Richard M. Rosenberg is regarded by many as the father of modern bank marketing.
Rosenberg, who served as chief executive of Bank of America from 1990 to 1996, earned his spurs at Wells Fargo, which tapped him to lead its embryonic marketing department, several floors down from the C-Suite, in 1964.
The promotion was a huge step up for Rosenberg, who had been working as a salesman for Wells' payroll services division, but it came with zero access to top management. Indeed, until he conceived the idea for Wells' iconic "stagecoach check," the first-ever picture check, Rosenberg had never so much as spoken to company president Ransom M. Cook.
When Cook eventually did call, it was to chew him out, Rosenberg recalled in a 1996 oral history interview he gave to author Germaine LaBerge. Cook "called me up and said, 'We'll let you play cowboys and Indians this one time, but I never want to see that kind of advertising again,'" said Rosenberg. (The stagecoach check proved to be an instant and colossal hit when Wells unveiled it in 1965. By early 1969, more than 300,000 customers were using them.)
How times have changed.
Today, a growing number of banks employ chief marketing officers who manage multi-million-dollar budgets and are increasingly involved in high-level corporate decision-making. At companies like Bank of America, TD Bank, Associated Banc-Corp and BB&T, marketing chiefs serve on the executive management teams. SunTrust Banks so values marketing's input that its leadership team includes both its current CMO, Susan Johnson, and her predecessor, Rilla S. Delorier, now the bank's head of consumer channels.
Along with vastly increased responsibilities, prestige and status, today's CMOs also confront challenges Rosenberg and other bank marketers from simpler times could never have imagined.
Technology has not only revolutionized the way consumers and businesses bank, it has also spawned scores of disruptors in everything from checking accounts to payments to lending, pushing marketing chiefs to come up with creative new ways to differentiate their brands and connect with customers.
"We used to think if we'd done a good print or television campaign, our job was finished," Sarah Peterson, executive vice-president and CMO at $8.1 billion-asset Cadence Bancorp in Birmingham, Ala., said. "The definition of marketing is pretty fluid right now."
Gianni Giacomelli, CMO at Genpact, a consulting firm that has worked with a number of financial services clients, said bank CMOs have their fingers in so many pies these days the situation is reaching the point where they need their own chief operations officer to keep everything straight.
"You've got all these many channels, and many didn't exist a few years ago. All that kind of stuff has to be synchronized, from front all the way to back office. It's an operations job," Giacomelli said.
A decade ago the suggestion that banks begin hiring COOs for their CMOs might have been dismissed as nonsense. Today, no less a figure than current Wells Fargo CMO Jamie Moldafsky says the idea has merit.
In Rosenberg's day, marketing was mainly about sales support, she said. Now, CMOs have to have a working knowledge of a number of competencies across the arts and sciences. They have to be able to produce compelling advertising and manage data and technology.
"In that context it might make sense" to have a COO, Moldafsky said. "I think it's all continuing to make the CMO's job more complex."
Industry heavyweights such as Richard E. Holbrook, chairman, president and chief executive at $9.7 billion-asset Eastern Bank in Boston and Lani Hayward, executive vice-president for creative strategies at $23 billion-asset Umpqua Holdings Corp. in Roseburg, Ore., said the operational model that defined the core of bank marketing for decades producing promotional materials for branches and clever advertising for print and airwaves is dying.
In the one that is emerging to take its place, CEOs are looking to their CMOs to conceive ever-more elaborate promotions to grab consumers' attention, to help design products and to manage a lengthening list of social media outlets.
"It's increasingly falling on the shoulders of the CMO because they know the customers best," said Hayward.
According to Holbrook, "CMOs have always been important, but they are much more important in a world in which potential customers find you in ways that don't revolve around physical location."
Availability of resources and access to top managers pose no problems for Christopher C. Piotrowski, senior vice president and CMO at $27.1 billion-asset Associated Banc-Corp. The Green Bay, Wis., company spent $26.1 million on business development and advertising in 2014 and Piotrowski reports directly to president and CEO Phillip B. Flynn.
In November, seven months after Piotrowski joined the bank from SC Johnson, Associated launched an advertising campaign designed to showcase its customer service skills. It included two well-received television commercials tweaking the industry for its poor reputation among consumers by imagining what other industries would be like if they showed customers the same regard.
In one spot, a hotel clerk shows a woman her room, which lacks a bed. When she asks where it is, the clerk replies, "Our standard rooms don't include beds." He follows up by promising to "reach out to distribution," adding that "it may take 24 hours."
