As Global Head of Brand Activation and Strategic Projects at HSBC, Nicola spent over a decade leading high profile brand initiatives for the bank. We sat down with her to delve into her insights, experience and views on what’s next for financial services brands.
6 minute read.
What makes you get up and go in the morning?
Our dog Womble and a sunny day!
Who or what inspires you?
I’m always inspired by people who are brave and take a risk, such as someone starting a business. I’m also inspired by those who remain strong in the face of adversity, and those who don’t take themselves too seriously and are able to have fun along the way.
Why did you choose marketing as a career?
When I was about 18, I decided I wanted to get into advertising and chose a degree where I could get a CIM Diploma in addition to my degree. I was attracted to the dynamic, creative and strategic environment. It felt like a natural calling.
What brands do you admire and why?
I love Chanel. Coco Chanel was a pioneer of the fashion world. She recognised what it takes to be original and created an iconic brand that remains the epitome of classic elegance. She once said, “fashion fades, only style remains.” And the brand continues to delight with its fashion shows, packaging and customer experience. Its consistency, attention to detail and classic, timeless approach never fail to impress. Other brands I admire are IKEA (for its business concept and Wonderful Everyday campaigns) and BalanceMe (for its natural, planet-friendly ingredients and simple, brand-aligned packaging and marketing).
You had a long and very successful time at HSBC. What achievement(s) from that time are you most proud of and why?
The achievements that stand out the most are from the early ‘golden’ years when I was part of the team that launched ‘The World’s Local Bank’. It was an exciting time as HSBC cemented its place as a world leading financial brand. The ‘Eels TVC’ that we created is still referenced as a memorable ad over twenty years later.
Leading the strategic Global Airport Programme is another achievement I’m very proud of, including the associated brand activations and partnerships. One example was the award-winning ‘Living River’—an amazing 94-metre installation in Gatwick Airport’s Skybridge that used authentic sounds taken directly from 35 locations on China’s Yangtze River. The jet bridge campaigns were also unique and creative. All these activations demonstrated what you can achieve with great agency and colleague collaborations. The fact that I remain good friends with many of those I worked with is testament to the strength of the relationships we created.
What do you feel are the key challenges facing financial services marketers in the next 12 months?
I think the challenges will be similar to those of the last few years. Marketers will need to continue adapting to the ever-changing socio-economic and geo-political environment with an agile approach to planning. They’ll also need to keep an eye on competitors and challenger brands, as well as the shifting customer needs and behaviours created by the changing environment.
Budgets are likely to be under more scrutiny than usual too. Marketers will have to present a strong case for increasing or maintaining them—or find more creative ways to work with less. Working more collaboratively with internal creative teams and/or agency partners will help, as will being very clear on briefs and expectations.
Regulatory requirements will continue to impact how financial services businesses operate. So marketers will need to continue being the voice of the customer, ensuring that communication around requirements is clear, jargon free and, where applicable, elicits the right action from customers.
Google’s delayed move to phase out third-party cookies will force marketers to use alternative targeting methods. They’ll also need to find new ways to collect accurate, timely insights and measure ROI.
ESG will continue to be on many marketing, communications and business teams’ agendas. And the challenge will be whether they focus only on what’s required or take a more forward-looking approach that proactively works with other functions to bring about change.
Finally attracting, retaining and inspiring top talent will be a focus. In these challenging times, organisations need talented people working effectively together.
You’ve worked both agency and client-side during your career. In your view, what are the key differences between the two environments?
My agency experience was quite a while ago and, at the time, the agency environment was fun, dynamic and exciting. You got exposure to many client accounts and were in the centre of a creative melting pot. There was also less fragmentation of media channels and advertising was always front of peoples’ minds. It generated huge impact when done well.
Client roles and environments have in the past seemed slightly more stable than agencies. An agency could win or lose accounts, have budgets cut or plans withdrawn at any time. As a client you have more visibility of the strategic and commercial priorities. You also work across many teams and functions and get to see the ROI.
As turmoil and uncertainty continue for businesses, how can financial services marketers keep their brands relevant?
During the recent pandemic, brands that immersed themselves in the moment and that focussed on supporting people by bringing joy or comfort were the winners. And this relies on strong insight and understanding—on being ‘present’ and really listening to what customers and employees are saying. Also, when there’s so much change going on, it’s important to do this continuously, so that marketing activity is always informed by fresh insights.
In times of upheaval, the balance of long-term versus short-term perspectives is also something to be aware of. For example, investing in a strong, consistent brand presence, instead of cutting costs, can often pay off in the long run, even if it creates short-term budget pressures.
What do you think financial services brands should be doing to attract and engage with Millennial and Gen Z audiences?
As we all know, Millennials and Zoomers are also digital natives. Seamless, enjoyable and super useful digital experiences aren’t just appreciated—they’re expected. So, optimizing apps and other digital touchpoints is critical. And through these, brands can offer helpful interactive tools such as account comparison tables, savings calculators and so on.
Social media is key to engagement too. Many young people use social media as a source of financial information and advice. The ‘FinTok’ trend is a good example. But this also means they’re potentially getting exposed to misinformation and bad advice. So financial services brands need to make sure they’ve got an authentic voice in this space and help demystify financial topics such as investment products. It will also be interesting to see how financial service brands evolve on other social channels such as Twitter and China’s WeChat.
Lastly, financial services brands can engage with young people through their business purpose, community partnerships, ESG policies and the recruitment of young talent. Most young people value work-life balance, hybrid working arrangements, and strong DEI practices. They also want organizations to operate ethically and sustainably, and to communicate authentically and honestly. Examples of this kind of activity could be seen during the pandemic. Many brands kept rates low, offered small business loans and introduced mortgage holidays for those struggling to make regular payments.
You’ve mentioned previously that you’re known for making things happen and driving through change. Can you provide some tips on how you do this, particularly in a large, complex organization like HSBC?
It starts with being clear on the vision and objectives, being realistic about the task at hand and managing expectations. Strong working relationships with those who need to be involved (internally and externally) is crucial too. In a large, matrix organisation, it’s about knowing who needs to be involved from the outset, getting those individuals and teams together and getting them to ‘buy into’ their participation and responsibilities. Passion and regular communication help to maintain momentum. As does respecting peoples’ roles, workloads and time constraints—you have to be flexible when needed. Lastly, it’s important that everyone involved feels valued and that achievements are acknowledged throughout the process.
What advice would you give to younger marketers in the financial services sectors?
Stay passionate, bold, creative and never stop trying new ideas. Be open and responsive to learning from teams across the business. Network and build connections. Be the best client you can be. Befriend the CFO and COO teams—you need them on side!
Consultant, Financial Services & Luxury
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