Author Archive

Financial services marketing: expanding your customer base in uncertain times

December 2, 2015

Certainly the financial world is keeping one eye on interest rates, but regional financial institutions are more focused on keeping their customer base strong amid tight local competition. Diversified revenue streams help to protect them from over-dependence on interest income, and they must stay nimble enough to compete on a number of different fronts.

Deciding which front to watch most closely is a tough call, with a constant churn of external factors keeping the marketplace waters muddy. Some timely questions may help determine where the best routes lie:

  • Will the emphasis on fee income shift when rates increase, with some customers re-evaluating their balance of dividend-yielding stocks and insured deposits?

Just as the balance sheet benefits from a diversified approach, so too does marketing. The right mix of messages emphasizing local service and a long term view of customers’ financial stability can set a foundation that allows banks to pivot with the landscape. By leading with a value proposition focused more on partnering with account holders than pushing them product, banks can build a layer of trust that will allow them to engage customers throughout their lifecycle.

In an ideal world, that mindset translates into making direct connections with customers. Tactics like social media engagement, highly targeted digital campaigns, direct marketing, and public relations should not be planned in isolation. When financial companies coordinate these elements around a consistent message and thoughtful rollout, they are much more likely to make an impact on the market that will outlast sudden shifts in sentiment. Simply put, a well-rounded approach brings deeper, broader relationships.

Financial institutions have no shortage of challenges to choose from. Whether seeking opportunities to expand geographically, reaching out to a different customer segment, or reacting to a competitor’s new local branch, business and marketing strategies must be fluid and multifaceted. Those companies that embrace a flexible message that transcends any given moment will find their customer base is more likely to grow with them.


Twitter’s CFO to marketers: I can do that!

May 7, 2015

Newsflash: finance and marketing do not always get along.  Some may even say the disciplines share a unique symbiotic rivalry; they support one another, yet constantly battle over how to define the value of marketing.

Twitter — itself a literal symbol of marketing in the digital era — found a novel way to end that discussion by allowing its CFO to take over the marketing discipline.  The move to appoint Anthony Noto came after months of failed attempts at finding the right CMO  for the company.  So, in a nutshell, it’s just marketing!  Give it to finance!  Even though (or perhaps because) we’re losing money!


Stranger things have worked, and maybe this will end up being more about “taking control of marketing spend.”  Or maybe the surprise ending is that Noto is the rare investment banker-turned-CFO who has keen marketing insight coursing through his veins.  But for the time being, this is playing out at the pinnacle of irony, as we see a flood of media coverage about how the floundering financial officer thinks he can do this marketing thing better.

It’s not going to get less weird anytime soon.  The Verge notes that “Noto’s first task may be figuring out how to market himself a little better at the office. [A] source told The Verge, “Twitter employees [are] asking why Noto gets $70 million, but the company can’t afford to give raises, or bring salaries closer to market rates.” Although engineers make around market rate, the source said, non-technical employees do not.”

This saga has everything the modern system is geared to despise – and everything that Twitter is famous for blasting out over the cyberwhatever.  Bloated executive pay, nosediving stock, executive hubris, belittled worker bees…

What’s missing (for starters)?  A good strategy.  A strong message. A vision. Really, anything that investors or advocates can get behind.

While that may come soon, it’s already too late to leverage the first wave of media exposure following the announcement.  I bet a sharp marketing guy could have handled that.  Ahem.

Finally, in honor of Noto’s presumably irrepressible spirit and ambition:

Perfect PR? A standing O and slow clap for CVS Health

September 4, 2014

We love to talk about public relations and branding missteps. What’s more fun than shuddering at Market Basket’s month-long debacle, or how the media wages war on itself over racial issues?

Thoughtful, well-executed PR isn’t as sensational, but it sure does paint a prettier picture. And CVS just dropped the mic with its name change to CVS Health.

I know, I know – Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper aren’t exactly fighting over who’ll play the lead role in the explosive blockbuster detailing the subtle CVS rebrand. To watch the ginormous brand successfully shift its model without stepping on a single PR eggshell, however, brings a tear to the eye.

