CMO interview: Building consumer credit and insight at Citi

Head of consumer sales and marketing shares how this banking provider is riding the waves of significant financial services change
Samantha Elliott

Samantha Elliott

As Aussies gain access to alternative payment services such as Afterpay, as well as strive to better manage debt, credit card applications have been declining.

According to the Reserve Bank of Australia’s April figures, credit for personal use dropped 2.8 per cent in the year to March, the largest fall since the GFC. APRA figures peg it at an even higher 4.8 per cent, the lowest recorded since 2002.

Put this together with the emergence of new digital-first banks locally, a Royal Commission, and an Open Banking regime allowing consumers to more easily share personal data with another financial services provider, and you’re looking at a perfect storm of disruption for established players such as Citi.

“We are seeing credit card applications across the board declining, and consumers seeking out alternatives to credit cards - it’s a major consumer trend,” Citi’s head of sales and marketing, Samantha Elliott, says.

In response, the consumer marketing chief for the world’s largest credit card provider says the company is adopting a “customer obsessed” approach to product development and marketing. Elliott cites increasingly tapping customer insights, building more targeted audience approaches to digital marketing, and devising new product partnerships to access fresh consumers as some of the way this is being achieved.

For example, Elliott says Citi has brought an audience strategy focus to digital marketing and acquisition.

“We completely refreshed our go-to-market strategy for credit cards 12 months ago, which was a big change for the business,” she tells CMO. “Prior to that, we were looking at anyone 25-55 years old who wanted a credit card. We started the process with customer research and data, and were able to sub-segment the market. We devised Jen, Anna, Robert and Costa [all gender neutral] and we use that language in the acquisition team.”

Qualitative and quantitative work included understanding each segment’s media consumption and frequency, and what essential product needs each had. From there, Citi made adjustments to product CVPs to suit.

“We simplified our product offering as well to say we didn’t need 20 different cards, we have four key segments, let’s give them six cards including our two rewards cards with Citi or Qantas point options,” Elliott says.

“The marketing strategy follows on from that and informed which creative was appealing. With our core audience, Anna, if we look back on the marketing we were targeting that segment with previously, it was just wallpaper. We’ve shifted our creative to resonate more, and it’s significantly shifted our results.”  

Citi is also buying advertising against those audiences and ensuring when look-a-likes come to the website it highlights products and offers of most appeal by segment.

“It’s de-risked us; rather than hanging all our hopes on one product and offer, we now have four products specifically targeted at different audiences. And we have these baselines for other streams of acquisition as we’re talking to other groups in a way that resonates with them, while doing a better job with that core segment,” Elliott says.  

Which is why Citi is one of the only credit card providers still growing in the midst of tougher market conditions than ever, she claims.

Elsewhere, Citi’s product proposition has changed to better address the ‘buy now, pay later’ market. In August, the company launched a new loan product in partnership with ecommerce site, Kogan, allowing customers to take out an instalment product at the point-of-sale. Elliott says Citi recognised having an offer in this space was of key importance.

“The demographics are broader than we think for those sorts of money management tools,” she continues. “But with any product, you have to make it easy for people. It’s about what people want from a product firstly. But just as important, if not more so, is building products in a way that meets and ideally exceeds their expectations.”

Citi research conducted by House of Brands found 80 per cent of people who have used a ‘buy now, pay later’ service want their bank to provide such a service. Of those who haven’t used a service before, half also want to see traditional banks offer an option. 

“Consumers want to be comfortable with who is providing it,” Elliott says. “In the millennials segment, despite their inherent distrust in any organisation, 59 per cent still trust and expect financial advice from their bank. As Citi, we have been around the playground, and experienced the Royal Commission and post-Royal Commission environment. We have been through this as a US-originated bank.”

Financial credentials

Elliott knows a thing or two about financial services, having spent 20 years in the space. She started in direct sales with a publishing business focused on the trading and stock market, before joining Macquarie Bank for nearly 10 years. During this time, she worked in institutional and consumer banking.

A significant role was as lead of Gen X and Gen Y efforts. While marketing teams often align to products or channels, Macquarie Bank tried taking a generational view.

“It was an approach that encouraged various marketing teams to dig deeper into who our consumers were,” Elliott recalls. “It feels a bit ahead of its time and the business wasn’t really ready for it, because the rest of the organisation was mostly product aligned.”  

Yet the insights proved invaluable. Elliott points out the Gen X and Y segments she looked at then would have been the age millennials are now.

