Why Ally Bank’s CMO is Really Their ‘Chief Disruption Officer’

Ally Bank sets the bar as they continually push the envelope with some of the most bold, creative and daring marketing campaigns in banking. Andrea Brimmer, bank marketing veteran and Ally's CMO, explains how they leverage disruptive marketing.

“Marketing has changed more in the last five years than in the previous hundred years,” says Andrea Brimmer, Chief Marketing and Public Relations Officer at Ally Financial.

Statements from the institution’s top marketing boss helps explain why Ally has been one of the most disruptive brands to hit the industry in recent years. They see marketing differently than most other banking providers, leveraging a potent mix of creativity, courage and media strategy to differentiate their brand while breaking through the cacophony of noise in today’s cluttered advertising landscape.

But Brimmer isn’t just one of the industry’s most cunning and capable CMOs. As the lines between marketing and other functions have blurred, so too have the various responsibilities of chief marketers like Brimmer. Today, she sees herself playing multiple roles that extend well beyond the traditional confines that have historically defined leadership positions in marketing.

“Financial marketers have to create an entire ecosystem that surrounds the consumer at every touch point, and not just when they are considering which institution they want to bank with,” Brimmer said in an interview with The Financial Brand. When an institution embraces this expanded perspective, CMOs will need to step up and play an integral role.

“Today’s CMO must have their pulse on the ways in which the customer experience is evolving,” she says. “And you must make sure you’ve got the right internal voice to be able to weigh in to affect customer experience.”

To Brimmer, a CMO’s responsibility today isn’t just to understand and monitor the customer experience, but to dive right into the center and make it happen. This is something a CMO must do whether they “technically own CX inside the organization, or not,” she explains.

Neither Ally’s website team nor staffers in their call center report to Brimmer — the two most important areas affecting CX at a direct bank. But Brimmer works hard to make sure she’s “very connected” with Diane Morais, president of Ally’s banking arm responsible for the bank’s delivery strategy. About her relationship with Morais, Brimmer says the two are very much on the same page “around how customer experience drives marketing, and how it should live within marketing.”

Another key piece of advice from Brimmer: Bank marketers have to stop thinking like bank marketers.

“At Ally, our goal is to be on the level of the Googles and the Amazons of the world,” Brimmer says, “not like other banks.”

“The best brands in the world do a phenomenal job of keeping consumers engaged in ways that are fun but also useful,” she asserts.

Much as data has risen in importance in marketing, Brimmer thinks financial marketers must remember that the emotional side of the consumer is critical. Marketers have to look above the reams of data presented to them to remember that consumer decisions often hinge on emotion.

“We have to remember that consumers react with emotion. They react with their gut. They react as people, not robots,” says Brimmer. “Disruptive techniques break through the clutter and appeal to people with their hearts. That allows you to punch above your weight.”

New Media + New Expectations = The New Normal

Before joining Ally in 2006, Brimmer spent two decades in advertising on the agency side where she led marketing for the iconic Chevrolet brand.

“When I worked at a big agency, there was a handful of media we used,” says Brimmer. “We produced TV ads, did some outdoor boards, and we did print ads, along with some telemarketing and direct mail, and catalogs. That was about it.”

“Many brands today don’t even use TV,” continues Brimmer. “At Ally we use very little print. The way that we go to market is more about experiences. We design around the way that the customer wants to interact with our brand. And because of the rapid pace of technological disruption, those experiences and those expectations from the consumer standpoint are changing like never before.”

Beyond advertising and marketing, major brands are expected to do something financial institutions have historically bent over backwards to avoid: Take clear and decisive positions on issues of the day.

“Consumers want to know what your company stands for, what it believes in,” says Brimmer. “Millennial consumers in particular will pay a premium to do business with brands that align with their values. The onus is on the CMO to figure out how to make this relate to the business that you’re in.”

Brimmer believes there is much more to marketing driven by corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals than just seeing a cause and climbing aboard. Because she wears two hats — marketing and PR — she insists on relevance.

Ally will not do a campaign or promote a position on gun control, for example. “That doesn’t have a lot to do with Ally,” says Brimmer. “Our CSR strategy should be very intertwined with what our business is about. Our approach is all about economic mobility. When we do purpose-driven work, it is around the notion of what ‘money mindfulness’ — an Ally touchstone — means, and how being smarter about your money can create economic mobility for you.”

For example, Brimmer notes that the bank believes firmly in the concept of fairness. She points out that the bank’s ongoing tagline, “Do it right,” is essentially a take on The Golden Rule. How seriously they take this notion is illustrated in different ways. One is Ally’s “Dejargonator” — a feature on its website where rolling a cursor over a technical term makes an explanation appear.

“Some banks purposely try to confuse you, and we don’t subscribe to that kind of marketing,” she says. “We try to avoid the use of disclaimers and small type. Our feeling is that if we can’t explain what we’re talking about without using a disclaimer, then the point probably shouldn’t go into an ad.”

“People spend more time looking for a great taco than managing their money.”
— Andrea Brimmer, Ally Financial

An extension of the bank’s emphasis on economic mobility under consideration is using gamification as a financial literacy tool. Brimmer believes Americans need to focus more on finances.

“We all spend more time looking for a great taco than managing our money,” says Brimmer.