The real PR execution came to light months ago, when the Company announced it would stop selling tobacco. The move was reflective of a gradual shift away from the convenience store model and closer to preventive health. As EZG client Reynders, McVeigh pointed out in this Barron’s article, CVS is “in a prime position to benefit from the ongoing revolution in American healthcare.”

The Company is aiming to become the leader in consumer-facing preventive healthcare, which is a far cry from the foundational goals inherent in the name (Consumer Value Stores).  Such a wholesale shift could have inspired a public relations backlash from both media and the Street – unless it was handled with:

  1. incredible foresight,
  2. careful alignment with corporate goals,
  3. buy-in at every level of the organization,
  4. patience, and
  5. a message that featured restraint and sensitivity to an enormous global audience.

It seems that CVS was equal to the task.  The Company went loud with its plans early in 2014 with the tobacco draw down. It was the perfect segue into the big picture, as CEO Larry Merlo noted in The New York Times that “we have about 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners helping patients manage chronic problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease, all of which are linked to smoking…We came to the decision that cigarettes and providing health care just don’t go together in the same setting.”

Did you hear that in the back, there?  It’s not about cigarettes, people.  It’s about HELPING PATIENTS MANAGE CHRONIC PROBLEMS.

Fast forward to September 2014. After absorbing the reaction to its tobacco move, CVS announced  simultaneously that it would accelerate the removal of tobacco from its stores and change its name to CVS Health.

There are a dozen ways these steps could have been mismanaged. CVS could have make smoking the issue, creating an air of judgment and a forum for debate – instead it made it clear that tobacco simply conflicted with its focus on health. Executives could have led with the name change, then eliminated tobacco – instead it made a powerful connection with consumers before changing the brand.

The way it was played out, this brand and strategy shift couldn’t seem more natural. That’s just great branding, PR, and corporate strategy working together. Well played.

As the late, great, George Peppard would say (yes, fully recognize the irony of George’s trademark cigar here):

Thought leadership and paid placement? Meh.

March 11, 2014

Professional services marketing is a strange animal.  It’s one of the few disciplines that calls for a constantly evolving understanding of client subject matter: you don’t just get to know a client’s brand, you get to know the issues that drive their success.  Investment firms don’t grow long term because they have a cool logo or run a Superbowl ad; they grow because their clients trust them.  Law firms, CPA firms, consulting firms all share that common thread.  They sell because they’re smart (and some of them are even wicked smaht).

That opens the door to a few of my favorite things…to be good at what we do, we need to study the areas in which our clients play (academic), we need to identify trends (marketing savvy), and we need to be able to articulate the connection between those themes and their brand (storytelling).

Academics+marketing+storytelling=fun.  Oh yes.  You want me at your party on Saturday night, believe me.

I’m taken aback this year, though, seeing an aggressive mash-up of this thought leadership approach and paid placement, which undermines the credibility of clients and the media in one fell swoop.  Paid content has always been a part of the game, but in 2014 it has exploded to new levels of visibility.  The media’s need for content and revenue is outweighing its need to publish objective insight, while providers are pouncing on an opportunity that will eventually erode faith in the depth of their knowledge.

The WSJ has entire online sections with content sponsored and provided by Deloitte (CIO and CFO Journals).  Forbes calls their paid content “BrandVoice,” and the New York Times is following suit with a native advertising platform.

I dig into this a bit in PRNews’ PR Insider (Hey Pay-Play, Get Off My Lawn), and will echo the sentiment here: this is not good.  Brand journalism has a place and can be extremely successful, but intelligent buyers of professional services will quickly grow skeptical of the information they find in these sections.  If it’s paid placement, how accurate is it?  Where is the third party credibility?

I unfortunately predict great traction for the paid content trend in 2014.  But then it will crash, shifting back to true thought leadership.  And I’m wicked smaht, so place your bets now…

Which brands won at the Oscars?

March 7, 2014

Sure, everyone loves a good awards show.  Glitter, glamour, gowns, and stumbling celebrities make for great theater.  And while the nation (world?) tuned in, there were a few brands that deserve special recognition for making of the most of their exposure:

  1. Best Intentional Product Placement: Samsung
    Samsung takes home the prize for what’s been dubbed “the selfie seen around the world.”  Host Ellen DeGeneres set social media on fire when she whipped out a white Samsung Galaxy, grabbed some pals, and took a selfie with Hollywood’s hottest stars.

