In the age of challenger banks, fintechs and big techs, it has become de rigueur for financial institutions to show off their technical chops and stress how “fin-techy” they can be.
Except for Vinoo Vijay, new EVP and CMO at Truist.
He comes at the matter very differently. When asked, “How can banks import more fintech mindset into their thinking,” he flips it around.
“I would twist that question and say, how would I import some banking if I were a fintech,” says Vijay.
“The fintech mindset can get you too fixated on the ‘how’ of financial services,” he explains. Fintech apps are like a hammer, he says, a tool to hit a particular nail. “But what banks are really focused on is the ‘why’ — we need to be excellent in our ability to use technology and data to serve our clients.”
Continuing, he says, “I don’t want to be stuck in a world where I’m simply focused on the hammer in my hand and trying to find nails to hit. I want to be focused on the problem we’re trying to solve and the reason we’re trying to solve it. And then I want to find all the ways that we as a bank might solve it. One of the best answers to that could very well be the human touch. And that’s something I think we — Truist — can do better than anybody.”
Vijay is not a diehard banker traditionalist by any means. While at TD Bank he spent two years as its Head of Fintech before becoming CMO and he helped launch Ally Bank, the big online bank, from its GMAC roots. But in coming in as CMO of Truist — the result of the merger of BB&T and SunTrust forming the sixth-largest U.S. banking company — he sees no sense in letting go of years of service to customers and communities merely to look cool.
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How to Stand Out from the Crowd
Truist’s predecessor companies both brought considerable financial technology strengths to the union and the combined company recently launched Truist Ventures, designed to blend the fintech venture capital efforts of the two ancestor banks. The effort will provide ideas, technologies, partnerships and even people to push Truist on the cutting edge — for the bank’s present and future customers.
Vijay sees today’s financial services landscape as confusing and crowded where a significant part of the chief marketer’s job is creating “white space” around their brand to make it stand out in the sea of sameness that many experts speak of in banking.
He’s also tasked with selling the public on the combined Truist’s brand and how it intends to be “a next-generation great financial services brand.”
“The fantastic thing about what Truist is doing is that we are so fundamentally purpose-focused and so committed to creating a best of breed set of services and products,” says Vijay. “We have ample opportunity and ample intention to create real distinction and real clear value.”
With 26 years in marketing and strategy experience, 19 of them in banking and financial services, Vijay also knows that all this must all also translate to results.
“I need to make sure we are driving real performance,” he says.
In a video interview with Forbes while he was still at his previous job as CMO for H&R Block, Vijay was asked about the role of a marketer and why it appealed to him. His answer tells you something of what makes this marketer tick.
“Is the role of the CMO to set your purpose? Yes. Is the role of the CMO to create your brand position? Yes. Is the role of the CMO to do performance marketing and get the sales numbers up? Yes, it’s that too. There’s just so much to it that’s both left brain and right brain. And each CMO must find their place in that ecosystem, what works for them.”
In the same interview, Vijay explained part of what drew him to marketing as a career in the first place — he began at Fedex in 1994. As he told the story, while growing up in India he attended an international boarding school where he had to figure out how to get along with students from multiple countries and cultures.
“I had to learn how to put myself in somebody else’s eyes,” says Vijay. “I think that’s what really shaped my love and passion for the field of marketing because it just naturally put me in a place where I empathize with whoever I am talking to and engaging with, trying to see the world from their eyes. And that’s what a marketer has to do.”
Marketing in a Megamerger/COVID Environment
Handling marketing for financial institutions is always challenging, because the public’s view of banks has a tendency to fluctuate sharply.
“Even when a bank has done something fantastic, consumers just don’t care,” Vijay said in a 2013 industry speech. “They just don’t pay attention.”
Even now, when many financial institutions’ reputations have been riding high because of the way many stepped up during the COVID crisis, a threat looms. Experts have started to talk about the inevitable period when institutions will have to do unpopular things as loans stop performing as the condition of consumers and businesses deteriorate. Reputations will be at risk.
Vijay has seen the industry through its financial and reputational ups and downs — besides the institutions mentioned, he held a top marketing and strategy position at Bank of America. At Truist he reports to Dontá Wilson, Chief Digital and Client Experience Officer.
One of the earmarks of the deal from the start was a deliberateness in rebranding. The merging entity did not rush to unveil its name nor its new logo. A Truist website has been created, but even now, rebranding has been quite gradual at the consumer level. Certain entities have be combined and renamed — an early one was what is now known as Truist Securities, the corporate and investment banking businesses. The Truist Foundation, where charitable and service investment is centered, bears the new name.
Initial branch divestitures related to the deal have been completed, but rebranding of remaining SunTrust and BB&T branches will happen in the first half of 2022. Multiple system conversions have been underway, with the conversion of the core system also coming in the first part of 2022.
