Asking the Right Questions: Generative AI’s Impact on Financial Marketing

Regions Bank's Former CMO Abbas Merchant discusses the potential of generative AI in financial marketing, its impact on creativity, data analysis and strategic decision-making. He offers key insights on adapting to this technology and preparing marketing teams for an AI-driven future.

As the financial services industry continues to evolve, marketing strategies must adapt to keep pace with technological advancements and changing consumer expectations. One of the most significant developments in recent years has been the emergence of generative AI, which promises to revolutionize how marketers approach their work.

To gain insights into this transformation, host Jim Marous of the Banking Transformed podcast spoke with Abbas Merchant, ex-CMO and EVP at Regions Bank, about the impact of generative AI on financial marketing and the future of the industry.

The Evolution of Marketing in Financial Services

Q: What have you seen to be the biggest transformation in marketing over your career?

Abbas Merchant: Throughout my twenty-plus years, I have been at the forefront of bringing about the transformation, sometimes learning from it. Successes and then learnings have been had all throughout that timeframe.

The first transformation that I saw in marketing was that within financial services, particularly marketing, it generally tends to be used for communications. It generally focuses on only one of the four Ps, which is selling a product and promoting a product. When I was in the CPG industry, I really got the opportunity to see what it means to be a truly customer-centric organization, where marketing really plays a role in all the four Ps with the customer at the center of it.

Another element within marketing is that it generally used to be much more, as I would say, pray and spray. Marketing used to be mass media-oriented and that has been transformed, changed drastically over the last two decades. Now, most marketing is measurable, it’s transparent and we can really attribute results and outcomes to it.

Merchant emphasizes the shift from product-centric to customer-centric marketing, highlighting the importance of data and measurable outcomes in modern marketing strategies.

Generative AI’s Impact on Financial Marketing

Q: What do you see as the biggest impact of generative AI for financial marketers in the near term?

Merchant: What is different about gen AI, which is exciting, is that it goes into the realm of general AI. It gets us closer to that. It’s certainly not that, but it gets closer to that. Another part that I think complements well is that the narrow AI is really, if you think of narrow AI, more of the calculative part of our brain. Gen AI brings in the creative part of the brain and this is an exciting technology. What makes it powerful is that it can understand context.

It can understand context and then come up with new ways of connecting the dots. With the most recent developments in Gen AI, which have what they call multimodal large language models, it can also translate text into images, text into video and images into infographics, which really broadens the field.

Especially for marketing, if you look at our marketing teams and our resources, capabilities and staff, majority of our resources are focused on important, but tactical tasks like writing content, developing images, creative and so on, those are all key areas that this could really influence.

Merchant highlights the potential of generative AI to enhance creativity and streamline tactical tasks, allowing marketers to focus on more strategic initiatives.

Q: Can you share any examples of innovative firms using generative AI to update product lines and services?

Merchant: For example, I’ll give you an example. I was doing some research, querying and providing some questions in ChatGPT to look for the biggest concerns among young consumers regarding banking. It highlighted the concerns and then, through multiple prompts, I got into the top-of-mind issues.

Of course, financial anxiety came up as a key issue, especially among younger females. Then I said, “Does it vary by gender?” So, it was able to identify and delineate that there’s a much higher level of financial anxiety about financial matters among younger females than younger males, although it is high in both of those areas.

Then, I looked at some of the sources. It not only cited the sources that we would’ve looked at if we were doing the research ourselves, but it looked at some of the studies from medical psychological professions that had looked at the broader notion of anxiety and identified that financial anxiety is a core element, really.

Merchant demonstrates how generative AI can be used to gather insights and conduct research, potentially informing product development and marketing strategies.

Essential Skills for Marketers in the AI Era

Q: What have you learned about generative AI? How have you improved your skill sets to stay on top of what’s available today?

Merchant: Today, the way Google and ChatGPT are structured requires great skill in asking questions to get the right answers. I have found six critical elements in some of my work.

You have to start with an action word; really, what is the task? You have to talk about the persona if you’re looking for a specific segment. You have to talk about, give an example of where possible and what format do you want the information in. Otherwise, you’ll get text after text.

Merchant emphasizes the importance of developing effective prompting skills to get the most out of generative AI tools.

Marketing Command Centers

Q: Can you explain how marketing command centers can enable CMOs and marketing strategists to develop better strategies?

Merchant: With the gen AI capabilities and as it permeates through the marketing organization, what I think is that that’ll give emergence to two notions of the notion of marketing command centers and that’ll in mind sort of translate into strategic marketing command centers, which will really focus on some of the strategic questions that I’ve talked about.

Developing a long-term strategy, looking at and refining our current value proposition and using information input and analysis from the tactic, the execution efforts and the tactics’ results to refine some of the strategies.

The tactical command center will focus on operationalizing those strategies. Of course, some center of excellence will help support each of these command centers. But they will work in a sort of symbiotic fashion.

Merchant outlines a new organizational structure that leverages generative AI to enhance both strategic planning and tactical execution in marketing.

Dig deeper into Gen AI best practices:

Q: How can CMOs and marketing leaders effectively navigate this transition to ensure that their teams are equipped with the necessary skills and technologies?

Merchant: The first thing is that when we think about transformations, all transformations, including tech and digital transformations, are less about the technology and more about the people. I think that’s why change management is critical and this transformation is no different.

Another element that I think is important to take into consideration is that the pace of change of technology is much faster than the pace of change that we adapt and adopt the technology and adapt to it. Technology changes at an exponential pace, humans change at a linear pace.

Starting with an intentional approach rather than an afterthought, providing the right training and creating excitement about why this change is important, is critical. And then rather than going for total disruption, doing it in small areas within the organization, learning from it and then scaling up based on the learnings and the successes.

Merchant stresses the importance of change management and a gradual, intentional approach to adopting AI technologies in marketing.

Q: How can marketers proactively address risks and ensure ethical application of generative AI as the expansion of sharing of insights and data expands?

Merchant: Regarding bad actors, fraud and scams, I think banks need to consider these three things. First of all, how can we proactively detect and prevent fraud? That’s one thing to consider.

The second is, really, how can we arm our consumers? How can we educate them, inform them in a timely manner and provide them with insights so that they don’t fall prey to scams and frauds?

Finally, it is really focusing on earning and maintaining the trust of the customer so that they feel comfortable sharing their information with us and with the banks so that the banks can deliver more personalized solutions that better meet their needs.

Merchant outlines a three-pronged approach to addressing ethical concerns and maintaining consumer trust in the age of AI-driven marketing.

Preparing Marketing Teams for an AI-Driven Future

Q: How do you prepare your marketing teams for a future in which their current skills may be displaced by generative AI, but human creativity is still needed?

Merchant: We have hinted at some of the new roles that it’ll create, whether it is prompt engineering, prompt design validation, auditing, or reviewing the whole skill of how to sort of go from collaborating with machines to simultaneously collaborating with humans.

Collaborating with humans is highly emotional and collaborating with machines is highly logical. I think all of this will require building new muscles and new skills for our marketing teams.

Q: What skills do you think will be most valued in marketing teams in the near future?

Merchant: When I look ahead and think about this vision of the future, what are some of the skills that’ll be preferred and valued?

We will value experimentation over expertise. That’ll be critical because you learn through experimentation. We’ll value skills over credentials. We’ll value a strategic mindset over a tactical mindset. We’ll value curiosity over experience. And we’ll value a change mindset over a status quo mindset.

And finally, I would say that with in utilizing gen AI, we’ll need to get even better scaled, more scale that curating content versus creating content.

For a longer version of this conversation, listen to “How Gen AI is Reshaping Bank Marketing” 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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