    What a spontaneous coup for Samsung, right?  But the plot twist is a familiar one: Samsung paid big sponsorship dollars for product placement through the evening, and the selfie was a smoothly executed part of the plan.  Yes, we’ve seen that one before, but high marks for execution and follow through.  Bravo.

  2. Best Surprise Product Placement: Big Mamas & Papas Pizzeria

    Big Mamas & Papas Pizzeria scored an unexpected on-air win when Ellen called on them for a celebrity delivery.  They knew they’d be tapped for backstage hunger pangs, but didn’t realize their pizza would be shared with the A list.  According to NBC Los Angeles, “The restaurant didn’t spend a dime on the stunt and received advertising for free, all thanks to DeGeneres’ desire to feed her celebrity family.”

    The store is now trying to capitalize on their Oscar appearance by selling their apparel right on the homepage.  Can they roll the momentum into a sequel?

  3. Best Unintentional Product Placement: Coca Cola
    Coke doesn’t necessarily deserve free advertising, but they got it when their logo appeared on those surprise pizza boxes.  See?  Stay loyal to Main Street and reap the benefits.

    Having the brand splashed on camera (and all over social media) was made sweeter by the fact that Coke yielded its traditional Oscar sponsorship to Pepsi this year.

  4. Most consistent brand to take 2nd place: Pepsi
    Ah, Pepsi.  Will you ever win?  Or are you destined to spend blockbuster dollars, only to yield the spotlight.  Perhaps Leo should take over as official Pepsi spokesperson.  Yeah, I went there.

Stay classy, Hollywood…until next year!

Ebben Zall Group’s 2014 Marketing Predictions

January 15, 2014

crystal ball2013 was a year with changes that rocked the world of marketing (figuratively and literally, thank you Miley Cyrus and Buzzfeed). From Google’s hummingbird algorithm to Instagram offering advertisements to Twitter going public, media shifted and evolved at an accelerated rate.

At EZG we try to stay nimble and ahead of the curve when it comes to trends and industry milestones, and over the past month or so we’ve focused on setting goals for ourselves and our clients.

Out of that effort, the team raised a few marketing predictions for 2014.  We know 2013 took marketers on a wild ride, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for the year ahead!

EZG’s 2014 Marketing Predictions:

  • The value of content will become increasingly clear – and the role of paid media increasingly blurry.  On the social media front, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others will continue to move towards showcasing certain content and sharing user information in an effort to monetize.  Meanwhile, industry news and opinion websites will try to differentiate and draw traffic by competing for viewpoints from thought leaders who have significant networks through which they can share.
  • Ad spend will increase significantly across the world in 2014 from this past year due to public events set up to receive global attention. With the Winter Olympics in Russia, the World Cup in Brazil, and the mid-term elections in the U.S., there are multiple platforms with extremely high viewership that are great opportunities for advertisers to brand their clients’ brands.
  • Short videos will continue to grow in popularity. Whether they are used to show a clients’ expertise, for pitching purposes, or for fun mash-ups that display a firm’s personal side, videos will be included in more campaigns in 2014.
  • Advertisements and social media posts that gain popularity will become more image focused. It’s important that ads are visually digested and that text is kept to a minimum.
  • Interactive advertisements will gain popularity in 2014, and they will need to be more creative than ever. Whether it’s a crawler across your screen or a game that must be played before it will disappear, ads will increasingly become interactive and engaging across multiple platforms.
  • Content strategy is king: With the amount of content floating around the internet and on social media platforms, marketers must (as always) be strategic with their publishing initiatives.  Content publishers, content context and content timeliness will be absolutely vital for the success of brands in 2014 — more so than ever before.

Is online marketing the new

December 11, 2013

Here’s a question: is online marketing the new  (Hint: the answer is “yes.”)

I don’t pretend to be an economist, but bear with me here.  When Facebook went public in 2012, there was no real revenue model, no real plan, and the economy was stagnant.  The company targeted a $38 opening stock price, which it couldn’t legitimately garner.  Bankers scrambled to make it happen and the world cried foul.

