5 Questions with Citi US Consumer CMO Mary Hines

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During these uncertain times, Citi has played a central role in not just supporting their customers and employees, but society as well. Daniella Bianchi, Executive Director at Interbrand speaks with Mary Hines, Citi’s US Consumer Chief Marketing Officer, about how the brand has reimagined strategies and operations to maintain customer loyalty through the pandemic, the power of purpose driven marketing and their commitment to create positive social impact.

Communicating effectively is key during this unprecedented time. How has COVID impacted your marketing and communications strategy?

Ever since COVID-19 started impacting the United States in late February my team has rallied together to adjust our strategy. First, we wanted to ensure that all our communications were relevant and appropriate, so we made changes in terms of imagery. For example, we didn’t want to show people sharing sushi at a restaurant and offering three times points on dining so instead, we shifted to show people in the safety of their home watching online streaming services and offered double points for those types of purchases.

Second, we really wanted to make sure that our customers understood that Citi was by their side during this challenging time so we were one of the first banks to launch several financial assistance programs for our customers for everything from cards, retail bank and mortgage as many people were impacted by an unprecedented unemployment rate. And thirdly, since many people were under stay-at-home orders because of the pandemic we used this as an opportunity to educate our customers on digital and how we could serve them quickly and efficiently. We looked at our marketing strategy and ramped up the inclusion of videos and instructions about how customers could engage with us digitally.

We also addressed the desire of consumers to be part of the solution with COVID. I’ve never seen purpose driven marketing being so effective as I have during the pandemic, and one example is that we launched an offer to 1.7 million of our customers who had never engaged with us digitally. And we  donated $5 to World Central Kitchen for each primary account holder who registered for digital account access for the first time. The nonprofit organization is currently serving 250,000 meals a day across the U.S., and its COVID-19 relief response, #ChefsForAmerica, has provided nearly 7 million fresh meals. We were able to donate $1 million through this campaign to help get meals to those who need them most, while also helping the restaurant industry and small businesses keep their doors open.

The pandemic has also impacted loyalty and reward programs due to the unprecedented period of low travel and entertainment. How do you maintain customer loyalty during a pandemic?

Actively engaging our cardholders and clients to better understand their evolving needs and spending habits has been central for us. We can talk about our ThankYouRewards program for example, which allows cardmembers to redeem points for travel rewards, gift cards and more. During the pandemic we identified customer needs that the program wasn’t meeting yet. People are facing financial stress due to rising unemployment so we’re giving our customers a temporary option where they can use their points to pay the minimum due on their credit card. This has only been in the market for a few weeks and we’ve already had over 30,000 people using this feature.

We’ve also increased the number of charity redemption options that we have in the program adding charities like No Kid Hungry, UNICEF USA, and World Central Kitchen. A 234% YoY increase in charitable donations shows that our customers want to be part of the solution and help people during this difficult time. At Citi, we continue to look at spending patterns and consumer trends to identify what else we can do to help drive loyalty during this time. I believe that when you meet their needs and are by their side, you really garner that long-term loyalty.

How do you think brand building will permanently change because of the events of 2020? 

Customer centricity has never been more important and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and solidified the transition. For how brands approach customers, we’re meeting them where they are and prioritizing their needs, ensuring that we’re relevant in terms of the value of our products and services. But we’re also listening and responding to the broader environment from the pandemic’s impact on local communities to the response to the death of George Floyd. People want their brands to take action and make their voices heard on where they stand about critical issues.

What role is Citi playing in the social justice movement and how has the bank been using its voice to drive change?

This is a moment for action and we’re very committed to advance racial equality. In the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd we wanted to make sure that we were taking a stance, and many of our senior leaders voiced their opinion very quickly as well. Our CFO Mark Mason wrote a very powerful blog post expressing his experience as a black man in America and the impact that the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky had on him and his family. In addition to speaking out, Mark decided to make donations to three organizations fighting injustice and inequality. The Citi Foundation also contributed $10 million to organizations working to expand opportunity and address inequality. We’re also expanding our efforts by launching employment entrepreneurship programs for young men and women of color in the United States so we can invest more in businesses owned and led by black entrepreneurs.

With that said, philanthropy alone is not an answer and we’re committed to using an “all in” approach that requires us to think and speak differently. We are using our core business capabilities to address racial inequality and increase black representation at Citi. Within my own US consumer marketing team, we have a diversity and inclusion task force that is  having more dialogue and thinking about how we better recruit and retain talent as well as supporting those organizations in their communities that are actively addressing racial equality.

What are you most proud of when thinking of how Citi has supported its colleagues, clients and communities during this time?

From the beginning, the number one priority at Citi was to keep  employees safe and as soon as COVID-19 began to widespread across the United States, we transitioned  the vast majority of our employees to a work from home model.

For me, it was an easy transition but within our call centers it required more effort. We never thought that it was possible to have 100% of our call center representatives working from home and we did it in a really short period of time. We got these people home safely and then with our branch employees, we took  measures to help reduce the spread of COVID-19so not just our clients felt safe but most importantly our employees were protected.

Through it all, we have remained “open for business” during this pandemic. We are working differently but we’re still supporting people’s financial needs. And I can  tell you that I’ve never been prouder to work at Citi because of the response we made not just in protecting our clients and employees but also supporting the communities we serve.

The power of  communicating and standing by your customers during a challenging time is really unbelievable, and we’ve had an incredible response coming from our customers and partners about how Citi has responded to this pandemic. This has been a particular proud moment for me and my team.

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