State Street CMO: Banking needs to stop talking about itself

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Hannah Grove discusses the reputation issues of banks, ESG concerns in Asia and the lasting impact of her company's "Fearless Girl" statue.

The best campaigns create emotional connections, explains Hannah Grove, CMO of the American financial services company State Street. This is by no means a ground-breaking statement from a marketer, but Grove is in a particularly strong position from which to claim it, discussing the installation of State Street's 'Fearless Girl' during a recent interview with Campaign Asia Pacific in Hong Kong.

This small bronze statue, which has been facing down the famous Wall Street 'Charging Bull' in New York since International Women’s Day last week, has been widely heralded as one of the boldest moves in the latest gender diversity conversations.

Whether Fearless Girl will remain in her spot for longer than the planned week, as thousands of signatories to an online petition are requesting, is a question for the City of New York to decide rather than the bank.  But Grove is determined that her message to girls and women will stick around, even if the statue does not.

"The story was about making it a call to arms," she said. "It’s not just a stunt in terms of dropping the statue in front of the bull." From the point of view of State Street General Advisors, the bank’s investment services arm, she explained, this has meant marking Fearless Girl’s arrival with a new set of best-practice guidelines on diversity for all the companies it invests in. The list includes numbers of women at the board level.

'Fearless Girl' on Wall Street

It also means State Street is turning the magnifying glass on the health of its internal gender balances. "We’re not saying that we’re perfect and we have it figured out, because we don’t," Grove said. "If we look at our own gender diversity statistics it’s kind of 50/50 through the vice president level of our organization, which is the senior level, but then as we get up to the executive leadership that’s where… I think at the senior vice president level it’s 23 percent. So we’ve put metrics in place to say we have three-year diversity goals and [the aim] is absolutely to change those numbers."

Grove’s own career path to becoming CMO of State Street, a title she has held for 11 years, is now almost two decades old. She started out in a PR role in 1998 when she was eight months pregnant, which was perceived as "quite unusual" in America at the time. "Continual learning" is what’s kept her at the company 20 years later.

A large part of this educational journey has involved tackling the aftermath of catastrophies like the financial crash on the image of banks—particularly in trying to build trust among sectors like young women and millennials. "I do think it has a hangover and an uncertainty there," admitted Grove. "In tandem, there are these other industries that have grown up, whether it’s the fintech space, which is a space you’re seeing more women go into, or IT…". There’s still some "myth busting" to be done, she conceded, for banks to compete with these attractive other sectors. This involves ending certain perceptions: that banking involves 90-hour working weeks or that it lacks flexible work arrangements, for instance.

Another problem contributing to the reputation issues, Grove continued, is that banking has made itself incredibly complex. "We love an acronym, we love a complicated term and we saw how that played out in the crisis, right, where a lot of people simply didn’t understand those underlying vehicles. I think what the marketing team have really tried to push in the last couple of years is really simplfying the language around what we do."

In the name of such simplification, State Street recently ran a series on regulation, in which it explained the key concepts using emojis. "That might seem a bit tongue in cheek, but the message we’re sending there is that we want to make it more accessible," claimed Grove. Millennials—State Street's future clients—will, Grove hopes, be the key recipients of this message. Gone are the long white papers of old; communications with this generation now consist of "snackable content" and "a lot more personalization". "That, I think, is what millenials expect because in their personal lives everything is customized and personalized," said Grove. 

Beyond this, if banking ultimately wants to become more popular it needs to stop talking about itself. "We love talking about how fabulous we are, how big we are and all of our achievements as companies, and that’s not what we as underlying consumers want to hear. We want to hear about how you can help us. So we’ve also worked very hard to shift the dialogue around State Street so we’re not talking about ourselves all the time but what our clients need, what are their challenges and how can we solve those challenges."

Marketing is in a stronger place to do this than it has been in the past now that is it less channel-specific and integrated more holistically into the company. Grove is currently leveraging this more powerful position to boost State Street’s involvement in a wide range of environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns, which she defines as "everything from gender to climate to supply chains to safety to water".

"We’re seeing a growing appetite for ESG," she said, speaking of the bank’s client base. "I think where it comes from is that all of us want to be aligned to a purpose, and ESG is such a brilliant platform for that."

Where in the past ESG strategy in Asia has focused on the exclusion of so-called "sin stocks", such as tobacco and alcohol, Grove sees a huge opportunity in this region to boost more active engagement in ESG funds. "I think there’s great awareness but there’s less understanding of how to engage," she said. "That’s where education comes in because there are some myths and I think, by the way, that the media plays a very important role there."

Internal education is just as critical, she agrees. Are State Street employees receptive to ESG messages? More work is needed, Grove admitted. "I think the short answer is yes, employees will listen, but the challenge for us as marketers is that our brains are wired for stories, not facts. So you can’t bombard people with ‘eight facts you need to know about ESG’. It needs to be much more about storytelling."

At the moment, the four-foot high Fearless Girl appears to be doing a better job of this today than many a banking marketing campaign in the past. And she may yet bring her messages to Asia, says Grove: "She has a passport and she will travel. Girl on the road? No question."