CFO World

CMO interview: Bringing customer insights and brand storytelling together at ASB Bank

General manager of marketing for the Commonwealth Bank-owned New Zealand banking group shares how a customer decisioning engine and digital is being united with brand strategy and human values
Shane Evans

Shane Evans


Striking a healthy balance between innovation and human attributes such as warmth, friendliness and family is the key to ASB’s brand success, its GM of marketing, Shane Evans, believes.

And it’s this combination that’s been behind ASB earning more than 50 New Zealand and global industry awards in the past three years, from Most Effective Client at the Effies, to multiple accolades at the New Zealand Direct Marketing Awards, an Effective award at the Beacons, and a gold Lion at Cannes.

Evans himself has been at ASB for eight years, overseeing marketing for the longstanding financial services institution, which is owned by Australia’s Commonwealth Bank. Prior to this, Evans was in London and led the rebrand of Aviva across 28 markets. The work involved overhauling more than 50 brands and was described as “slickest rebranding exercise in corporate history’ by the UK Times in 2009.

Emphasis for Evans at ASB in recent years has been building out a customer decisioning engine to improve, automate and personalise communications, from marketing through to services. The financial institution has adopted Adobe and Unica to build out its tech stack, and created a conversation library based on recognised customer needs.

Today, 300 conversations are being sent out any given evening from more than 500 options.

“These are different conversations we can have based on all the data triggers and behaviours we have observed and defined from customers,” Evans tells CMO. “These can, for example, be service-based conversations to say we’ve seen you’ve had some money deposited in your account, and would you like to move that into an account earning better interest for you.” 

Historically, teams would source a dataset, and go out and contact the customer with an offer or opportunity. “What we have done is brought that into our own systems and enabled it to happen in an automated way based on data we have,” Evans says.

“We’ve then identified all the different conversations we can have with a customer to ensure from a financial wellbeing perspective we are helping them get to the right place.”

Conversation opportunities can become endless, so to prioritise, ASB works first to understand the right customer outcome. “Is it simple, easy, and save me time for example?” Evans asks. “It’s work that reminds you how important it is to have a deep understanding of the customer.”

It’s also easy to get obsessed with technology and data sources and miss the customer point, he agrees.

“We have a wealth of data available to us; what I’m interested in is how we triangulate different data sources to get to a true insight,” Evans says. “It’s about devising key insights you can take forward to inform a go-to-market strategy, be it brand, a comms program or conversation.”

ASB’s decisioning engine has shifted the role marketing is playing in the organisation, Evans says.

“If you think of marketing in the banking context, it can often just been seen as a corporate comms function. But because we’re investing in so much capability to contact customers directly, we’ve become a pivotal piece in how you communicate with customers,” he says. “Our services are more in demand than ever before because we have the customer decisioning engine at the heart of our efforts.”

Digital innovation

Hand-in-hand with the conversation work is digital innovation. Again, data insight has been vital in informing experiences and products ASB creates.

“As a bank, we have a lot of resources helping us understand customers, from research to different teams helping inform different opinions. We also have a great retail and distribution unit, so we can talk to frontline people having conversations with customers every day,” Evans continues.

“We use all those insights to ensure when we’re building out digital experiences, we’re enabling customers to make decisions without having to go to a branch or jump on the phone.”  

A recent innovation is fixing rates on a home loan via a mobile app. “I did this before Christmas at the airport in fact: My wife and I sat down together, looked at the rate table that came through to us, and selected the new home loan rate we thought was best,” Evans says.

“Previously, you would get a letter then have to make a phone call or go into a branch; we did it together looking at a phone. Those triggers and behaviours ultimately save customers a huge amount of time. When you match it with a really slick digital mobile experience, that’s when you’re really winning.”

Another is a product called ‘Card Control’, so customers can lock and block their cards from different transactions. Capabilities include stopping overseas transactions, turning access off or on, or changing a card limit.

