Culture and Talent

From new car scents to splurge alerts: How Ally differentiates on experience

  • Ally Bank has gone for tangibility in its marketing -- a way customers can experience the brand without having to go to a branch.
  • One-off activations are a way to get people excited about a company's product offerings, but the challenge is to ensure they all align with a bigger purpose.
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From new car scents to splurge alerts: How Ally differentiates on experience

At the most recent Detroit Auto Show in January, one of the buzziest booths bottled up new car smells for car fanatics to sample. People could also create their favorite scents by combining smells, and 50 of them later had those bottled smells sent to them. The presenting brand: Ally, a digital bank.

The objective wasn’t to create a new Ally-branded fragrance line, but to give customers a memorable experience of the brand. It’s a way that Ally — which does a lot of auto financing — tries to makes its marketing as tangible as possible while remaining a digital bank without any brick-and-mortar branches.

Ally is grappling with a lack of a physical footprint by diving into marketing that emphasizes experiences tied to a physical location — whether it’s a memorable scent, a gift sent by a drone or a geofence-activated alert that tells a customer they’re near the store where they make the most purchases.

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“What we are trying to do is use the advantage that we have, which is that human-centric accessibility of Ally Bank and the fact that people are our key differentiators — even if we’re not brick and mortar doesn’t mean someone’s not there to help,” said CMO Andrea Riley. “This campaign brings to life that human-centered notion of what our brand is all about. It’s a fun and different way to talk about auto finance other than just going to an auto show and talking about same old boring stuff.”

In an age where the customer is increasingly inundated with marketing messages from different companies and pricing for services becomes increasingly commoditized, marketers are focusing on building positive memories that will resonate with the consumer.

“The memory of the experience is more important than the experience itself. Rather than focus relentlessly on creating big ‘moments of truth,’ experience designers should orchestrate all moments, big and small, to influence customers’ cumulative memory,” a recent paper from PwC noted.

To market itself as a bank that cares about its customers’ personal finances, Ally built a “splurge alert” app that used geofencing to warn customers they were entering a store or other location where they would be likely to spend a lot of money. As a mobile-first bank, Ally also sent phone chargers through drones to people in a Charlotte, North Carolina, mall earlier this month.

To one analyst, the experiential approach is a good customer acquisition play, since getting customers to change their bank isn’t often easy.

Ally must invest in marketing to keep pace with the competitive landscape of an industry where it can be difficult to get customers to switch brands, said Erin Keeley, CMO of Mono, an advertising agency that carries out experiential marketing campaigns for brands.

Others point to customer expectations being shaped by other industries, particularly the notion of the easy, tech-enabled yet still personal experience that companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Uber strive for.

“Brands in any regulated industry are having to figure out how to be more agile, especially in digital, in order to keep up with accelerated customer expectations,” said Jamie Scheu, svp of experience design at Hill Holliday, a marketing agency that works with financial services clients, including Bank of America. “At the end of day, consumers — especially on the younger side of the market — do make choices for experiences over features and are willing to pay a premium for it.”

Despite the allure of one-off differentiated experiences, one challenge that brands can face is linking each activation to a bigger story of how the customer interacts with the company.

“You want to build on that with a culture of implementation — how do we take these things and actually bring those to life in a way that the customer experiences them?” Scheu said.

One area where Riley said Ally is pushing the message is a social media component to the activations, which Riley said has resulted in high social sentiment. An analysis from social media data analysis company Brandwatch shows that from March to October, Ally’s social media sentiment was 72.8 percent positive — supporting Riley’s contention that the social sentiment is boosting its image. Ally was mentioned 26,000 times online during that period — a small conversation compared to the 836,000 mentions of JPMorgan Chase during the same period.

For Riley, the positive feedback shows that brick-and-mortar branches aren’t needed for a positive customer experience. “I can’t remember the last time I needed to go to a branch; if there’s something you can’t do with us digitally, you can pick up the phone and call us when you need to,” Riley said. “There’s very little need to have a physical presence.”

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