In another ad, a team of movers unloads a couple's belongings on the front lawn of their new home. When the perplexed couple asks if the movers intend to finish the job, the crew leader says no. "We're property movers. We just haul it to your property. It's in the contract.
Television was long seen as the straw that stirs the marketing drink and Associated's snarky spots generated plenty of visibility, including a favorable write-up in The New York Times. TV, however, is slowly yielding its place as bank marketing's dominant media.
An American Bankers Association marketing survey reflecting data collected from March to June 2014 showed spending on television advertising remained essentially flat. At the same time, banks were spending money on digital marketing media that weren't on the list a year before, including social media, search engine optimization and blogging.
Umpqua's Hayward is emphatic on the subject. "Traditional bank advertising is dead," she said. "It won't work with the up-and-coming generation."
Other marketing chiefs, including Piotrowski, are more cautious in their assessments, but he acknowledges that the small screen no longer dominates Associated's overall marketing strategy. The company continues to use television to help differentiate the bank from its competitors. Now it is just one of a number of tools in the contemporary bank marketing toolbox, he explained.
Given the changing landscape, one of Piotrowski's biggest jobs is to find the right mix of channels to fill the gap. He is shifting a sizeable portion of the company's marketing dollars to channels such as social media and experiential marketing that allow for a dialogue with customers.
"We want to be speaking with them as opposed to speaking at them," Piotrowski said. "The days when customers wanted to be talked at are gone. It's all about creating that dialogue."
At the same time he was overseeing production of Associated's much-talked-about television spots, Piotrowski was restructuring its marketing operation into teams focused on social media, corporate social responsibility and business-to-business promotions, as well as experiential marketing.
Experiential marketing dates back to 1979, when Gary M. Reynolds conceived the concept of cross-promoting the Miller Brewing Company with various rock bands, creating the Miller Brand Network. With mobile banking exploding in popularity, the experiential option is receiving added emphasis at a number of banks.
The centerpiece of Associated's experiential marketing package is a season-long collaboration with the Milwaukee Brewers. Associated customers who attend Brewers games can gain quick entry into Miller Park through a dedicated gate by showing an Associated credit or debit card. Inside the ballpark, the bank operates a virtual "home-run challenge feature." Fans queue up to play a 30-second virtual baseball game on a tablet, winning points for hits and home runs depicted on an oversize monitor. While players wait their turn, members of the marketing team chat with them, pitching products and collecting email addresses. During each game, Associated also upgrades a group of fans in bleacher seats to its premium "Check Deck" box.
For business clients, Associated looks to design smaller, more intimate occasions. In one recent event, it transported a group of clients to Chicago where they cooked a dinner from scratch led by of the city's top chefs.
"It was a special experience," Piotrowski said. "Entrepreneurs are some of the most passionate people I've ever met. They live and breathe business. They want a partner with that same commitment."
Cadence is a much smaller and younger bank than Associated, which traces its lineage back to 1861. Founded in 2010, Cadence for its first few years leaned on traditional television, radio and print advertisements to build brand awareness, CMO Sarah Peterson said.
Now that the company has established itself it earned $16 million in the first quarter Peterson, like Piotrowski, is working to expand the role experiential marketing and other alternative channels play in the marketing strategy.
She touted a series of cybersecurity seminars the bank is co-hosting with the audit and advisory firm Grant Thornton LLP. Peterson described the seminars, which she said have been well-attended, as "rifle shots." She aims to design similar "direct, targeted kinds of things" that serve as "value-adds."
"If there's a church group or a retiree club, we can add value. We've barely scratched the surface."
If deposit accounts are any indication, the mix of marketing efforts Piotrowski has spearheaded is paying dividends. At the end of 2014, Associated counted about 987,000 "granular" accounts, those totaling less than $250,000, on its books. At the end of the first quarter, the number of accounts had topped 998,000, according to the company's call report.
Time was when bankers did not have to go to such great lengths to communicate with customers. They'd simply chat them up when they visited the branch, Piotrowski said. But with banking increasingly digitized, in-branch interactions occur less and less frequently and banks are looking to marketing to create opportunities for conversations and to figure out customers' needs and wants.
"That's the role marketing can and should play, in my mind," Piotrowski said. "We're not screaming as loud as we can. We're creating that experience; having that conversation."
The marketing team at Umpqua is thinking along the same lines. In November, it debuted an elaborate outdoor attraction in a city park in Portland that lets visitors create digital "tree portraits" using their body movements. The trees are superimposed on portraits of the visitors themselves. When the process is complete, the product is printed out and given to the visitor as a keepsake.
