A CMO’s View: How To Build A New Brand
As a CMO in the midst of launching a new branch, Penny Holt of BorrowersFirst is intimately familiar with what it takes to build a brand from the ground up. “Branding is the single lens through which the entire company views the business and drives operations,” says Holt, “At BorrowersFirst, our name is literally our […]
As a CMO in the midst of launching a new branch, Penny Holt of BorrowersFirst is intimately familiar with what it takes to build a brand from the ground up.
“Branding is the single lens through which the entire company views the business and drives operations,” says Holt, “At BorrowersFirst, our name is literally our brand identity and our business strategy.”
After a year of forming its executive team and receiving funding in July 2013, BorrowersFirst is scheduled to take its lending product to market this fall. The company will offer personal loans ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 via its online lending platform.
It doesn’t take long into my conversation with Holt to hear her passion for branding.
“Our branding is our company culture. We are all driven by the same principle at BorrowersFirst — putting the borrower first,” says Holt.
Holt is not the only one who takes BorrowersFirst’s branding seriously; her company has formed a brand council made up of its executive team. The company’s CTO, head of finance, head of operations and general council are all involved with their organization’s branding efforts.
With just weeks to go before the official launch of BorrowersFirst, Holt offers her views on building a new brand, and the steps her company has taken to create what it hopes will be a winning brand strategy.
BorrowersFirst CMO Penny Holt Shares What It Takes to Build a New Brand
Amy Gesenhues: How would you define a great brand?
Penny Holt: Great brands are almost like love affairs. People literally will say, “I love…” whatever brand they prefer.
A great brand combines strong functional, emotional and psychosocial benefits and values. It doesn’t just serve the consumer, it represents them, makes them feel emotion, and contributes to their self image — how they and others see them.
As a marketer, I have always been preoccupied by brands, brand stories and experiences. In my view, after the brand is envisioned and born, everything else marketing does — the nuts and bolts — is about continually communicating the value of the brand and paying it off so that the consumer experiences exactly what is intended.
The connection to a brand should feel natural and organic — like a friend. Poor brands sell products promoted with contrived creative; good brands feel like friendship experiences.
Amy Gesenhues: I like how you said branding is the “single lens” through which your organization views its business and drives operations. Can you tell me more about this strategy and the steps BorrowersFirst has taken to build its brand?
Penny Holt: Our company is new, so we had the distinct advantage at the management level of agreeing that our brand identity would literally be our business strategy. We deliberately chose our name — BorrowersFirst – as a reminder to everyone everyday that we have a single focus: putting the borrower first.
That job is different for every function. Our risk team uses data and custom credit scoring to “see” prospective borrowers more clearly. We can see good borrowers who happen to have “bad’ credit scores. Where traditional lenders might screen them out, we can see them, screen them in and serve them.
Our tech and design team designed a secure, high-speed lending platform with an online credit application that is streamlined and playful to help limit the stress and tedium associated with filling out forms.
Our legal team worked very hard to limit the legalese and turn our legal disclosures into short, transparent plain language that borrowers can read and understand. Our customer service team is encouraged to be human and friendly and connect to callers and not work robotically from scripts.
Our content marketing team has launched www.MoneyStoop.com, a financial-education-meets pop-culture site where visitors can hang out and “get money” with engaging, helpful content.
We also look for small but innovative ways to connect with customers — small gifts, helpful communications, recognition of important events that create personalization. Those are just some of the ways. The ROI? Being the online lending platform that borrowers love most and tell their friends about.
We have created the value we believe borrowers want and we are communicating it though our brand. We know that connected consumers want access to fast, easy “Connected Credit.” They want to shop effortlessly from home for helpful credit products, just like they shop for other goods and services. They want to be treated well and respected. Once we fully acknowledged this, the brand flowed from that.
Amy Gesenhues: The relationship between your organization’s name and its branding strategy of putting borrowers first is evident — can you tell us more about the name and your logo.
