In an exclusive interview on The WARC Podcast, Andrea Brimmer, Ally Financial’s Chief Marketing and PR Officer, discusses brand trust during economic upheaval, the power of investing in women’s sports, piloting generative AI and much more. 

This is an edited excerpt. For the full conversation, listen to the WARC Podcast episode here

Andrea Brimmer

Andrea Brimmer, Chief Marketing and PR Officer, Ally Financial

Tell me about the brand that you're working on and some of the teams and initiatives that you oversee within your role as CMO.

I'm the Chief Marketing and PR Officer at Ally Financial. It's a great brand: digital financial services, no brick-and-mortar. We like to call it the ‘original disruptor’ in the financial services category. We launched in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and really came in with this idea that the world didn't need another bank, but it needed a better bank. That's what we've really tried to create.

Our initiatives are really all focused around being a brand that matters and doing things that move people from apathy to emotion about their money. If you think about it, it's the most important asset in our life and we work really hard for it, so you should have a brand that cares about it as much as you do.

Your brand launched in the middle of a financial crisis. What did you learn about building brand trust through that time that you've been able to apply now as we go through ongoing economic upheaval?

It was during the banking and financial crisis in 2006, 2007 that we actually built this company. A lot of people said to us, ‘why are you launching a bank in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression’? Our mantra and our rallying cry was this idea that there were a number of customer pain points that needed to be solved for.

People were very apathetic about the experience that they had in financial services, and we felt like, ‘let's just think as people, let's not think as marketers, let's not think as bankers, let's think about people’, about everything that we don't like about financial services and solve for those pain points. That really has carried us forward. Fast forward 15 years later, we're a top 25 bank.

We've got over $140 billion in retail deposits, more than 12 million customers, and I think we applied a lot of the same principles this year during some of the banking failures as we always have. Put the customer at the center of everything you do, reinforce the values and the aspects of the company that are what make Ally a true ally, and don't waver from what that original mission was. We're big believers in deeds, not words. I think our deeds have demonstrated over and over again that you can take our word.

Our survey showed that half of marketing executives from North America agreed that the debate around popular sports and socio-political issues is intensifying. As a brand heavily involved in sports, what's your view on that?

Yeah, absolutely. The US Women's National Team [women’s soccer] is a great example of that. They took on a huge pay equity fight, and they were very bold about it. They were very insistent on the fact that the women's team has had incredible success over a sustained period of time. but they weren't making what their male counterparts were making. And they took a lot of gaff for it, right? 

In the last Women’s Football World Cup, there were far right-wing people that really came out and went after the team very, very hard, particularly after Megan Rapinoe, who was very vocal in all of that. I think athletes – particularly female athletes – have very strong societal views and have had to be a voice where there isn't reason, oftentimes, and are willing to put up with the consequences of that because it is intrinsically important to them. Brands have to recognize that that's a risk that they're either willing to take or not willing to take when you enter into sports.

Same exists for a lot of male athletes as well. They all have big platforms, they have big social media followings. You think about an athlete like LeBron James, he's very socially active in terms of his viewpoint. It's just part of what sports has become and what fan expectation is.

How have you managed to align your values with the values of those that you're working with within sports?

We believe deeply, first of all, that you've got to be really authentic in your stated values. They can't be something that doesn't align with what your brand stands for, or what your brand does or is about. If you think about us as a financial services company, one of our big stated values is to create economic mobility for people – both our customers and the world in general. The idea of inclusivity and economic parity is very important in that. They're very genuine and authentic to our brand. It doesn’t feel disingenuous when we jump in on those conversations. 

We really look for those opportunities. A big opportunity for us was the 50-50 gender equality pledge [in sports sponsorship investment] that we made last year. No other brand has ever done anything like it, no brand has done it since. It was this recognition that women's sport was receiving less than 10% of the media coverage in this country and less than 1% of the sponsorship dollars. So we said, over a time horizon of five years, that we would match dollar for dollar what we spend in men's sports to women's sports. It was very authentic, it was non-confrontational, it was never a men versus women thing, it was a men and women thing. I think it recognized what our brand authentically does, which is to create that economic mobility.

Tell me a little bit about how that plan came about, why you decided to pursue that, and what's the journey been like along the way?

We wanted to do something to honor 50 years of Title IX. We wanted to do something that could make systemic change, and we wanted to do something that was authentic to our brand.

Honestly, it happened really fast. It was literally a Thursday afternoon when we started talking about this idea of committing equal dollars to men's and women's sports. We knew that ESPNW was having their Women's Summit around women's sports, literally the following week. We reached out to ESPN, said could we livestream into the conference and make a big announcement. Julie Foudy, [a former soccer player] from the US Women's National Team and a very well-known figure in women's soccer, interviewed me and we surprised the crowd and made the announcement. 

And then the journey became, how do we do real things? You know, how are we going to actually make that systemic change? And so the first two big acts of that were one: We worked really closely with the National Women's Soccer League and CBS to move the championship game for the NWSL into prime time. The second was we made a multi-million dollar media deal with Disney that 95% of our investment went into women's sports. Disney moved a ton of programming around to put everything from women's lacrosse, to women's basketball, to women's soccer, to women's softball into prime time slots to give fans access to that.

