Looking on the Bright Side: Ally Financial CMO on Marketing Shifts During COVID-19

Posted on by Kaylee Hultgren

“Now more than ever, you can’t think like a CMO. You’ve got to think like a human being,” says Andrea Brimmer, Chief Marketing and Public Relations Officer for Ally Financial. The sentiment inspired the financial services company to co-create a series with Katie Couric that spotlights the bright spots amid the COVID-19 pandemic, from a social-distanced wedding to an innovative solution to hand washing for the homeless community. We chat with Brimmer about the series, Ally’s relief offerings and how the brand is reshaping its marketing strategy as communities begin to reopen. 

Chief Marketer: How has Ally Financial shifted its messaging and marketing strategy due to COVID-19?

Andrea Brimmer: We’re fortunate in that we provide a product that has a lot of relevance and utility to people right now. As a result, we’ve focused less on pivoting to the “we’re in this together” COVID messages and more on making sure we weren’t tone deaf. So, changing some of the tonality of the work that we had out in the marketplace, but staying constant with messaging around our savings products and our savings toolkit, which we had just launched. We thought that it made sense for people as they’re looking for safe havens to park money right now. We rounded that out with some specific communications and targeted places that made sense.

For instance, we increased our customer communications through our CRM around our COVID relief packages, which were the most sweeping in the industry, increased the frequency of CRM to our customer base so that we were communicating with them at least once a week, and tried to ensure that we were updating them on their options relative to COVID relief but also trying to push out some useful content to them—smart things to do with their money, how they should protect themselves against cyber fraud, which has certainly been increased right now. And, use some of our subject matter experts in social and out in earned media more, like Lindsey Bell, who’s our chief investment officer. We put her forward in a more significant way to talk about the volatility in the market and to try and calm people’s nerves a little bit and how they should think through it. Lastly, we tried to provide some levity and to give people a smile. That’s what things like “The Bright Side” with Katie were about.

We’ve also done some fun things, like an award that we’re calling the “Stay In Side-y” award. We’re giving people gift cards for the best homeschooling set up or the best home fort made out of pillows, those kinds of fun things. It’s been a multi-pronged approach.

CM: So, you’re communicating more with customers and potential customers than you were before?

AB: With our customers, we are for sure communicating more. We typically don’t communicate on a weekly basis. Our customers and all the research that we’re looking at is saying that people want to be communicated to more frequently by brands that provide a purpose for them right now—and a bank certainly falls into that category. For the first month and a half of this COVID situation, we suppressed product sell messages in our customer communications and focused them entirely on the COVID relief package and ways that people could take part in that and how to think about their finances. We’re now pivoting back to normalcy and starting to talk more about specific products and lessening the amount that we’re talking with people. We’re going back to more of our normal cadence. But at the onset, absolutely communicating more. We didn’t ramp up potential customer communications more; It was just for our existing customers.

CM: Are you bringing your messaging back to normal because certain areas of the country are opening up?

AB: In part, although that part’s tricky. It’s choppy, right? Because certain places are opening, but other places are not opening. You have to be really careful right now because a one-sized-fits-all approach is not the right approach, because everybody’s in a very different personal situation. You have large pockets of people that have lost their jobs or been furloughed and have a lot of financial anxiety. You have people who have or are recovering from COVID, and they’re going through that mental anxiety. You have people that have lost loved ones, and they’re dealing with that. And then you do have such disparity. My sisters in Florida are a hundred percent back to normal—or seemingly so. We’re in Michigan and nothing’s open.

So, what we’re measuring more is consumer sentiment and what people want to hear. We’ve pivoted from being hyper-focused on COVID relief and specific COVID messages to following consumer sentiment around people wanting some normalcy. But you can’t just turn the spigot on and say, we’re going to do everything exactly like we were going to do it pre-COVID. We’re trying to be ultra-sensitive to that dynamic.

CM: Tell me about Ally’s relief package.

AB: For a brand that stands for “do it right,” you have to be about deeds, not words. And that is really important to us across Ally. We wanted to provide a relief package that was meaningful and wasn’t difficult for our customers to be able to activate. What we found across the industry is that for a lot of financial institutions, people had to jump through hoops to get relief. We didn’t want to put people through that.

So, we offered 120-day deferral on your auto loan and on your home loan payments. We waived all fees, so if you needed a debit card overnighted to you, we didn’t charge you to do that. If you had overdraft fees, we suppress those overdraft fees. We also went above and beyond with the stimulus checks. If customers had negative balances with us, not only did we not take that negative balance out of their stimulus check, but we actually replaced their negative balance so that they were starting from even and got their full stimulus check. It was a gift to our customers who were in a negative balance situation. And then on new auto loans we’re offering a 90-day payment deferral.

The other thing is, we made it super easy. All you had to do was go onto a landing page on our website, check a box, and you were in. You didn’t have to call the call center and explain your sob story or tell them why you needed the relief package. It was simply, no questions asked—if you need it, we’re here for you. We felt like that was the right thing to do and it just makes sense for what we preach about our brand.

