people come to see them, look this makes them more impressive and more prestigious.
Suzanne: That’s absolutely correct plus we go the extra mile and we provide a framed article for those clients and they display those in their main conference rooms. Those are not hidden away in the copier room.
Drew: It is interesting to me that so much of the marketing world focuses on straight acquisition — this seems more of an acquisition through retention approach. “Connect” seems very much about making your customers look good, focusing on them with the hope that maybe some new customers will come along–is that a fair characterization of your approach?
Suzanne: I think it is fair, although I would say that the commercial middle market target, like a lot of the B2B type targets, have a longer sales cycle. You’re not just going to send out a piece of mail no matter what it is and then they instantly choose a new bank. There is some relationship building with regard to the prospects and quite frankly most of “Connect” is mailed to prospects and that helps build our brand. But at the same time, it is going to our clients and you’re absolutely right, it is also creating brand ambassadors that will praise our services. So, I think that it works on all those points.
Drew: Are there any brands out there in your category or beyond your category that you admire?
Suzanne: Well, it’s interesting. One of the things is just a personal passion of mine, and in more recent times, is about women in the workforce and really helping to bring women up in their level of position within organizations. I feel that I’ve been fortunate and I’ve taken some steps to give back. I launched the women’s initiative here at Sterling. It’s been a great program, very rewarding. This has caused me to go out and look at activity out in the marketplace and one of the organizations that bubbled up with regard to being a good brand was Catalyst. They’re pretty targeted to working with organizations to help improve their inclusion strategies with regard to females. I’ve been impressed with the communication programs they do, the kind of the content that they’re driving. I found it’s very much in alignment with their message and their mission. And I think they’re doing a good job with it.
Drew: Interesting. Tell me a little bit more about the women’s initiative that you’ve done at the bank.
Suzanne: This is personal passion of mine. I brought this whole concept to the organization and they basically let me run with it. There are a number of ways that you can improve the workplace for women, but I focus on personal and professional development. The program includes networking and topics that help women be stronger within the organization. Each quarter, there’s a different topic. I launch the topic with an overview the first month. The next month, I’ll do a panel discussion with senior women on the topic. And then the third month, I have an in-person mini-conference. It’s two hours long. We have an outside speaker and then do small group workshops.
Drew: Amazing. What topics do you cover?
Suzanne: Back in the first quarter we did executive presence including personal branding. We offer very specific tips, things to do in meetings, things to do when you’re presenting, things that you need to improve your skills in. The second quarter we did moving your career up to the next level. What kinds of things do you have to do to move up? What steps can you take? And then the one we just finished was leadership lessons from extreme environments. This was leadership lessons that come out of climbing Mount Everest and crossing the North and South Poles. Interesting, the analogies there between what it takes to do that and the leadership skills that you need in an organization. So, it’s been fun.