To that end the bank sponsored The Big Save, a virtual reality game consumers played with smartphones during commercial breaks of the 2018 Super Bowl. The game had a serious side — telling stories of everyday people and money. In a follow-up, consumers had the opportunity to share their savings goals with Ally, which presented $250,000 among the game winners towards their targets.

Reminiscent of Pokémon GO in the way the app overlays reality, Ally Bank’s The Big Save contest encouraged players to grab virtual bucks and put them in their piggy bank.

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Boldly Going Where No Bank Brand Has Gone Before

Brimmer takes pride in Ally’s reputation as a disruptive brand, both in how it approaches the market as a major direct bank as well as how it crafts its approach to brand.

“We made a bet ten years ago that everybody was going to do their banking in the palm of their hands,” says Brimmer. Only recently has that become a given for most banks and credit unions. Ally has won praise from Forrester for mobile selling that is clear and compelling and for other aspects of consumer service.

Under Brimmer’s marketing leadership Ally has taken some dramatic measures, such as creation of faux holidays like “National Online Bank Day,” celebrated on Columbus Day, and event-tied outreach such as “The Big Save.”

Another dubbed “Banksgiving,” which debuted for Thanksgiving 2018, entailed the bank’s call center selecting consumers for special help ranging from $25 gift cards to a grant of $55,000 for a charity. To help support the campaign, the bank’s marketing team sat in on actual with customers for about a week, listening to stories about what they needed. Marketing selected some of the larger prizes, but call center reps had discretion to select customers for smaller prizes, such as $1,000 to a man who wanted camping equipment and a modest amount for an elderly customer who needed her leaves raked.

Where does a leading-edge marketer look next? Brimmer doesn’t miss a beat.

“The big emerging channel that we haven’t even started to dip into is eSports and other kinds of gamification,” she says. For those who might not know, eSports is an emerging industry where competitive videogame matches are broadcast and live-streamed. Some eSports stars can pull down millions in prize money. Newzoo, which tracks eSports, projects that the worldwide audience will grow to 316 million annually by 2021.

“eSports leagues are popping up all over the country,” says Brimmer. “Major networks are starting to cover eSports and to air competitions. Universities are adding varsity eSport teams. This is an interesting, burgeoning area with lots of opportunities for marketers.”

Brimmer sees this as a way to support gamification of brands like Ally and a means “to get people to interact with your brand in a way that’s fun. For the generation that’s coming up, that’s more natural.”

If you are past a certain age and had no idea that this world even existed, consider that one major gaming platform, Twitch, is owned by Amazon. Another, YouTube Gamer, owned by Google, allows you to drop in and watch players narrate their games as they battle through mazes and the like. At least one eSports-based TV network is in development.

With esports on Ally’s mind, where could active participation begin? Brimmer says that Ally’s announced decision to become a full-season sponsor of Nascar’s Jimmie Johnson — in real life — may be a way for the bank to segue into eSports in some fashion.

Building a Generation Z Strategy

As Generation Z increasingly comes on financial institutions’ radar, Brimmer — mom to four Gen Zers — sees the need for improved financial literacy education and appropriate purpose-driven marketing coming together. She speaks extensively on college campuses about financial marketing, and Ally works with several schools to let Gen Z students work with Ally staff on marketing efforts and ideas. This mentoring creates campus “brand ambassadors,” according to Brimmer, but has also given Ally an intimate reading on Gen Z.

Overall, while she says there will be generational differences, “we need to interact with Gen Z as kind of Millennials on steroids.” Three key lessons in particular:

1. Personalization matters. Brimmer says they expect you to know them and to be able to talk to them as individuals — not numbers — no matter what channel they come to you through.

2. Frictionless omnichannel is expected. “It won’t be OK with them if your bank can’t deliver the immediacy in the channel that they want with the experience that they want,” she explains.

3. They are ambitious… and mostly clueless financially. Brimmer says Gen Z audiences is as fascinated by banking and finance as they are uninformed about it. She recalls a tweet from an engineering school student that summed things up for her. It went something like this: “Great I’m graduating and I can do the quadratic equation, but I have no idea what my credit score is or what I’m supposed to do about it.”

Brimmer says financial marketers will need to tailor their messaging a bit to a generation that in some ways is more grounded in reality than Millennials.

“Gen Z is coming up in a highly competitive world, and they know they have to hustle harder, and that there’s more competition than ever for fewer spots,” she explains.

Top Marketer’s Picks Among Brands — and Why

“Marketing is less about big splashy awesome TV ads and more around experiences that companies create for their customers.”

Among national brands Brimmer’s favorites as a consumer are Nike and Apple.

“I love that Nike has a very clear and purposeful message, all around the idea that anyone can be an athlete — all you have to do is get out there and just do it,” she says.

Apple she admires because of “the pure simplicity and pure beauty of what they do in their marketing to shape their brand. What they do is brilliant.”

A local brand that impresses her is Detroit’s Consumers Energy. The electrical utility provides consumers with an app that allows them to register for text updates when their neighborhood is hit by an outage.

“That’s awesome,” says Brimmer. “It’s putting the consumer at the center of a huge pain point and living your brand’s values to go the extra mile for the consumer.”

Marketing, she continues, is less about “big splashy awesome TV ads and more around experiences that companies create for their customers.” The brands that do that are ultimately going to win, Brimmer maintains.

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This article was originally published on December 3, 2018. All content © 2018 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.

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