With the pandemic accelerating digital adoption, Suresh Balaji, Chief Marketing Officer – Asia Pacific, HSBC, speaks to WARC’s Biprorshee Das for Marketer’s Toolkit 2022 about how the bank is engaging its customers and developing new products as traffic shifts increasingly to online channels.

Toolkit 2022

This interview is part of WARC's Marketer's Toolkit 2022. Read more.

Key insights:

  • The pandemic has created new habits and marketers have to look at what old habits are dying and what trends have formed.
  • A digital customer experience is not cheap to create because it requires investing in technology.
  • Organisations that understand customers better and have improved data platforms will win in the post-cookie world.
How are you adjusting to a start/stop economy, with the constant threat of rolling lockdowns?

The start/stop economy is not necessarily in all markets. Different markets are operating differently. There is no one-size-fits-all anymore. We just have to find a way to be nimble enough in every market. But it’s quite evident that there are some trends that are changing and that they are here to stay.

A study says that it takes 66 days to create a new habit. The pandemic has been around for slightly more than 66 days in most markets, which means a lot of new habits are being created. The key for marketers like me and for industry associations like yours is to think through what the customer view is of this, what trends are coming about, what new habits are being formed, what old habits are dying so we can reorganise ourselves to engage with them when they want us to.

Suresh Balaji, Chief Marketing Officer – Asia Pacific, HSBC

Are you seeing any evidence that COVID has changed customer perceptions or sensitivities around advertising, and have you had to change your communication tone and style to cater to that?

Advertising is a by-product of customer experience. Increasingly, advertising and experience are becoming one and the same. With the advent of the digital economy, one could go from clicking on a banner all the way through to buying a product and start to use it immediately.

When there is more digitisation, and COVID has definitely accelerated it, we are seeing that our digital media investments have gone up significantly, practically every six months.

How are the ways in which you engage with customers changing (i.e. customer care, product selection, feedback and data collection etc), as traffic has shifted significantly to online channels?

Traffic is definitely shifting to online channels. There are lots of areas in the regulated space that we operate in. There are policy changes that are driving digital adoption, digital penetration and will help more customers do more things online. The availability of technologies has accelerated. One would not have thought of a time even in the high-net-worth space that relationship managers would speak to their customers on video chat. It was always a done thing for customers to come to the branch, meet an RM. Across the spectrum, we are seeing that it’s not just millennials doing payments online, it is also high-net-worth customers doing business online. We couldn’t have done such things previously.

Has your thinking around new product development and launching new brands changed following COVID? Do you see a trend towards new brands breaking through more frequently? Are you seeing any new trends in brand positioning as a result?

COVID or not, brands will have to do both long-term and short-term brand building. The fundamental principles of growth of brands haven’t changed. It is just that now more channels are available with more customers going online.

The digital transformation journey brings out a couple of interesting things here. Everyone thinks because digital is cheap, they can do a digital customer experience. Digital is not in any way the cheapest model. One has to invest in technology. We all cringe when we go to a website on a mobile phone and it still renders the desktop version.

While we can launch new experiences for customers, it will still have to be omnichannel.

From a financial services perspective, from a consumer’s perspective, the product is still the same, the end users are still the same. How they access the product may change. The end users are human with human needs that those products fulfil.

There are some categories like gaming that are definitely on the rise; digital entertainment is on the rise.

While consumers are getting more digitally literate and mature, it's also the marketers who are no longer looking at digital as just another medium. You too are become more mature about the various platforms and technologies available.

Over 70% of my spend is on digital media and this is only going to increase. Measurement tools are becoming much more sophisticated. We have much more first party data and hence, can improve customer conversations and have much more relevant and differentiated conversations.

Spending on digital media is only going to increase. There are two or three reasons why. The first one is definitely the uptake of digital channels because of availability, policy changes, penetration of internet etc. The second one is the fact that there are more tools available to marketers to create better and, in some ways, more seamless journeys. The third one is the ubiquitousness of data and easier platforms for us to create single customer views. The end user interface of those data management platforms is getting better. It’s easier for marketers to use data management platforms than ever before.

Digital media and digital marketing support tools have got better in the last two or three years. Also, more and more digital natives are coming into the workforce. There are digital natives speaking to digital natives and that creates a very interesting dynamic in the workforce.

