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Q&A: Restoring financial confidence with SunTrust Bank's CMO



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April 23, 2019 | 8 min read

The Drum Network recently spoke with the chief marketing officer (CMO) of SunTrust Bank, Susan Somersille Johnson, to find out how her experience at Apple directed her towards marketing and why data is fuelling the bank's cultural movement, onUp.

Susan, what is your background and why was that helpful in devising and launching a marketing movement instead of just an ad campaign?

I started my career at Apple as an engineer. One of the leaders approached me and asked me to consider moving to marketing. I’d never considered marketing before, but I gave it careful thought and ultimately decided to make the move. When I became a marketer, I never would have guessed I would rely so heavily on my technology skills. Much of modern marketing is about integrating data, analytics and emerging digital technologies into more traditional marketing tactics. My experience in engineering has armed me with a unique perspective and understanding when it comes to using data and new technology to better communicate and build brand affinity.

StrawberryFrog share an interview with their CMO on the launch of her onUp movement.

SunTrust Bank's CMO explains the thinking behind launch of its 'onUp' movement.

This bridge between traditional marketing and digital tools is a large part of what has made SunTrust’s cultural movement, 'onUp' (onward and upward), so successful. The movement was designed to inspire confidence through personal finances. Combatting financial insecurity in America requires more than an ad campaign, but rather a purpose-driven movement. Advertising talks at people, but movements get them to take action. That requires the right balance of messaging and carefully-timed digital experiences.

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Why did you launch the onUp movement in 2016? What market/business issues were you hoping to address with the onUp marketing movement?

The inspiration for the onUp Movement in 2016 came from data we uncovered about financial insecurity in America. More than 80% of Americans said that financial stress keeps them up at night. Forty percent didn’t have $2,000 saved for an emergency; that jumped to 60% for millennials. One third of Americans didn’t have anything saved for retirement. When we learned that, we knew we had to claim our role in improving Americas’ financial confidence.

Our research told us that people are missing out on the most important moments in life worrying about their finances – weddings, kids’ football games, dance recitals, graduations. Through the onUp Movement, we could declare to the world that we could hear them and that help is on the way. So, we launched onUp on the US' most powerful platform; the Super Bowl.

What attracted you to the approach StrawberryFrog was proposing?

Financial stress was too wide-spread in America to be addressed by a simple ad campaign. We needed to do something bigger and ignite a cultural movement. Movements mobilize the masses and create confidence.

StrawberryFrog has helped ignite movements for some of the world’s most iconic brands. Their approach was appealingly simple: focus on experience, ignite momentum and create change. We created the onUp Movement as an opportunity to motivate people in ways that traditional marketing cannot – giving people the confidence to move outside their comfort zones, try new things, make real change and ultimately achieve financial confidence.

How does the onUp movement differ from what players in the banking sector have typically done?

OnUp is a movement, not an advertising campaign. That distinction is what makes it so unique. When we send people to, they find free tools, information and resources. They find advice, inspiration and most importantly, a community. Our goal is to help people take a step towards financial confidence, and we want to show that everyone can achieve it regardless of income level or assets. We want to share our research-based formula for building financial confidence.

How did your teams collaborate on the movement?

When I met Bill Rogers, the chief executive of SunTrust Bank, it was immediately clear to me that he was on a mission to lead differently and to let purpose – lighting the way to financial well-being – drive the business. When you talk to teammates throughout the organisation, everyone you meet is genuinely committed to helping people build financial confidence. Financial stress is an epidemic in our country, and everyone at SunTrust is committed to being a part of the solution.

At SunTrust, we have a robust outreach program driven by purpose ambassadors — a volunteer-based and cross-functional program that provides teammates with special training and tools to have difficult money conversations. As part of that role, they volunteer in their communities to advance financial literacy and help people attain financial confidence, whether speaking to students or giving a seminar on a financial topic.

To offer another example, our technology team works closely with marketing and sales to make sure the onUp movement also comes to life in a way that our clients interact with the brand. Our digital transformation seeks to not only remove friction from financial transactions, but also to nudge people toward good financial behaviours. We have partnered with behavioural economics experts at Duke University to identify “micro-moments” when the right message and digital experience can nudge people toward healthy financial decisions.

What were the most challenging aspects of delivering the movement?

The biggest obstacle to helping people build financial confidence is that most people don’t want to think about money – let alone confront areas in their personal finances where they may need to make change. We have had to create content that is highly approachable, engaging and interesting in order to connect with people on such a challenging topic.

What has been the response to date?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We launched the onUp Movement in a 2016 with a goal of helping five million people in five years. Today, ahead of schedule, there are more than 4.4 million onUp participants — people who have taken a step, onward and upward, toward financial confidence. The impact carries over into traditional metrics of business success, too – revenue, deposits and loans are up, and we’ve seen increases in brand sentiment, loyalty and consideration. The onUp movement is not only resonating with consumers, but also contributing to the brand’s profitable growth.

Do you have any lessons for other CMOs thinking about the activation of purpose strategies by means of a marketing movement?

Across the marketing industry, the need to create change and to stand for something real is more present than ever.

Purpose-driven marketing naturally has to start with purpose, and for many, the challenge there is authenticity. Defining purpose is not just a marketing exercise. SunTrust’s whole organization has aligned under the purpose of financial confidence, from operations to technology to marketing. As a result, it’s only natural for our purpose to drive our marketing decisions. Once your organisation has clarified a real purpose, launching a movement will help build trust, motivate your audience, activate your team’s creativity and ultimately drive positive change.

How could the movement continue in the future?

The fusion between purpose-driven creativity, data and evolving technology will fuel the future expression of the onUp movement. This fusion will continue to give us new ideas and create new ways to spread financial confidence to more people.

The motivation and principles of the onUp movement are also in the DNA of every new campaign we run at SunTrust. Our next integrated marketing campaign is #bestlife. A brief scroll through social media shows that we all want to live our best life, but at SunTrust we know all too well that it can be hard to do that when you’re not financially secure. The campaign highlights financial confidence as the foundation that allows people to reach new heights, and it encourages consumers to live their #bestlife by improving financial confidence.

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StrawberryFrog is the world’s first Movement Marketing firm. We are a marketing, advertising, design and digital company based in New York City. Brand-fueled marketing movements define our people and our culture. Find out how movement marketing can grow your business:

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