The business of banking has become increasingly dynamic and crowded. Emma Sheller, Global Head Brand & Marketing for Standard Chartered Bank, speaks to WARC’s Gabey Goh for the Marketer’s Toolkit 2022 about how the banking brand is positioning itself as a change agent and the need for marketing to not retreat to safe and familiar spaces.

Toolkit 2022

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

Key insights

  • Banking was once seen as the sleepy backwater of brand and marketing, but technology and more open regulation are resulting in a plethora of new entrants and concepts.
  • Marketers must separate the hype from the meaningful. With an opinion and a data point for every imaginable marketing scenario, channel, tool, format – to discern what is right. 
  • Marketers must really work with the data, get a handle on how culture is shifting and use innovation to drive business in new areas and to new audiences.
How are you adjusting to a start/stop economy with the constant threat of rolling lockdowns and continued travel restrictions? How have your marketing strategies and objectives adapted to this ongoing state of volatility?

While the impact of COVID has changed many aspects of life, the need for money remains more pressing than ever. Indeed, what COVID drove home for us is how important it was to live up to our promise of being here for good, for both individuals and companies, going through an unexpected yet existential challenge. And as we have come to witness, a heavy burden fell on many of the developing nations we call home.

So we had to act fast and decisively, promoting how we injected a billion dollars to finance stressed supply chains producing life-saving PPE at a corporate level, and enacting new, digital channels to help individuals carry on living, even if their physical bank or ATM was suddenly out of bounds.

And our marketing has pivoted away from the discretionary and indulgent to focus on topics like the preservation of wealth and sustainable economics, encouraging our clients to transition their financial strategies to bring about both present and long-term benefits.

Emma Sheller, Global Head Brand & Marketing, Standard Chartered Bank

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 in some way to cater to that?

Advertising was already changing rapidly before COVID struck, with greater fragmentation of channels, lower attention spans and growing distrust of corporations and institutions. That said, we have long been a counter-cyclical brand, one that people turn to and trust more when the going gets harder.

In that regard, we have seen people respond very positively to our brand marketing during the past two years of the pandemic. I think that’s been aided by a fundamental of our brand strategy – that we only ever talk about the things we actually do. We now see a lot of brands follow our lead in circling around sustainability. But while most brands talk about action, they have been slow in taking action. And I think people are fed up with promises of one day this or by 2050 that.

We’ve long led by example and hence have built credibility. We communicate from a place of genuine compassion and activity and that’s helped put us in a positive light.

Has your thinking around new product development and launching new brands changed following COVID? 

The business of banking has become increasingly dynamic and, dare I say, competitive. We don’t just face the same old rivals anymore, there are new competitors and concepts coming at us from all sides. But that’s also an invitation for us to step up and pioneer new ways of understanding client needs and address them.

We’ve pioneered new digital banking channels in Africa that have empowered a generation with new ways to prosper. We’re introducing sustainable investments that are fundamentally reshaping the future economies of the region. And, yes, we are introducing new retail banking concepts that address discrete parts of the market with distinct needs – for on-the-move finance or seamless payments.

We also have a long and successful track record of partnerships, so this isn’t new to us. We know just how far our main brand can stretch and where we can tap green growth with a fresh venture, where we can leverage the strengths of both parties.

How has the company’s approach to and investment in its digital brand experience evolved over the last two years?

To be honest, retail banking had started pivoting to digital long before the pandemic. Who really wants to visit a branch if they can get the job done from the office or home?

But the pandemic has accelerated a couple of things – it’s helped drive that shift in some of the more traditional markets like Hong Kong, where digital banking has now caught up with many of our other markets. And it’s definitely increased the scope of tasks people are now happy to do remotely. We have digitised new client onboarding, loan applications – for individuals and businesses – and a great many more services. Our apps now allow people to practically do anything they would do in person, from anywhere and at any time.

I’m very proud of how our marketing teams across our footprint have encouraged people to make the switch. One such campaign used our title sponsorship of Liverpool FC to encourage digital adoption across Africa. It has been an amazing success and I love that this idea came from an internal competition we ran among our international marketing teams.

Do you see a trend towards new brands breaking through more frequently? Are you seeing any new trends in brand positioning as a result?

If banking was once seen as the sleepy backwater of brand and marketing, it isn’t any longer. Technology and more open regulation are resulting in a plethora of new entrants and concepts. We face new brands advising on wealth, in trading, in payments and cross-border transactions, not to mention new forms of currency.

It’s challenging yet exciting because for every new rival we face, as a challenger brand ourselves, we also see new opportunities to grow our scope and scale of business. Digital access opens up many new markets for us too, and with our history being built on trust and commitment, that opens up a tremendous opportunity for growth.

Ultimately, the way I see it is we’re dealing with people’s money – this stuff matters – so it’s a high consideration category. Consequently, successful positions are typically built on two main levers – trust and utility. Yes, people want to do more with their money so fintech brands can seem appealing. But the cost of failure is high, so trust is critical.

Banks like ours need to keep pace with innovation but always stay true to the responsibility we have to protect our client’s interests too.