The bank will be closing 104 branches in the December 2020-January 2021 time frame, with additional closures possibly to the done earlier than planned, in 2021, to trim costs. During the bank’s third quarter earnings briefing Kelly King, Chairman and CEO, explained that branch closings had been approached cautiously because management wanted to provide as much access as possible during COVID. Nearly every branch offers drive-through service and that was the main physical banking interaction available. Now that over 1,500 branch lobbies have reopened, “we will be more aggressive in terms of the closings,” King said.
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Serving Up the Truist Value Proposition
“We’re on a gradual journey to better introduce existing clients to the new brand and to make sure that we continue to serve our current clients of the BB&T and SunTrust brands,” says Vijay. “We want to make sure that the market understands that what we’re doing here is fundamentally resetting the relationship that consumers have with their bank and that communities have with their bank.”
Adds Vijay: “That’s a tall order, because you don’t expect that sort of thing from a bank, but it’s exactly what we intend to do.” Much of his time will initially be spent working with his new team, building up additional strengths to reinforce performance marketing and data analytics, in order to pave the way for the brand as it spreads through the operation.
Vijay believes that marketing runs deeper than logos, slogans and outreach. It has to run through the whole material of the bank, not just be a coat of paint.
“If you look at my past career,” says Vijay, “I’ve always believed this: The best marketing is fantastic and clear and distinctive client experiences. So it’s really exciting to me that we get a chance to do that and manifest that.”
One hot button in financial marketing that Vijay regards with care is personalization. It’s one of the profession’s current darlings, and Vijay says that while he gets it, and believes it can be very relevant and important to customers, the sheer ability to hyperpersonalize can lead to wasted time and effort.
“You can overuse it, even abuse it, in ways that are not useful,” he says. Nowadays it is possible to personalize a message down to specific wordings, illustrations and more.
“You can start getting crazy uber-optimization,” says Vijay. “There comes a point where you are no longer doing a service for the client and not doing a service for conversion either.”
As a veteran marketer, Vijay has been taking the pulse of the American financial consumer for years. The Financial Brand asked what sort of reading he’s getting now.
“We all have a little bit of concern. Concern for ourselves. Concern for our communities. Concern for our country,” he says. “But at the same time, this concern is sitting in a nest that has been built over so many years on optimism.”
Vijay believes Americans need to lean into that optimism.
What the Buzzwords Mean to Vinoo Vijay
Marketing is a business with terms of art that can begin to take on a life of their own. Two that Vijay uses frequently are “purpose-driven” and “customer-centric.” The two are reflected in Truist’s slogan: “To inspire and build better lives and communities.”
The Financial Brand asked Vijay about the practical relationship between these common terms.
He says that to him, being purpose-driven is the core of the organization and being customer-centric is an outcome of that core intention.
Striving to be customer-centric, he continues, “puts us in a position where we are focused on the things that we think are most important to resolving our purpose.”
The bank has launched multiple social initiatives over 2020 that go to this point. One example is a $40 million donation to Corner Square Community Capital, a new organization that will focus on funding for racially and ethnically diverse small business owners and low- and moderate-income communities through community development financial institutions.
Running Marketing in the COVID Crisis
Every financial institution, and every financial marketer, has had to adapt to operating in 2020’s confusing conditions. One byproduct Vijay sees is the opportunity to learn some adaptability.
“This environment has forced banking organizations to look deeply at the things we need to do day-in and day-out to succeed and we have had to lean back into our cultures,” says Vijay. “I’m excited to be joining Truist because we have a strong culture and that gives you the launching pad you need to be able to do the kinds of adaptable things you need to do in today’s environment.”
Is financial marketing suffering in the wake of extended periods of working from home, when you can’t get 15 marketing staffers in a room to brainstorm until a good idea emerges?
Vijay says the minuses have been balanced by new pluses.
“It would be disingenuous to say we’re not missing something,” he says. “We are — there are moments where having face-to-face meetings does have a meaningful effect on what we create and on the enthusiasm it creates. So I will be looking forward to the time that we can have that again.”
But being forced to adapt has also had benefits.
Vijay says that working with colleagues via Webex has created the opportunity to cut out some of the interim steps that normally occur. Working collaboratively enables team members to show how they would change something, say in a web page layout, while everyone is in the “virtual room.” Changes can be toggled back and forth, ideas tried out immediately.
“It’s allowed us to have real dialogs,” says Vijay. “Marketers simply never leveraged these tools in the past because we were all focused more on presentations as opposed to collaborations. ”
What this had led to is increased agility, he says. The wait time, the interruptions, have been lessened because the team members and outside partners are hammering things out together — though separately.