CM: How did the idea for “The Bright Side” video series with Katie Couric come about?

AB: Katie and I have had a good personal relationship for some time. We were just about to embark on a content series that we were getting ready to shoot in April, and then the whole pandemic hit. So, we had to put that on ice. Katie and I talked and said let’s do something else instead. We want to get rolling on this partnership. We loved the idea of focusing on all the good things that are happening in the world right now. That’s certainly been a silver lining: people have been so kind and so amazing and I think it’s bringing out the best in people. We wanted to highlight that.

Katie has been the perfect partner. She’s been heavily involved in the production and the stories selection. The engagement with the videos has been awesome. The first video that we launched had over a million and a half views just on our social channels alone. I think it’s something that people have really appreciated.

CM: What’s the brand’s role in it specifically? Is it a sponsorship?

AB: I like to think of it as more than a sponsorship. It was co-created with Katie and Katie Couric Media, but we’re the curators of the story. We’ve been finding the stories and then working through them with Katie to highlight the right ones. In addition, we’re paying for the distribution of the content, but we’re also doing a surprise and delight at the end of every video where we give the highlighted person something meaningful to them. So, with the wedding couple in the first video, we opened a savings account for them at Ally so that they’ve got some money towards a honeymoon. And, we gave $5,000 to a charity in their hometown. With the school system video, we gave a $10,000 donation to their school system and their relief efforts.

CM: What are you hearing from customers right now? Is there a lot of lending happening?

AB: Because pockets of the country are opening up, some things are coming back in strong ways. There’s a huge pent-up demand for vehicles, so vehicle sales are starting to rebound. We’ve seen this bifurcation of behavior. You have massive numbers of people who are holding on to cash and are opening up savings accounts in record numbers right now. And then you have this other large pocket of people who are playing in the market because they know that the market is extremely suppressed right now. And certainly, if you’ve got the cash and you’ve got the ability to wait it out, there’s a lot of money to be made in the market right now.

We’re hearing that a lot of people are trying to do their best to personally support small businesses and to make sure that businesses in their communities don’t fail. We all want to return to an economically-strong America and I think that people are cautiously optimistic.

CM: From a marketing perspective, how are you dividing your efforts during this time? How has your experiential business shifted?

AB: On the media side, there were massive shifts because we use a strategy around what we call our “big media moments.” So, things like NCAA tournament, NBA playoffs, World Series. Obviously, NCAA and NBA basketball are canceled. A lot of our live viewing media has evaporated. Secondarily, we have a significant sports sponsorship footprint. We are a sponsor of NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson and the 48 Hendrick [Motorsports Chevrolet], and we activate that at almost every single race. We have a lot of in-person activations and those have dried up probably for the season. Now, we’ve pivoted there in really significant ways. NASCAR’s been super progressive. We’ve done a lot with Jimmie in iRacing and we sponsored a Hendrick driver in the e-racing area. We’ve done some zoom calls with Jimmie and fans to give people a chance to meet him. We also sponsor Major League Soccer, the Charlotte team.

Every live event that we’re a part of has had to either go virtual or get canceled altogether. So, it’s definitely wreaked some havoc. But conversely, we’ve done some creative things. I’m super proud of the team. They’ve thought very disruptively and pivoted to interesting places where people actually are, whether that’s gaming, esports, isports, social or other things. The brand sentiment is super strong, our business is strong right now and I think we’re navigating through it pretty well.

CM: And thoughts on how marketers should be navigating this challenging time?

AB: A lot of marketers, us included, are looking at the stages of how you market out of this. And because you’re in this semi re-emergence state, you’ve got to be super careful as marketers and get into the nitty gritty of almost everything that’s happening with your brand right now. We have definitely changed our routines and our cadences. We’re meeting two to three times a week with our agency partners, myself included. I’m looking at every single thing that comes out of our brand, because you can’t be careful enough right now. The notion of how we’re changing the way that we work is super important. The other aspect is, now more than ever, you can’t think like a CMO. You’ve got to think like a human being. It’s not about selling stuff to people right now. You can’t be careful enough about your messaging, the way you’re thinking about your messaging or what you’re putting out there.

CM: What are the biggest trends marketers should keep an eye on this year?

AB: We’ve seen the rate of consumers shifting their viewing habits to streaming services and away from traditional TV accelerate with stay at home orders and the lack of live sports, and I expect many of those habit to stick. The shift started over the past few years and that’s what inspired us to work with post-cable network Cheddar on a branded show that allows us to extend our message to a key audience—high-earning Millennial investors. I think you’ll see more brands look to these types of non-traditional media.

We saw a lot of success with the way we were able to integrate into Jimmie Johnson iRacing during NASCAR’s COVID pause. We are also looking at esports, where we’ve experimented with Twitch, and other kinds of gamification, like the Ally + MONOPOLY game we did last fall. These are big emerging channels that are experiencing incredible growth right now. Esports leagues are popping up all over the country and major networks are airing competitions. This is a developing area with lots of opportunities for marketers.

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