After acquiring HSBC, Citizens Financial Group marked its entry into the New York market with ‘The Living Portrait of NYC’, a multisensory experience that bonds storytelling, emotions, brand values, and data into a cohesive narrative.
The live activation ran from September 18 to September 27 in a 10,000 sq. ft arena at Madison Square Garden which brought the brand closer to its communities through deep personalization, in an intimate, yet data-compliant fashion.
We spoke with Beth Johnson, Chief Experience Officer at Citizens Financial Group to shine a light on how the brand designs hybrid marketing experiences for a highly-regulated banking sector.
Q 1. What was the thought behind ‘The Living Portrait of NYC’?
Beth Johnson: We recently penetrated the NYC geography after having a presence for some years here. We thought about how we can take something that’s true to our brand, which is supporting our customers through their life’s journey but bringing it into New York in a thoughtful, authentic, and unique way. New York is the world’s most diverse city and is one of the most resilient cities recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic. New York is also one of the most competitive cities, so we took a step back and asked ourselves, ‘how do we stay true to ourselves while we also stay true to New York?’
Connecting the Citizens brand ethos with the citizens of NYC
“We started listening to the journeys of New Yorkers to understand what makes them so diverse, and exciting, and what makes New York buzzing with energy like nowhere else. We spoke to about 5,000 New Yorkers in a survey and recorded over 400 stories from New Yorkers.
To bring their stories to life and enable New Yorkers to experience how they fit into that journey and reflect on their time in New York, we designed an immersive multi-sensory experience, ‘The Living Portrait of NYC’”
Q 2. How did you tie in personalization with the customer and brand experience?
Beth Johnson: The culture and experience we wanted to create for our customers and citizens seeds from the three Cs that are at the core of the Citizens Group culture – customer, community, and colleagues. These enabled us to inject that DNA into how we support our customers through their journey of good and bad times. For example, during the pandemic, we called every one of our commercial clients to ask how we could extend help throughout their journey.
The Living Portrait of NYC showcases our brand promise in a celebration that is emotional, quirky, and fun over a 10-day period to position Citizens in New York City. This allowed us to combine that promise and experience through digital and physical life, which is important in today’s world. You will continue to see us over time, it is not once and done.
Q3. How does the ‘The Living Portrait of NYC’ connect Citizens bank with its desired community?
Beth Johnson: We at Citizens believe that as a bank our role in the economy extends to supporting local businesses and communities. This also allows us to serve our commercial clients, small businesses, and clients that are higher up on the wealth spectrum. We think about ‘community’ holistically.
For example, when the Russia-Ukraine war first broke out, we created a mural in our branch to help raise funds for one of the local charities there to support the Ukrainians who have done work in Chinatown with small businesses as they’ve been bouncing back from the pandemic. We are doing workforce development in places like Queens, we have other partnerships in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
Q4. How has data helped craft ‘The Living Portrait of NYC’ experience?
Beth Johnson: It was fun! I am a data junkie who grew up in the world of data and math. We wanted ‘The Living Portrait of NYC’ to be real and authentic and didn’t want to create it based on what people perceive New Yorkers as.
We picked up facts and challenged perceptions. Because when we began qualitative research people used words like “grit” to define New Yorkers which made us think, maybe that’s just a perception, let’s take a step back and look at data to identify learnings about New York from surveys and conversations.
For instance, one of the facts that came out was that New Yorkers tend to be more optimistic than customers in other markets. And I don’t think New Yorkers are particularly perceived as optimistic, but turns out, they are. Another interesting fact was that New York has the lowest divorce rate of the major cities. This was a fun fact because there could be multiple reasons like the high cost of living that contribute to this finding, but the optimist in me says that it’s because you know, New Yorkers are optimistic.
The data has pulled out some fun facts, this has been interesting. In fact, people have picked up on and engaged with it in the exhibit itself. We see people enthralled as they stand in the first room, which exhibits our data findings, and they wait to see every fact that circles through. We tried to pick the little nuggets that would authentically resonate.
Q5. How are you merging the physical and digital experience? What is the journey?
Beth Johnson: We used influencer marketing, media coverage through editorial, and other digital channels. We wanted to get the word out broadly through digital but also leverage our physical footprint. We installed QR codes on-ground in the banks which linked to registration forms for ‘The Living Portrait of NYC’ landing page. It was designed as people got their digital tickets, and showed up physically.
During the experience, people answered a set of questions, and these personal responses were used to close the loop at the end giving every New Yorker a unique self-portrait that commemorates their time in New York. This enabled Citizens Bank to amplify its reach with user-generated content (UGC) on social media, and turn exhibits into brand spokespeople.
What has been most surprising for me is how emotionally enticing and impactful ‘The Living Portrait of NYC’ experience is. Watching people choke up as they listen and experience the stories of people in New York and how deeply they resonate with them.
I am a big fan of connecting with humans. I believe when we talk about customer experience it is all about designing and being there for the human, whether that’s at work or on the daily.
Q6. What has been your digital marketing strategy to promote the experience?
Beth Johnson: We used a holistic strategy to promote the experience. We worked with influencers on social channels, as well as marketed offline in our branches, with a QR code that linked to a sign-up page. We tapped into digital connectedness to create a seamless registration experience on the site. The site was easily accessible and free for people to get their tickets for their respective time slots to join.
And when you are at the Living Portrait of NYC, it is a combination of digital and physical. You answer a couple of questions, you leave with a digital living portrait of yourself in New York, and then you see yourself on the screens and on the sites within the event, as well.
Q7. Can you share an overview of the content, brand messaging, and communication strategy used?
Beth Johnson: The key to having a really successful branding or communication strategy lies with staying true to our brand promises. This means we are going to support you whether you are a large corporation or an individual on your financial journey.
In today’s world when you complete running a marathon, you wait till you look good, and you snap a picture. And though it looks like you reached retirement, or nirvana, we know that the journey was hard. We see you, and we are focused on helping you on that journey.
We resonate with our clients and the good thing about Citizens is we are big enough to have the digital tools and invest in our data and analytics capabilities. We have our own digital design team and social media team that now allows us to be effective in those channels. But we are also community-based and small enough that we want to know the individual we want to know the neighborhoods we are in.
We saw a white space in the New York banking sector and knew this is where Citizens as a brand can differentiate by playing the middle ground. The catchphrase we see here is that Citizens is big enough to matter but small enough to care.
Contrary to popular belief that we only connect with older folks, Citizens resonates with people of all ages. Gen Z particularly resonates with that message, as well as large corporations. This has been a great spot for us.
Q8. How did you navigate legal, compliance, and industry regulations to build this experience?
Beth Johnson: As banking is a highly-regulated industry, it is incredibly important to satisfy regulatory requirements, and risk management is one of those critical skills. We think about our legal compliance and risk colleagues as partners, and treat this ‘as an along the journey’ partnership rather than an afterthought. Because if you think of it as an afterthought, you get to the end and then realize there is some ‘no’ looming. But if you start with legal and compliance as part of the team that’s developing, you create unbelievable experiences in a way that is thoughtful and satisfies all the regulations.
We use agile teams for marketing and have realized that partnering and working alongside these teams every step of the way gives us a second line of defense. This helps offer great personal brand experiences in a way that also protects the safety and soundness of the bank and complies with all the industry regulations.
Stay tuned for Part two where we revisit this conversation with a closer look at the marketing strategy outcomes.
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