We’re digging deeper here, talking to some of the top finance and fintech marketers about the challenges and opportunities in growing their businesses. It’s not often that a marketer gets a chance to create a new brand, but that’s exactly what happened to Laurel Road’s CMO, Alyssa Schaefer. Fresh out of Amex, she was tasked in helping a community bank build a national online lending business and brand.
Laurel Road is an interesting hybrid model. Its roots are in community banking in Connecticut but has evolved into providing student loan refinancing, mortgages, and personal loans to customers on a national basis. She joins us to discuss how she approached the new brand creation process, what channels she’s using to help grow Laurel Road, and her transition from big finance to fintech.
The following excerpts were edited for clarity.
How has the transition from Amex to fintech gone for you?
You’re right — I spent almost my whole career up to this point marketing under the Amex brand. I spent about 13 years on the card side in all kinds of different business units: from consumer to Open/small business to the corporate side. It was a very interesting experience because I really got the marketing discipline from American Express. I did everything from direct mail to partnerships, strategy, digital — all kinds of things. For the last three years, I was at Global Business Travel, an Amex spinoff of one of their largest business units, owned jointly by a private equity group.
When I came to Laurel Road, I thought it would be a great opportunity to leverage all my marketing experience, but also to build a different type of business and brand, given all the work I’d done at American Express under an established brand. That was one of the biggest differences and things that attracted me to Laurel Road. When you’re marketing under an established brand, that’s great because you have so much credibility and history to leverage. American Express has a wonderful brand. I really felt like it was time to break away from that brand and create something new.
One of my first challenges when I joined Laurel Road was to rebrand the business. Some of the work was already underway, but I executed the switchover from Darien Rowayton Bank to Laurel Road. So, really, this brand is about a year and a half old. That’s been one of the biggest changes for me — building something new when it comes to brand and brand meaning.
The other thing I had to deal with was that this is a very dynamic, fast paced environment. Even in the year and a half I’ve been here, the student loan financing and refinancing business has changed dramatically.
Take us through the early brand work.
We started originating student loan refinancing in 2013. It was a little early or around the same time others also got started in the space. There were only a couple other players back then. Our heritage and our start was under theDarien Rowayton Bank brand, a small community bank in Connecticut.
I get asked about why we rebranded from DRB to Laurel Road. We have this national online lending platform that grew very quickly. Within the first year, we reached $1 billion in student loan refinancing. We grew so quickly that many of the people who were here at the time didn’t expect such phenomenal growth. I make the joke that when I first got here (not being from the Northeast), I couldn’t even say Darien or Rowayton properly. If I couldn’t pronounce those names or locate where those places were, how could our customers in California or Texas really identify with the brand?
We had the foresight to rebrand and we chose something that had to do with the journey of life. Our customers are usually in their early 30s, young in their careers, with a lot of runway when it comes to building a life and reaching financial milestones. We want to be that financial partner throughout that journey.
Laurel Road was the name chosen and it was a really interesting process to launch the name and come up with the brand pillars. We had a style guide and brand guidelines that we further built out with a creative team I hired. Our customers identify with the name. The brand works well because we like to have fun and do funny things on social media. But it’s not overly friendly. As a regulated bank, we want to have a sense of humor and be relevant, but at the end of the day, money is a serious topic, as is student loan debt. It’s not going away. There’s a level of severity to it.
How do you bring new customers in?
When we think about what we do from an acquisition standpoint, I’m a firm believer that you have to have a very diversified channel mix. We do direct marketing, digital, partnerships, events, refer a friend, referral programs — we really have a healthy mix of customers acquisition channels. We don’t have too much dependence on a single channel.
I think you’ll miss a lot of opportunities if you 100 percent focus on digital. Direct mail, for example, is an expensive channel, but it’s pre-screened. So, you can really target by credit history. You can’t really do that on social media. We were set to run a campaign recently with a large social media player but it didn’t go through because of targeting issues. Digital is really lagging when it comes to pre-screened and pre-qualified offers because it’s harder and harder to verify that it’s exact person you’re trying to reach. It’s pretty easy in direct mail given address history, credit history, and credit bureau data.
Partnerships have a role to play, too. When you think about professional associations and large employers, those are great pre-qualified channel — not from a credit standpoint but from an employment or a profession standpoint. Our partners are great in co-marketing with us.