Citi’s CMO Talks Branding, Social Stands and the Plus Facet of Regulation

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How often do you hear in banking that regulation can be good?

When Carla Zakhem-Hassan came to Citigroup to become Chief Brand Officer in late November 2018, she moved from a number of top marketing jobs at large companies selling consumer tangible goods to an entirely different challenge. She would now be selling intangible financial products in an industry that frequently complains of regulatory straitjackets.

Since then, Zakhem-Hassan has risen to become Chief Marketing Officer for the entire company in September 2020. But she still doesn’t feel hampered in promoting financial services compared to the marketing she’s doing at Toys “R” Us, PepsiCo, and The Kellogg. operated company.

“One of the great things, I dare say, about being in a regulated industry is that you have to act in a box,” says Zakhem-Hassan, a 25-year-old marketing veteran. “I happen to love restrictions. And I’m not joking about that. “

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Restrictions can encourage a new marketing mindset

She explains that when there are limits, this pressure can generate creativity.

“When you have a very tight briefing, it is easier for your external and internal agencies to be more creative because they know their parameters. If you say, ‘Just go out there and do something creative,’ it’s difficult because you don’t know your parameters. “

A new face for Citi Marketing:

CMO Zakhem-Hassan says that a tight briefing for internal and external teams has focused the creativity “that gives our marketing humanity that we didn’t have before”.

As an example, she cites campaigns the company has carried out on equal pay and racial equality.

One facet of the first was a project where Citi was making a film as a photographer taking studio portraits of children of company employees.

“The photographer said to them, ‘Do you know that women sometimes earn less than men?” Says Zakhem-Hassan. The photographer snapped when each child responded to the news. The children were often amazed that the pay could be different. Some criticized the injustice.

The reactions of daughters of Citi employees when they learned about the gender pay gap issue.

“I think this campaign was very creative for the industry,” says Zakhem-Hassan. “We got this type of work instead of very traditional work that would have reflected what Citi’s study said and what steps we would take to correct things. And it sparked a conversation that was more far-reaching than just about Citi. “

She says creative work has also been done to promote racial equality. In a social media spot linked to Independence Day, a pianist seen only as a pair of hands shows that America the Beautiful can only be played properly with black and white keys.

Citi promotes racial justice on Twitter

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Building on an old brand while things are turned upside down

The switch from material goods to financial services was of course not a shock for Zakhem-Hassan. She says she got on board partly because the company seemed to share her values ​​and supported her desire to be a “change agent”.

“Sometimes I call myself an ‘intrapreneur’. I certainly don’t have the stamina to start my own business. But I like to do things differently. I like thinking about how to fix things and then fix them. And when we have something that is already really good, how can we make it even better. And right from the start I was fortunate to be in a company whose management supports me in doing things differently. “

– Carla Zakhem-Hassan

Switching to a brand with a long history, Zakhem-Hassan said, meant realizing that there is a reason a brand persists even when the time has come for a change. She says it is important that a marketer thoroughly learns the business he has entered into.

“We have to be curious about the business and think about how we can solve problems and become much more involved in the business,” says Zakhem-Hassan. “I came in with a lot of humility because I didn’t understand financial services and I was really curious and trying to add value. When these points came together, I had enough credibility to do a few more disruptive things. “

Zakhem-Hassan notes, “I am a commercial marketer. When I think of marketing, I think about how it can drive the business. “

She says a key role of a CMO is figuring out what to keep and what to let go of a brand that has stood the test of time.

“I’m not a fan of throwing everything away,” she says. “I prefer to understand what is still important. And ask how we don’t necessarily redefine it, but how we change it for the future. How can we take what was powerful 20 years ago and make it powerful for a new generation. The feeling may still be strong, but maybe it needs to be articulated a little differently. “

Power of a logo:

A simple but important example is the Citi logo in its current form. People immediately recognize the font, the red arch over the name. On one level, it’s as iconic as McDonald’s golden arches.

“Think about the yellow of the McDonald’s arches,” says Zakhem-Hassan. “It’s a kind of yellow that people care about and think of when they think of the brand.”

“So,” she says, “there are some things that are sacred cows to us and other things that we say could be reinvented.”

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Taking up social positions cannot just be a current veneer

As befits a former chief branding officer, Zakhem-Hassan says authenticity is key in storytelling.

“Often times marketers, in an effort to do the right thing, jump onto something that fits the cultural zeitgeist, just to jump on it,” says Zakhem-Hassan. She thinks this is a mistake.

“If that doesn’t match the brand, its values ​​and its mission, consumers will be sniffing it out in a second,” she continues. “You can’t just answer the ‘issue du jour’.”

Carla Hassan quote marketers jump on cultural zeitgeist

Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup, often includes social issues on her own social media feeds, as does Zakhem-Hassan. So the company that aligns itself with it in branding and marketing is real.

But a downside of talking is putting the company’s foot in the company’s mouth whenever something accidental or deaf gets public.

Zakhem-Hassan firmly believes in the value of diversity, equity and inclusion and says that in addition to the desire for fairness, there are also practical reasons for a very diverse marketing function. Never before have there been so many landmines for a brand to tamper with and so many opportunities to accidentally offend someone.

“For these reasons, it is very important for my team and my creative agencies to make sure that we have different opinions and that different people look at our creative and marketing work,” says Zakhem-Hassan. Much effort is made to ensure that more than one set of internal eyes is on any message intended for the public.

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The unification of brand and performance marketing requires data agility

One trend among marketers that Zakhem-Hassan approves is the reversal of efforts to separate brand marketing and performance marketing. She believes they work best when they work hand in hand, but that depends on not only having useful data about customers and their relationships, but also using them intelligently.

“To be honest, I think the association is a stronger way of doing business,” she says. Data comes into play because more and more content in any form does not fit every segment. The times when a single commercial was produced are over, and a lot more content has to be generated in order to be relevant for this and that segment.

Citi is promoting Paralympics on Twitter

Citigroup is a sponsor of the International Paralympic Committee and Paralympic Athletes. The partnership “gives us a powerful platform to change the perception of people with disabilities,” says a blog of the bank.

Data, she continues, enables marketers to target messages to small segments, but through a branded lens.

“But the reality is that data doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know the questions you need to ask to get meaningful insights from that data,” says Zakhem-Hassan.

Being data-rich also has a trap, she says. “In many cases, we felt very comfortable as marketers because we were guided by automation and data. As a result, we sometimes over-correct – and stop being creative. “

Maintaining this creativity is important to Zakhem-Hassan.

“The passion for the craft is important,” she explains. “Curiosity comes from passion. Authenticity comes with passion. And innovation comes with passion. “

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