You mentioned over 70% is your digital spends. Is this post-COVID?

Five years ago, it was in the single digits. In digital marketing, creating a banner was a bit of an afterthought on the back of a big campaign. Now, most of our campaigns are always-on. From a financial services perspective, what is a good time to be purchasing a new credit card? When is a good time to fill up a loan application for your home? Is this a good time to think about your children’s education and financial future? Right now is the time! It’s no longer about tagging on to a certain seasonality now. It is about being available when the customers need you and in the context that they need you. This puts a new spin on the way that we think of marketing. So, we have baked in much more always-on layers. And then there are big product launches and campaign spikes. SEO, social and SEM are always-on.

How has HSBC embraced the idea of social commerce and KOLs?

KOLs, influencer marketing... one would have thought financial services would be the last to jump on the bandwagon. However, financial services is an enabler of your life and lifestyle. We have done everything from health and wellness ambassadors, wealth management experts, to having conversations with sports ambassadors to talk about our brand philosophy – there is a whole range of influencers that we work with.

We have been on this journey for a few years now. It’s fascinating to see how customers are happy and much more open to connect a brand to people they relate with.

Insurance is one of the key categories we work on. If you think about insurance, it is usually about morbidity and death but our insurance business is much more devoted to health and wellness. The pandemic has given a spike. We did a study recently that told us how there is a hugely interesting correlation between mental, physical, financial and societal well-being. If any of these have a bit of a shake, the other three will fall. You will only be financially fit if you are mentally fit. To tell this story, one is for the insurance company to do it and the other is for the influencers.

We want people to understand the importance of financial fitness on their mental well-being, their physical fitness and their societal well-being. So we had some to tell the story that went really well. It was way better than us telling that story.

It is about the right context, the right influencer whose brand values match yours. It’s about the right channels, of course. Instagram and Facebook are the two preferred channels for us. In China, WeChat is our preferred channel on which we have lots of KOL engagement. China is the ultimate KOL industry! It is very mature.

Did the pandemic change your influencer strategy, the way you engage with creators and niche communities?

I don’t think so. It’s much more a sign of the times, it’s the rise of tools and technologies available, measurements available for us to understand influencers, their footprints and values better, to have better social media monitoring so we are able to understand how our spokespeople and influencers are talking about HSBC. Just the availability of improvement to the ecosystem has led to improved engagement for us with the platforms.

What metrics do you use when engaging with influencers or creators?

Impressions, relevant audience reach to quality of conversations and responses. There are a lot of categories where influencers can sell on your behalf.

In financial services, we only want the influencers to be talking about thematics. Financial services sales are very different. We have to be able to provide the right products to the right audience at the right place because we have a responsibility. We try and respond to customer needs. We don’t ask our influencers to sell anything for us.

Generating awareness over selling basically?

That’s right! It’s awareness, it’s consideration, it’s perhaps even amplifying some of the brand equity and values – shining light on the right associated trends.

We're seeing a rising trend in the increased alignment and integration of marketing and e-commerce teams. Is HSBC on the same adjustment path and how has the process been?

HSBC has set up these things called value streams that are key revenue streams on which all capabilities come together. How far do you create an organisational structure in line with the trends? We have trained marketers who work in scrums. We utilise co-working platforms. A lot of it has moved to a cross-functional team-based approach. There will be a business owner, a product owner, somebody from marketing, someone from the agency, somebody from one of our partner companies, all of them forming a scrum, which becomes a part of the value stream. This scrum operates independently with a lot of autonomy every week to deliver what we need to.

The future will be much more agile from an organisational standpoint where the scrum is working towards a common focus.

What changes are you making to your campaign measurement to prepare for a cookieless digital ecosystem?

We are watching and evolving. The most important thing to do is to be able to create a single customer view via the unique signals in the data that you have in line with the data privacy and regulatory guidance.

Eventually, organisations with better understanding of their customers, improved data platforms, ability to organise and mine customer data will win in this post-cookie world.

The post-cookie world in many ways is a welcome change to lots of privacy concerns.

I am looking forward to the post-cookie world where if you have a real utility value for your customer, they will respond to it. Gone will be the days when customers would feel that they are being stalked on the internet. The control will be much more with the customers and that is the way we would like to operate.