When it comes to evaluating campaign effectiveness, what are the key metrics you judge your campaigns against? And how has this changed in the last year or two?

We face quite a unique challenge with our brand as we don't fit the usual archetypes of being either a local champion or global giant. But being different is our unique strength and opportunity and that's what we model and benchmark against.

So what we elected to do as a brand was be a change agent – the bank that reset the rules. Here for good encapsulates that. We don’t set out to be biggest, but we do want to be best. And we benchmark our campaigns at how they position us as a thought leader, a change agent, a pioneer for better and also, as is increasingly important among younger clients, the kind of company they want to do business with.

Do you currently use any form of modelling, e.g. market mix modelling, to evaluate ROI across media channels, or plan to do so?

Yes, we regularly undertake market mix modelling and econometric studies to understand the impact of our media.

These studies allow us to recognise both the macro impact of our media spend at a global level in order for us to plan for the long term, as well as the levers that impact our short/medium-term success at an individual market and channel level.

What do you hope the industry can achieve in cross-media measurement in 2022?

With the shifting media landscape, the deprecation of cookies and its impact on direct attribution, I believe that cross-media studies should be a fundamental aspect of through-the-funnel media planning and buying.

Our hope is that the industry moves with these changes to focus less on last-click attribution, towards a more holistic view of media measurement.

SCB launched a new global brand campaign this year – “Through Different Eyes” – to further articulate the company’s commitment to sustainability.  Can you share with us a few of the company’s sustainable strategic priorities?

To answer this, let me first go back a couple of years. We rebooted our brand campaign in 2017 to showcase the positive impact we are committed to making in the markets we serve. We did that by calling out issues that hold back commerce or prosperity across our footprint, be it financial preparedness as people live longer, access to equal opportunity, safe working conditions or the financial system being hijacked by criminals, to call out a few. It was powerful and provocative – topics no other banks were talking about.

That same commitment to change remains in our new work but we wanted to use our new campaign – and our new branding – to signal our stated goal to be the world’s most responsible and sustainable bank. And as I said earlier, to do so by tackling the topics people care most about and promoting the tangible and measurable things we are doing to make things better. Everything we say comes from a place of action.

How do you avoid “greenwashing” when articulating such sustainability efforts/commitments in your advertising and messaging?

We only ever talk about the things we actually do, where we use the position and influence of being a bank to change things for the better.

I really believe our brand campaigns are the very opposite of greenwashing as they shine a light on areas of critical importance and demonstrate the exact things we do to reshape the economic engines in those parts of the world that need it most.

But I also recognise that this is a polarised and often emotive topic, where corporations and banks in particular are often cited as the problem.

Our view is that money has the greatest role to play in driving change, which is why we do what we do. And if we can lead the category to bank in a good way, then we’re living up to our promise. I hope and believe in time, people will come to see how we led the way, with honesty, integrity and conviction.

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

I hope that the worst of the pandemic will soon be over, and some form of normality will return. The end of the last pandemic saw the arrival of the roaring ’20s – it’s hard to believe that was a century ago. But I don’t see that part of history repeating as the financial implications of just how much money was spent to prop up the global economy will become apparent.

There will be bills to pay. Nevertheless, I also don’t see a prolonged period of thrift and decline. I sense in our markets a great amount of pent-up energy and I can foresee a driving entrepreneurship, a period of innovation and reinvention, and my hope is a lot of that will be focused on building sustainable economic revival.

What are you and the marketing team anticipating in terms of opportunities/challenges in meeting business objectives in 2022?

Competition will only get tougher as more players – old and new – compete for share. For instance, in Dubai, we face over 50 banks and that level of intense competition is likely to become the norm everywhere. So our marketing teams are going to have to be ready, to be more imaginative, more innovative, more targeted and also braver. In marketing, I say first you have to stand out, then you have to stand for something. Nobody notices the invisible genius. 

Specifically, our marketing and agency teams will need to really work with the data, really get a handle on how culture is shifting and use innovation to drive our business in new areas and to new audiences.

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

We have our business priorities – and we don't have limitless funds – so our focus will be to grow specific parts of our client base, protect the business we have and to build our brand, specifically to be the lighthouse – the measure of what it means to be the good bank.

What do you think will be the single biggest challenge/issue that marketers will need to grapple with in 2022?

As we enter 2022, I think the volume of noise coming from opposing sides to almost every topic is masking the truth that most people are still somewhere in the middle. But with views coming at them from all sides, the challenge for regular people is knowing which brands to trust, which brands to invest their emotional (and in our case, monetary) capital with. 

That also applies to marketers: how do we separate the hype from the meaningful. And by that, I mean with an opinion and a data point for every imaginable marketing scenario, channel, tool, format, how we do know what is right. 

I worry the polarisation of culture and the sheer, relentless speed of business are disincentivising marketers from being bold and are encouraging them to retreat to the perceived safety of the familiar. But while doing that may buy a short reprieve, it will ultimately erode all credibility for what we do. 

2022 will be a real pivot point. It’s time for marketers to step up, believe in their story and have the conviction to see it through, in a world where many voices will implore taking a different path.