Live from the Forum: How Fifth Third’s Melissa Stevens is Reshaping Marketing in Banking

Melissa Stevens, Chief Marketing Officer at Fifth Third Bank, discusses her unconventional career path, strategies for staying ahead in marketing, and the bank's innovative approaches to customer engagement, offering insights on data-driven decision-making and balancing digital and human touch.

In a live conversation for the Banking Transformed podcast at The Financial Brand Forum 2024, host Jim Marous sat down with down with Melissa Stevens, Chief Marketing Officer at Fifth Third Bank.

With a career path that defies convention, Melissa shares her insights on the evolving role of marketing in banking, the importance of curiosity and adaptability, and the strategies she employs to drive success in her organization.

Q: Can you share your career path and how you got to where you are today?

Melissa Stevens: My path to becoming a Chief Marketing Officer in banking has been anything but typical. I have a bachelor’s degree in English literature from a liberal arts college, which might seem unusual for someone in my position.

However, my father encouraged me to major in English to become a strong communicator, and I’ve always been passionate about psychology — which has been a common thread throughout my career.

As I entered the banking industry, I was driven by a desire to enable other people’s lives. I asked a lot of questions, even ones that might have seemed silly because I was curious. When opportunities arose, I stepped up and figured things out. This approach helped me advance in my career and take on new challenges.

Staying Ahead of the Marketing Curve: Experimentation and Lifelong Learning

Q: How do you stay on top of the latest marketing trends and tools?

Stevens: I spend a lot of time thinking, “How do I ask people who might be more on the cutting edge, and how do I get reverse mentorship?” I read a lot. I look at things. The other thing is I try to experiment with things myself.

A few years ago, I thought, “Ooh, I’ve got to get better at video content.” So, I started doing little bits of video, and I found my way through, kind of like you do in the padded closet with a ring light.

I think there’s a combo of learning from others, asking others, finding where your consumers especially are, and then just experimenting with things in safe ways. I mean, I do work in banking, but I’m finding little ways to get started and then see if it can have a snowball effect.

Q: How have you been using AI tools like ChatGPT in your work?

Stevens: We’ve been rooting a lot, our marketers in, “Hey, you’ve been doing this, we’ve been using models. We have ways that we’ve been doing this, and now, how do we evolve from there?”

The conversation we have in our company, especially in the marketing tables, is around the skills that people need now to be a marketer. You have to be a baseline data analyst. You don’t need to be a data scientist, but you need to understand data.

And the third is whether you’ve done it yet over the next 18 months, you’ve got to be teaching prompt engineering. Prompt engineering is a key skill set for people because the better we get at it, the more productivity gains we can get.

Quirky Names and Problem-Solving: Fifth Third Bank’s Unique Marketing Approach

Q: What are some of the unique ways Fifth Third Bank grabs the attention of customers and prospects?

Stevens: The reality is, I think experiences make a big difference. So, one, what experience can you give somebody that is unique and different? Two, people seeing your name makes a huge difference.

For example, our bank’s name, “Fifth Third,” is definitely unusual. When I first took the job, I wondered about the origin of the name myself.

Instead of shying away from it, we leaned into the quirkiness. In 2017 and 2018, we started a brand campaign that proudly proclaimed, “Five divided by three is 167%; that’s a Fifth Third better.” By embracing what makes us different and incorporating it into our marketing, we’ve been able to stand out and get noticed in a crowded industry.

Q: How did you gain a prominent role in your organization as a CMO?

Stevens: Gaining a seat at the table as a CMO requires a combination of vision, results, and the ability to speak the language of business. At Fifth Third Bank, we’ve been fortunate to have supportive CEOs who understand the importance of transformation.

To gain buy-in for marketing initiatives, you’ve got to paint a clear picture of the potential impact and get people excited about the possibilities. However, excitement alone isn’t enough — you also need to demonstrate results. We focus on showing how marketing directly contributes to the bank’s bottom line, driving significant deposits and checking account growth.

Operationally, this means judiciously leveraging data and analytics to recommend contextual solutions proactively matched to unmet customer needs. Implement feedback loops tracking actual customer behavior — like churn rates and customer effort scores — rather than superficial stated intent metrics like NPS that provide false comfort.

Optimizing Digital Experiences to Drive Growth and Retention

Q: How have you prioritized digital account opening and mobile app experiences?

Stevens: Our digital account opening is under five minutes. If you’re a brand-new customer, we tell you right up front, there’s three things that you need to have. You need to know your social security number, you need to have a state ID handy, and you need to have a mobile phone that has a camera.

Once you do that, all you have to do is enter your email address, your zip code and an offer code if you have one, and then the next thing you do is scan your ID, and the rest takes care of itself with a few clicks or toggles.

If we didn’t have that right, I didn’t think it was worth pushing more into the funnel. We try to get people to come, and I was told recently that my analogies don’t work. And so, I gave an assignment in my organization because I kept saying this is not the field of dreams. If you build it, they don’t come.

Q: How do you work to reduce silent attrition at Fifth Third Bank?

Stevens: Reducing attrition is a key focus for us, and we believe that the combination of human connections and data-driven insights is the most effective approach. While we offer a range of digital channels, we also ensure that customers can always reach a human representative when they need assistance, whether it’s for basic customer service or more complex financial needs.

We’ve also implemented a “book of business” model, where each of our bankers is responsible for managing relationships with around 800 customers. This allows us to provide more personalized service and proactively reach out to customers based on their individual needs and preferences.

To support this model, we’ve developed a proprietary portal called “My Day,” which uses algorithms and optimization engines to provide bankers with daily guidance on the most important tasks and opportunities. This data-driven approach helps us stay connected with customers and prevent them from silently slipping away.

Fueling Employee Performance Through Gamification

Q: What’s your biggest challenge in your role at Fifth Third Bank?

Stevens: One of the biggest challenges we face is activating our employee base to become brand advocates. While it’s important to have a strong brand presence on social media and other channels, we recognize that most people aren’t directly interacting with the brand itself.

To address this, we use gamification techniques to encourage and motivate our employees. For example, in our branches, employees earn stars for completing daily tasks and meeting goals. It may sound simple, but it makes a big difference in terms of engagement and performance.

We also foster a culture of collaboration and friendly competition by publishing scoreboards that highlight top performers and areas for improvement. By tapping into our employees’ competitive spirit and collective knowledge, we can drive brand reputation and business results from the inside out.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge to you as a person in balancing everything you’re doing?

Stevens: Balancing work and family responsibilities is an ongoing challenge, especially with three active children. It’s easy to feel like you need to do it all — volunteer for every school event, attend every game, and so on. But I’ve learned that sometimes, just being present in the stands is enough.

One resource that has been incredibly helpful is the concierge service provided by my employer. This service is available to all 19,000 employees and assists with everything from running errands to booking appointments. By leveraging this benefit, I’m able to free up time and mental energy for the things that matter most.

The key is to find the resources and support systems that work for you and to be willing to ask for help when you need it. It’s also important for employers to recognize the value of these types of services in terms of employee productivity, retention, and overall well-being.

For a longer version of this conversation, listen to “CMO Unplugged: The Art and Science of Marketing in the Future” on the Banking Transformed podcast with Jim Marous. This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Justin Estes is an award-winning writer, strategist, and financial marketing expert with expertise in banking, investments, and fintech. His clients include the NYSE, Franklin Templeton, Credit Karma, Citi and, UBS, and his work has appeared in Forbes, Barrons and ThinkAdvisor as well as The Financial Brand.

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