Tell us about your sustainable strategic priorities, whether in product design and manufacture, packaging, recycling old products, etc.

The first thing is that we have committed to net zero. We are committed towards helping our customers navigate a world of sustainable financing, sustainable investing and sustainable living.

Sustainable financing is crucial and is about the programmes or projects HSBC finances and supports. Sustainable investing is the kind of instruments customers invest their money in, the impact they have from a carbon footprint and environmental point of view. The third one is about sustainable living – questions around how we use our buildings, paper when we are trying to go paperless, recycled plastic for credit cards, how we can create an entire banking system that is carbon neutral. It’s about the three Ps – prosperity, planet and people. It’s not just about P&L.

In Hong Kong, we are one of the single largest charity institutions. We deploy a lot of our funds from the Hongkong Bank Foundation to help the communities of Hongkong, the disenfranchised, help senior citizens get more digitally savvy, to create better job opportunities for the youth.

One of my pet projects is the clean waterways initiative. There are three or four big barges that go around Hong Kong collecting trash from the ocean. This is where our regional headquarters is, this is where HSBC started, so we deploy a lot to ensure Hong Kong is beautiful and the community here participates in large and sustainable activities.

Particularly, in marketing. As a big drive towards being paperless, we are reducing our carbon footprint, the amount of paper we send to our customers, direct mail. We are deploying recycled plastic bags.

We are also seeking out partners who will follow sustainable principles. We push our agency and production partners to work with us on the right kind of paper.

As sustainability is an issue that no company can solve alone, have you formed any related partnerships, joined industry initiatives, etc?

There is a whole list of industry initiatives that we are part of.

I am co-chair of the Male Allies initiative (part of The Women’s Foundation agenda). In Hong Kong, The Women’s Foundation is one of the largest non-profit organisations. The role of the Women’s Foundation is to ensure that there is equal space for women in the workforce. We work with large organisations across Hong Kong to create the right kind of policies, space and pipeline for women to grow into senior roles. We do everything from policy papers, research to mentoring, reverse mentoring and drive gender diversity. Over 70% of my team are women across all levels, including leadership roles, which I am quite proud of.

Male Allies is essentially senior male executives from all companies – HSBC, BlackRock, Barclays, Visa, Mastercard, KPMG, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs etc. All of us got together to drive gender diversity and decided that gender inequality shouldn’t be a burden women carry.

Gender equality is a core ESG issue. How can the business world be ready for the next generation of women? How can we create a pathway that is ready for anybody, whoever you are? How do you ensure that the pendulum doesn’t swing just one way?

From your vantage point in the industry, what is your outlook for the year ahead?

No one can think of 2022 without thinking of the end of the pandemic. It definitely does not have a hard stop date.

Our business is inherently global and hence, the global mobility of people is key for us. My personal hope is that we will see the tail end of the pandemic that will lead to our customers being able to travel.

I am hoping that while there will be hybrid events, real brand experiences can be brought back to customers, to be able to engage with our staff and brand platforms.

From a marketing perspective, we have deployed technologies, improved ways of doing things, hybrid events. Hopefully, all of these will work towards improved sustainability footprint. I am also hoping that the sustainability narratives are embraced by our entire marketing ecosystem.

There is a lot of pressure on our teams to operate differently than before. Think of a young mother with two children working from home and at the same time, managing the household. A lot of my team is young mothers with children. They still carry the burden of being the primary caregiver for their children. In that context, we have learnt a few bits around creating flexible working, the right kind of space, ensure we manage deadlines better and ensure different time zones work better because you are a global organisation.

My hope is that we don’t lose those and go back to some of the previous behaviour. Offices will remain – they will be places for collaboration and innovation, team gathering, brainstorming and such.

What will be your key areas of focus for 2022 in terms of where limited resources and budget granted to the marketing function will be spent?

Our number one focus continues to be talent – it’s about our people. I spend most of my time thinking about growing talent within the ecosystem, how we can get the right kind of people in the right kind of roles, helping with personal development plans, coaching, getting reverse-mentored, getting the right kind of tools and technologies available for our people to do their jobs.

That would be my number one priority.