Guess what?  Facebook is currently trading at $50.24, and everyone on the planet still uses it to post pictures of their children in snowsuits.  For now.

In 2013, Twitter headed for the public markets with lessons in hand from the Facebook “debacle” (I struggle to call what is now a $120B company a true misfire).  Smooth sailing, sneaking under the radar at a measly current market cap of around $28B and now trading at the same price as FB. would have us look at all the ways these IPOs were different.  But surprise!  They’re actually very much alike in the most important way: once again…no real revenue model, no real plan, no clear economic picture.  Just a giant, overly communicative audience at their fingertips.  In the end, the markets bought bandwidth, and little else.

Certainly there’s tremendous value there, as the world runs on connectivity.  There is no shortage of ways in which these platforms can evolve and serve as launchpads to great new ideas and products.  They factor into our daily marketing strategies and serve as a common touchpoint for audiences across every industry.  The question is whether the current iterations will  translate into long term viable business models, or go down in flames and give rise to a phoenix we haven’t yet imagined?

Here’s where I flashback to 2000, though, and this crazy thing called the Internet.  You’re launching a website, you say?  How will you make money?  What’s that,,, and  Oh, I see: “if you build it online, they will come.”

[Sound of U.S. economy collapsing]

The way we communicate globally is nothing short of miraculous, and creates an incredible new pair of pants into which marketing will grow.  In our glorious tradition, though, we’re assuming value before the fabric is fully cut; my hope for 2014 is that we can find the seams  before we get, well, too big for our britches.

Federal shutdown steals our sanity – and the news cycle

October 7, 2013

We can debate the federal shutdown and looming debt ceiling “talks” until pigs fly (or, just as likely, Congress becomes a functional unit again), but the fact is that both those issues are bringing the country to state of near-paralysis.  If you don’t love a culture of economic anxiety and infuriating, nonsensical political rhetoric, you’re in the wrong decade.

Tough talking politicians, hand-wringing citizens, and a fiscal anvil the size — and spirit – of Texas hanging over the country combine for a harrowing trifecta, but they also make for great theater.  Senators are lining up for the spotlight and economists and pundits will get their ample share.  The 24 hours news cycle is spinning on this axis, and not much else…nothing proves that better than the good old fashioned Shutdown Clock pictured above.

For public relations firms that have economists, politicians, and market timers trained and at the ready, there is opportunity to shine on the national stage.  For those representing other industries, let’s just say you may not be the top item of the editorial meeting at the Wall Street Journal this month.

With that in mind, here are a few items to consider during this laser focused news cycle:

  • If you have the insight, bust out the big guns.  Experts with valid viewpoints to contribute should be on their game.  In this environment, however, competition is fierce so bring the magic.  Build a package of expertise that relates to the issue at hand, and know that there are hundreds of other experts that likely have the same idea.
  • Take two, think it through.  Even if outstanding experts have something to say about the shutdown and its impact, will it advance your strategic goals?  Face time is nice, but again, it’s a crowded space and it will be difficult to stand out (we’ve seen 9 experts in one segment on CNBC…good luck naming any one of them).  Decide if this situation is a realistic platform for the right message to be conveyed; if not, don’t hesitate to sit this round out.
  • Embrace the silence.  Like in a car ride with an old friend, sometimes a little quiet does more good than you think.  Don’t try to shoehorn your expertise into a conversation that isn’t a fit – the result will be awkward and could have a lasting impression.
  • Look to year-end.   This too shall pass.  When it does, you’ve either a) spent your energy trying to force your way into the dialogue, b) you’ve  gone on vacation, or c) you’ve focused on preparing a more strategically sound avenue.  While Costa Rica does sound nice right about now, we vote for c).  As we near year-end, this political situation will be resolved.  Consider the messages most important for the turn of the year and craft campaigns that will be effective in the post-crisis news cycle.

That last point is critical – don’t get sucked into the single-minded vortex of the current media agenda.  As the conversation fades, the impact of this debacle will still be playing out.  Companies that can keep their house and their brand in order should be prepared to bring the right message to market and start the next cycle from a position of strength.