Penny Holt: Our brand promise is to try to bring the golden rule to lending: to treat every borrower in every way as we would wish to be treated. This means that our approach to managing the business, if not the business itself, becomes easier. We ask — is this particular process or interaction borrower friendly? If it’s not, change it. If it is, optimize further.
To illustrate this on a branding level, we turned the “f” in our BorrowersFirst logo into a “bowing man” who bows in service to the borrower. He’s a playful element and may feature heavily in campaigns.
Of course, there are limits. We are a new company and we can’t optimize everything on day one. There will be times when an aspect of operations is not particularly borrower friendly, but that’s only because priorities and conditions dictate it for the time being.
It takes a lot of discipline to move forward with this kind of focus. And humility; it’s important not to be smug. We will certainly fail and disappoint customers, but the goal is to know what our brand stands for, and to persevere in paying it off the best we can with the resources we have.
Amy Gesenhues: How do you ensure your brand retains its strength internally and externally?
Penny Holt: You try to stay focused and diligent. Again, because out entire management teams have bought into the strategy, we counter every decision or choice with the question: “Is this borrowers firsty?”
It’s actually a great way to get people on the same page, speaking the same language and using the same currency. Different functions see the business differently, but our borrower’s first name and strategy makes us see our work through the same lens. It removes confusion, cross talk and static.
Of course, you have to get outside the building and make sure the strategy is working. If our target customers don’t have the experience of being treated well and put first, then we have failed, no matter how much we inside the building think we are making the right choices. You can implement with the best intention, only to find it was not received in the way you had hoped — didn’t have the desired effect.
It’s important to note that strong brands serve a dedicated following and are not necessarily loved by everyone. The point is to know your customer and deliver to that individual. I feel we have a pretty egalitarian brand that’s trying to bring a community spirit, a useful credit product, and respectful treatment to lending — not much to argue with there, but not everyone will love how we translate the spirit into actual experience.
Amy Gesenhues: Who within your company — but outside of marketing — is included regularly on branding initiatives?
Penny Holt: Our business is pretty much run by a cross-functional management team which are stakeholders in the brand.
The brand is not something artificially constructed by an agency that lives at the level of a campaign. It is something we all understand, are committed to, and invested in. It is our culture.
There is a fancy term in marketing — brand culturalization — embedding brand in operations so everyone lives it. It’s easier to set this up in the beginning, hire for it, and encourage its organic development than trying to retrofit it later. This means we all know when the brand is working and resonating. The whole team reviews creative, and everyone’s point of view is informed.
As we grow, that will change, but we will definitely have a cross-functional brand council to keep the brand evolving and on track.
Amy Gesenhues: How do you measure your brand’s value?
Penny Holt: Simple, are we creating experiences, large and small, that make the borrowers we aim to serve feel like we put them first.
People say that good brands represent exquisite attention to detail. You know when you see it — everything just comes together to create the right experience. Like anything superlative, it can look effortless, but is very difficult to achieve.
Amy Gesenhues: What are some of your favorite brands based on their branding initiatives?
Penny Holt: Of course I love Apple and am an avid Mac user. I love my Samsung smart phone. I have a Galaxy note so I can doodle and share creative on the fly. I love the Kindle store — every time I download a book to read on a flight, right before the plane takes off, I feel satisfied and served.
I also love Chipotle — fast, tasty, healthy food in recyclable bowls; serves my green and nutrition needs. I love Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses for solving how to look put together in life and business. I love Netflix — numerous media choices across devices.
My grown kids love Netflix and I connect with them through it. I love Google search for making it easier to find things out. I don’t consume luxury brands much – luxury cars sometimes because my husband is a car lover.
The brands I love bring me real value — tangible benefits, a rewarding experience, and sometime a sense of wonder and delight. Like Skype video chatting and playing Words with Friends with my sister who is 3,000 miles away in England. If only they had this when my parents were alive, I could have stayed more connected. It would have changed everything.
That’s what great brands do, they change things for the better — in small ways and big ways.