“It is still one of the most popular things we’ve done,” Evans says.  “We’ve also been investing in our ‘home loan central’ product, which enables you to take a longer-term view of your home loan. You can see, if you make smaller incremental payments, how that might reduce payments over time. In addition, we invested in a wealth central platform to see all investments in one place, as well as change them up.

“In all instances, it’s about delivering innovations giving customers direct control… With our next-best conversations, we can then provide prompts or reminding you on better products suited to you, or updates.” 

Brand strategy

Increasingly with digital, product experience becomes interlinked with marketing and brand. This means keeping an eye on brand strategy, and Evans is constantly striving to balance innovation with human-centric values.

“At ASB, we strive for that sweet spot of innovation and warmth, friendliness and family -  these are the things we hold dear and we’re always trying to find ways to focus on both,” he says. “If you look at ‘Clever Kash’, which we launched a couple of years ago, this focuses on children’s’ financial literacy, and encourages people to save and parents to have that conversation with children. It was a world-first from a digital moneybox perspective, so it hit the notes around being an innovative product and service.

“If we can focus on those two things, it’s a brand and marketing win.”

Evans agrees modern marketers have a tricky time balancing brand values in the face of data-driven and automated, multi-channel activity. “You don’t want to leave behind the storytelling component,” he warns.

“When I started my career, the go-to-market was relatively straightforward – you had four or five channels. That doesn’t exist anymore, and we’re always optimising a huge library of content. It blows me away when the guys get their content lists back and see where it is. Maintain consistency is important, and maintaining brand essence and tone is an ongoing challenge.”

Brand also remains the key differentiator for ASB in the marketplace, Evans says. So to keep up momentum, he maintains a separate team focused on the longer-term brand piece.

“Absorbing the changes and resetting our playbook to have a point of view on where you’re going to be in five years is important,” he says. “Marketing for me is about driving towards your business objectives in the current environment and the aims of the organisation. Brand is the longer-term view of where you’re going and how you’re building out that platform to inform everything else.

“Our brand people sit more on the creative and storytelling end, go deep into what’s happening in the market and new ways of going to market; then we have more direct-focused marketers with a strong understanding around customer need and providing a slick experience off that.”  

Up next: The changes in org process and ways of working, plus values of marketing

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Being customer-led

As a marketer, Evans is excited by how all industries are focusing heavily around the customer. “It is creating amazing opportunity for us to branch out and have greater influence over the customer outcome, more so than at any other point in time,” he says.

And thanks to the scathing findings of Australia’s Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, as well as New Zealand’s Financial Markets Authority reports, the whole sector has upped the ante on doing the right thing by customers.

“While we haven’t seen any erosion of our brand metrics to date, it’s something we need to keep a close eye on,” Evans comments. “From ASB’s perspective, we have always had a strong alignment with the community. We were a community bank, grew into a major bank and were acquired by the Commonwealth Bank. Yet we have managed to retain the community focus throughout.

“We are examining our policies and procedures to make sure we can learn from what’s happening in Australia, as there are a lot of learnings to take from this.”

Meanwhile, an adoption of Agile ways of working at ASB are giving Evans and his team more ways to engage cross-functionality and in all stages of the customer journey. It’s led the team build more processes, unlocking better ways of working and efficiencies in marketing management and fostering more experimentation internally.

“When you start moving to a tribe and squad environment, it means the marketer is involved a lot earlier in conversations,” Evans says. “It’s also moving conversations away from how we’re executing, to why we’re doing it, and what’s the role we can play to inform that conversation.

“The top marketers understand the customer and best way to communicate with them. If we have the ability to further influence up the tree, it will result in better outcomes for that customer.”

What’s more, Evans says the best CMOs know to foster creativity even as digital and data-driven approaches become the norm.

“We can’t leave creativity behind as an industry as we move into this automated world. The ability to creatively engage with customers is a critical differentiator,” he says.  

“The other key attribute is leadership and being able to lead teams through periods of change with a  sense of pragmatism. Marketers are typically a bit younger and working with them and enabling them to develop careers in the right way as organisations change is going to be a big focus. It comes back to that concept of constant learning.”  

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