When you first made that pledge, what percentage of your spending was in men's sports versus women's sports? How big was the change that you were making here?

You would think every CMO would see the wisdom in this, but the reality is – myself included – I never stopped and looked at what the delta was until we came up with this idea. And then we said, all right, how are we going to do this? We looked at our actual media spend and we were spending 90% of our sports media budget on men's sports and 10% on women’s, so we fell right into that trap. In one year's time, when we finish this year, we will have 60% investment in men's sports and 40% in women's sports. 

The biggest barrier for us is simply the unavailability of media. I can't buy enough women's sports media to get to 50-50, and that's why we put a five-year time horizon on it, because we wanted to make that point to the world that you gotta change the system. We have to break the vicious cycle, or no brand is going to be able to do this.

I guess that's throwing down the gauntlet to all of the media owners out there who work in sports. The inventory's got to be there for brands like yours to buy it.

Yeah, absolutely. I talk about the vicious cycle all the time, and a lot of the onus sits with legacy media platforms to really change that availability of media to move more women's sports into prime time slots, to ensure that the audiences are there, or else the brands will never come. 

When we moved the NWSL championship game into prime time, we saw 700% improvement in ratings – almost a million viewers up from the year previously, when the game was at noon. The Women's Football World Cup did tremendously. The Women's Final Four in NCAA had tremendous ratings, it outperformed the Men's Final Four. The appetite is rabid. The WNBA championship game a couple of weeks ago, peaked at 1.5 million viewers. That's a heck of a lot of people watching women's sports.

How are actually quantifying that and measuring success? Is it a traditional sponsorship performance metric in the way that brands would traditionally think about that? 

We think about it in terms of how we are moving enterprise KPIs. Since we made the 50-50 pledge, our awareness is at the highest level it's ever been in our company history. Our consideration, trust, likeability, and logo recognition are all at historic highs. 65% of everybody that's coming to our storefront is female. 

We're also seeing significant increases in earned media. We measure brand sentiment in earned media and we're seeing historic highs there as well….we think about these things as how they impact the overall performance of the Ally brand and what we're doing to add value and contribute to the growth of the company. By all measures, this thing has been one of the most major accelerants we've ever conceived of and launched.

How do you think that polarization and politicization has impacted how marketers look at the opportunity of purpose-driven campaigns? Some of the CMOs we talk to at WARC are definitely jittery about pushing into those spaces.

Jittery is definitely one word for it. I'd say ‘scared to death’ is probably more of it! We've all watched other brands have massive issues that they've faced over the course of this year, things that we've probably never would have imagined would have happened. It is scary, and traversing it especially in a political year for the US. We'll have a presidential election next year, and I think it will become an even more prominent concern.

I think the way that we're thinking about it, and most of my friends that are CMOs get together and talk about it, is number one it has to be aligned to your stated values. You can't just all of a sudden state a new value and expect people to think about your brand as having authenticity. So for us, it's been really clear. We've always had stated values around diversity, equity, and inclusion. We've always had stated values around this idea that inclusivity is better for business, and we've always had a stated value around economic mobility. So when we do things in that space, it's really authentic. 

There was a point in time where consumers were demanding that brands fill in the void where they felt like the government was failing. If you look at the most recent Edelman studies and other studies, that's not the case right now. Consumers are tiring of that, and they want brands to do what they want brands to do, not to take on big political issues. I think staying out of politics is probably a really good lesson for a lot of brands. 

I think when you do something, stick with it. If you're going to take a stand on something – if you're going make a pledge or you're going stand for something – if you start to get some backlash, you can't fold and you can't bail and you can't go run and hide under the table. You made the commitment, stick with it. Deeds not words. I think that's where other brands have failed in really significant ways, which just ended up making everybody mad.

58% of respondents to our Marketers Toolkit survey describe themselves as ‘cautiously progressive’ on generative AI. What's your view?

We have been attached at the hip around the idea of, as a digital financial services company, we've got to be fairly leading edge when it comes to AI. So we are. We did a big pilot across my team earlier this year. We had about 45 people that participated in the pilot. We used AI for everything from creating LinkedIn posts to writing blog content to doing operational tasks, name new products or programs, and just really tested it across the spectrum. 

We saw incredible use cases across that pilot. Upwards of 85% more efficient. Saved us a ton of time on everyday tasks. A lot of really good content. Interestingly, one of the things that we wrote, we had AI write. We had everybody try and pick what was written by humans and what was written by AI, and everybody had the wrong pick. 

We've been charging full steam ahead. We're really excited about what AI can do for our brand, what AI can do for our customer experience, what AI can do for us as a marketing organization to make us bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, and to make sure that we do it in a way that recognizes the importance of human capital and human creative talent.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge facing marketers right now?

I honestly think it's human capital, both in terms of the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge. I spent a lot of time with the next generation [on college campuses]. They're brilliantly talented. They're brilliantly prepared. They are doing things that I never even thought about doing in college….the creativity and thinking that I see is incredible. I think that's an amazing opportunity for our industry, but I think it's also an amazing challenge. There are a lot of draws on that talent, a lot of different ways that talent can go….I'm excited about human capital, but really worried about human capital as well.