The exhibit, housed in a white geodesic dome, drew thousands of people who stood in line for up to an hour and a half. All that time, Umpqua representatives were moving up and down the line handing out coffee and hot chocolate and talking about banking whenever the opportunity arose.
Umpqua plans to take the display on the road to Seattle, Sacramento and San Francisco this year. "It's part of how we're trying to take the experience of being a customer outside the bank in creative ways," said Eve Callahan, Umpqua's vice president for corporate communications.
Social media is tailor-made for the kinds of customer interactions Piotrowski is seeking, and Associated and other banks have been quick to capitalize on the opportunities it offers. Piotrowski said social media has allowed customers to "voice their frustration" with their banks, resulting in plenty of negative posts and tweets.
"In the heat of the moment, that's the way they want to communicate," he said.
At the same time, social media gives banks an insight into the products and services the public wants, as well as a chance to fix problems. Members of Associated's social media team frequently reply directly to critical online messages.
"We view it as a huge business opportunity," Piotrowski said.
Priorities are different at $151.2 billion-asset Ally Financial in Detroit.
It isn't that Ally deems social media unimportant. The company is, after all, home to a growing online bank, with $51.1 billion of deposits as of March 31. It's just that it has bigger fish to fry. The jewel in the Ally crown is the massive indirect automotive finance business inherited from its former parent, General Motors. Automotive finance was responsible for two-thirds of Ally's $490 million core pretax profit in the first quarter.
The job of preserving Ally's leading position in a fiercely competitive indirect marketplace belongs to CMO Andrea Riley. A 27-year marketing pro, Riley is well aware her job is mission-critical.
"When you think about our product, it's easy to get commoditized. We've got to find ways to get uncommoditized," she said. "Business-to-business is exceptionally important. We have relationships with more than 17,000 dealers, so the auto segment is critical. There aren't many banks that can claim that ground."
Riley's presence at Ally is a testament to just how significant marketing is to banks these days. Prior to joining the company in 2008, she spent 19 years at the Detroit ad agency Campbell Ewald, where in 2002 she was appointed lead account executive for flagship client Chevrolet. She was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2006.
Handling marketing for one of the world's largest automakers, Riley naturally relied heavily on television and radio advertising. Managing business-to-business relationships for Ally, Riley said her options are much more limited because mass media channels aren't as effective. The ultimate goal is the same as it was with Chevrolet: Building brand awareness and loyalty, but in place of television and radio, she relies on trade show appearances and dealer roundtables.
That's not to imply there's no room for a good, old-fashioned ad campaign even if it is aimed at a group of dealers numbering in the thousands instead of a universe of car-buying consumers that numbered in the tens of millions.
Riley oversaw the launch of Chevrolet's long-running "An American Revolution" campaign, which helped the carmaker introduce 20 new models in a three-year period, but she said she is proudest of her latest effort: a low-key, business-to-business promotion Ally unveiled March 31.
The Driven by What We Love campaign is aimed squarely at protecting its indirect automotive turf. Its core is a series of videos highlighting the close relationships between Ally account executives and their dealer clients.
One shows Ally's Mark Sauntry baking 1,500 Christmas cookies to deliver to his dealers. Another shows executive Brian Bateman taking a snowmobile ride with a dealer in Fairbanks, Alaska. The videos are being shown on Ally's dealer web portal, as well as a special landing page Ally created to showcase the campaign.
Driven by What We Love is a "celebration of our relationships with our dealers," Riley said. "We're telling our story in a unique way. We're very passionate about seeing our dealers succeed. They stay at the top of our minds, so we make that promise of best-in-class service."
The videos have garnered positive reviews from dealers, and Riley said it has struck an exceptionally strong chord internally. Account execs and other Ally employees are lining up to tell their stories, offering up enough material to keep the campaign going for years, according to Riley. The campaign is "compelling people internally to share their experiences," she said. "All these stories are starting to come in."
Riley was part of an influx of marketing talent Ally brought in prior to opening Ally Bank in 2009. Riley, who worked initially at Ally Bank before shifting to Ally Automotive, said marketing has played a huge role in Ally's transformation from the captive financing arm of General Motors to a stand-alone financial services corporation.
"GMAC was part of General Motors, so marketing wasn't as sophisticated a function," she said. "I think it's fascinating what Ally has accomplished. It's the most exciting thing I've ever been part of."