“We talk about generations, and there are definitely differences between them, but that also changes with age,” she comments. “The things I was learning about those generations and then educating the business around was about getting away from the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. Instead, it was consumers telling us what they want, us listening, then co-creating and building based on a customer feedback loop.

“Fast forward 10 years and that’s how we are operating [at Citi]. The business is coming to me and marketing asking: Who they should be targeting, where is the opportunity, and what do they want?”  

Elliott was recently appointed to Citi’s senior leadership team for consumer banking. The remit extends across the marketing value chain, from brand and sponsorship to customer and market research, acquisition and partnerships.

Elliott notes brand and sponsorship is a difficult area to measure, and one of her priorities. She points to a current program of work around Citi’s well-known dining offer for cardholders of free wine when they dine.

“That’s deeply embedded in our product value propositions, so it’s making sure our other sponsorship properties are aligned with that as well,” she says.  

Up next: What Citi is doing to build customer insight maturity, plus partnerships and trends

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Maturity around customer insight

Customer insight and centricity has to be the foundation, and Elliott says Citi has progressed in terms of realising the importance of being customer-led.

“Everyone intrinsically knows you need customers to like you and your products to be able to grow. It’s understood but what that actually means is different in different people’s minds,” she says. “Citi has come a long way even in the last 12 months from doing a lot of talking, to taking real strides and starting walking the walk.”  

One illustration is its “strong customer obsession program”, a regionally driven initiative. “It’s encouraging everyone across the business – not just people on the phones – to understand what customers want and what they are saying,” Elliott explains. “This is so people who are developing products, or credit scorecards are thinking about the customer.

“What do people want? We investigate then bring that data back to the business so we can then make those more informed decisions. We’ve evolved from even just what I’d call an A/B testing approach, where the data says A works better than B; to being more about the audiences. A might work generally better than B, but actually if you look at the audiences, A works better for millennials but B works better for Gen X.

“Certainly in acquisitions, we’re able to articulate the business results off the back of those decisions.”

Citi is also investing into extracting more customer insights. A recent example is implementing speech analytics in the call centre.

“Given we’re 98 per cent digital in our marketing, we can jump straight in and make changes on the fly on all our assets and be feeding those insights in so the call centre isn’t inundated with the calls, customers aren’t as confused and the campaign is more successful. It’s a good feedback loop,” Elliott says.  

Elliott’s team also has brand tracking in place looking at awareness, consideration and preference metrics and closely monitors top-down and bottom-up Net Promoter Score (NPS).

“The exciting thing to see is people are now digging into NPS more to ask questions. Our NPS recently jumped +30 points, which is great, but people are also asking why. It’s not just about when things go wrong, it’s about wanting to know more,” she says.  

“For a marketer sitting at the leadership table, it’s great people are really talking about the customer. When someone presents a new product concept, the first question our CEO is asking is if we’ve done customer research on this.”

Elliott believes the recent Royal Commission has done great things for the finance industry too. She notes post-commission regulatory reform is helping consumers feel more comfortable and restoring trust in the system.

The rise of banking disruptors such as the neobanks is another trend keeping Citi on its toes. “The consumers’ expectations every time they have a better and faster experience are rising. We’re investing to make sure our platforms and products are as easy to use as possible,” Elliott says.

“We are competing against startups, who have some benefits of starting from scratch, yet we also have a foundation for reliable infrastructure. The security and controls are very firmly in place, so sometimes we don’t move as quickly as we’d like. But we know we’re heading in the right direction and making changes in the right way for sustainability and protection of our customers.”

Another disruption is the open banking regime. Again, while challenging, Elliott sees it as further opportunity to drive innovation through the business.

“It’s not just about bringing people in the door. It’s got to be about how we engage with existing customers and proactively retain them by firstly providing products that meet their needs, then communicating in a way that’s relevant and timely with a 360-degree view of the consumer using data from across the organisation,” she says. “With propensity models and mining our data, we can understand the behaviours or red flags showing someone is starting to disengage with a product, and proactively reach out to… suggest a different credit card might suit their needs now.

“It’s not a linear journey but as lifestyles and life stages change, people need different products. We’re fortunate we have a full breadth of products to be able to offer that.”

Partnerships will be key to ongoing growth. An example is with flybuys, a membership base Citi has been able to access using deeply partner-linked offers.

“It’s given us a great opportunity to connect with audiences that may not have previously had an affinity with the Citi brand,” Elliott adds. “We do have very successful and longstanding sponsorships in place we continue to invest in.”

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