Boosting brand with video production

August 15, 2013

Public relations – and marketing in general — never seemed boring to me.  Even in the early days when I was faxing letters to the New York Times (yes, faxing), the ability to convey a story through channels that reached such a wide range of audiences was a fascinating exercise.

Today, the core of that buzz is the same.  It’s about the story.  And yet the channels available to us have expanded tenfold (stay tuned for more on this from EZG TV).

Video production is a great example that we’re seeing more of every week.  A medium that used to be reserved for big budget clients looking to mass-market has now become a tool we can use on a variety of levels.  I dug into this a little in PRNews, examining when it’s appropriate to use film clips in-house and when it makes sense to seek out a production house.

That’s a valid discussion, as we use deploy video for quick Facebook clips, YouTube channels, multimedia press kits, corporate branding exercises, and of course B-roll and commercials for more traditional broadcast placement.  We have longstanding relationships with production professionals who can do a far better job than we can of creating sophisticated, crisp content that will play well with more discerning audiences.  Those studios are expensive, but they play a key role in maintaining client brands in some circumstances.

Hemenway & Barnes, investigated these options earlier this year.  H&B is the oldest law firm in Boston (celebrating its 150th year in 2013), an EZG client, and was looking for a way to convey its traditional values through a modern vehicle.  When it came to developing a video overview of the firm’s history, a high end production house – in this case, Moody Street Pictures – was absolutely appropriate for the job.  Our internal team could certainly have filmed interviews and spliced together clips that conveyed H&B’s character, but to capture a culture that has persevered for centuries it was more powerful to invest in a higher end product.

The resulting video series has generated outstanding awareness of the firm and stayed true to its traditional values.  For H&B, it speaks well to the firm’s client base and influencers; for EZG, it becomes another effective storytelling device as we interact with the media.  A lower-budget effort would have cheapened the look and feel, and in this case the brand itself.

We know more video is on the horizon, and likely more innovative channels through which to distribute it.  PR continues to bring the ultimate media mix to the table, keeping us engaged at every corner.

Hedge and PE fund marketing unchained?

March 26, 2013

Financial services marketing breaks free. Yes, it looks just like this.

Let’s talk “new territory.”  For all the ambiguity and trepidation around financial services marketing, players in regulated industries are finally getting a handle on which communications tools can be most effective.  But wait – just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, we’re now looking down the tunnel at the oncoming train of loosened restrictions for hedge and private equity funds.

These high powered entities have always been limited in their capacity to market themselves, but the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act) will change all that.  After a frustrating waiting period, the Act is on the short list of approvals for new SEC chief Mary Jo White, who plans to make the JOBS Act one of her early priorities as she takes the helm.

When the ball starts rolling, hedge funds and private equity leaders will be able to market directly to their pool of investors.  For many, that means institutional investors, but some firms are getting the jump on things by lowering their barrier to entry so that individual accredited investors can get on board.  Carlyle Group is leading the pack, dropping the minimum investment to $50,000 for some funds, while Blackstone and KKR are taking similar measures.

Douglas MacLean, an EZG friend and colleague with Armor Compliance, has been watching the trend materialize and believes that the new law could mark a turning point for smaller firms, as well.  He points out that the current rules and regulations governing hedge and private equity funds are subject to interpretation; smaller funds that were constricted in their marketing efforts for compliance reasons have been competing at a disadvantage.  The JOBS Act will create a level playing field, and private funds that want to advertise will know the rules of the road.

We see two clear implications for two different audiences:

  1. Hedge funds and private equity firms that are smart and swift in getting their message out will win.  Regardless of how long they may have been in business, the JOBS Act creates a new first-to-market game that will allow some leapfrogging in the marketplace.  I’m not proposing we’ve reached a “go loud or go home” inflection point, but firms that stay behind the curtain are likely to lose market- and mind-share in the coming years.
  2. Financial advisors are going to be faced with more noise, more questions from clients, and more decisions to make. As marketing messages start to reach individual investors, their financial representatives will need to be educated on which funds are the right fit and which may distract clients from their investment goals.

Whichever side of the equation you’re on, this will be a fascinating marketing adjustment for financial services.  The trick will be getting in front of the message while keeping transparency top of mind for the sake of investors.  The game is afoot!

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