The USA’s biggest consumer lender just got its first big brand campaign in its 100+ year history - CMO Kim Wijkstrom talks us through it
Kim Wijkstrom believes in the power of brands. It’s perhaps unsurprising when you learn that one of the earliest clients he worked on in his advertising career was Apple. Kim was at TBWA at the time and Steve Jobs had just returned to business after his years in the wilderness – and Kim was evangelised. It’s an experience that stayed with him throughout his career in advertising and then when he jumped the fence to work as a marketer.
And the experience has proven particularly resonant for Kim in his latest project. Over the past two years, he’s been working as chief marketing officer for OneMain Financial, developing a brand platform for a company that has never had a brand campaign in its over-100 year history. For over a century word of mouth and direct marketing had been enough to propel the brand to its position as the biggest consumer lender in the US. Following a big merger and the recognition that an overarching brand strategy and campaign was needed to supercharge further growth, they brought Kim on board to dive deep into the company’s culture and heritage to divine and distil a platform for the brand.
Together with the team at FCB New York, they devised ‘Lending Done Human’ and they’ve just launched the first brand campaign, a surprisingly self-deprecating and down to earth piece of work. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Kim to find out more.
LBB> You were faced with creating a brand platform for a business that dates back to the early 20th century, a business with over 100 years of history and culture… where on earth do you start with that?
KW> It has been a challenge; it’s taken 18 months, almost two years to get it up and running. And I think probably implied in your questions – why did it take so long and how come now? This company has been around in various shapes and forms for over 100 years and the business has grown more or less organically through direct marketing basically. But two years ago, when they recruited me, they had their merger between a company called Spring Leaf and OneMain and it became the new OneMain. With that the company is now the largest consumer finance company in the US. To be perfectly honest there were two impetuses in it. The company was looking to unify its culture, it being a merger. Turns out the cultures of the two companies weren’t that different and it wasn’t that difficult, but there were some bridges that needed to be built. And the other piece of it is when you are the largest consumer finance company in the US – direct marketing is going to have its limits in terms of how much growth it can provide you. From a business perspective, it needed the turbo charge that an umbrella brand campaign can provide. It’s amazing it got as far as it did with direct marketing alone.
LBB> It’s an interesting move given what’s happening in the wider advertising marketing environment. There are so many brands moving towards direct and getting excited about all that’s possible with data while perhaps overlooking or dismissing brand building campaigns. Whereas you’re at a business that’s done the opposite – it’s done really well with direct but has realised that the brand stuff is really important.
KW> You’re stepping right into a thing a love to talk about! I’m a brand guy, my background has been working on companies like Apple and Absolut Vodka and Volkswagen, so I thoroughly believe in brand. When I was lucky enough to work on Apple, it happened to be right when Steve Jobs came back to relaunch Apple and establish a new strategy. I came into marketing straight out of business school and I was evangelised by that experience in that I believe in brand. I believe in having a fundamental strategy and brand delivering on that strategy. Data and insights can be leveraged to sharpen that strategy. Direct can be used in a tactical way out of that brand strategy. But brand is what holds it all together. Without a brand it’s like building a house without the mortar. It just doesn’t hold together really.
LBB> So when you’re coming up with a brand strategy or idea for a business with such a long heritage and which occupies such a massive place in its sector, where do you start? I assume it would be quite overwhelming!
KW> It was and part of it was looking at the landscape and category and what everyone else was doing and then, more importantly, finding something that is unique to your company, your brand, ownable for it and distinctive for it. Whether it’s in its culture or business model, its approach to customers. It took a long while because a lot of it had to do with exploring the internal culture and also the consumer journey that leads someone to one of our branches. And understanding the emotional path and, as much as anything else, the consumer goes through to get to a lone.
Factoring all that in, what we learned from ethnographic research, brand tracking studies, internal surveys and so forth that we had a strong culture in believing that we are here to help people. And we also learned that we have a strong sense of community and engagement in our local community. We have over 1600 branch offices in 44 states, so we’re within 45 miles of almost 90% of the population – we really are in the community. I felt like the internal culture matched nicely with what, it turned out, customers wanted. What they were saying was that the process of looking for a loan was a very scary, anxiety-ridden experience and they want to know that they can turn to someone that they trust. They want to know that someone will listen to them and hear them and help them. People are fearful and insecure about the lending process. That’s what eventually led us to speak to one of our biggest differentiators – we have people in branch that you can come talk to who will treat you with respect. That turned into ‘Lending Done Human’.
LBB> At what point did FCB get involved?
KW> Very early on. When I was first hired, I knew the former chief strategy officer there, Deb Freeman, and also Ari Halper the CCO, and I knew they had recently moved from Grey to FCB and I was curious about that because I had a lot of respect for them. I had had conversations with them previously but we had never ended up working together in my previous job… but I liked their creative and their thinking. I reached out to Deb and we started talking. We got very involved in this discovery phase and trying to understand the consumer and what was unique about OneMain Financial and then one thing led to another. It led a relationship and we developed a brand platform together and a campaign platform together.
LBB> One thing about the ads is that, no only have you got very human characters behind the desk, there’s a self-deprecation to the spot and the characters. It’s quite relatable but not the normal tack for a brand to take. Why was that important?
KW> Well, because I think that consumers, as we all know, are inured to boasts and self-aggrandisement, right? When a commercial comes at you, you’re already trying to filter it out in some shape or form. We’ve all heard the conversation, any messaging needs to be something that consumers would actually like to consume. I think the medicine goes down a whole lot easier with a little bit of sugar, by which I mean humour. And I also think that the self-deprecation is appropriate because it would ring false and be untrue if we were to claim that we were superhuman, obviously. To leaven it with a little self-deprecation shows that we are super because we are human.
I also think, on top of that, when you look at the current environment, the polarisation we see out there, the nasty language that exists, I guess the unpleasantness we see out there, I guess it’s part of the zeitgeist right now. To me, we desperately need a little bit more of a reminder to be more human, to treat each other with civility and courtesy and those kinds of things. It’s kind of an opportune moment to speak to that.
LBB> I guess it’s also that idea of authenticity and trustworthiness. When you’ve got phenomena like fake news, it’s interesting to lean the other way and say ‘we’re not going to make any crazy claims’.
KW> I agree with that very much. I think a lot of our competitors are very aggressive. It seemed like an opportunity to be distinctive in not being aggressive. And also, you have to realise we don’t give every customer a loan. We can’t give every customer a loan, so to be aggressive about lending feels, to me, very inappropriate if you’re not able to deliver on giving everyone money. We’ll certainly try, we’ll try to find the right loan for you but more importantly we’ll take a listen and see what we can do.
LBB> The campaign is quite newly out there, but you mentioned at the beginning that one of the aims was to bring those two teams together internally. What have the people on the inside felt?
KW> That has been incredibly rewarding. When you roll out a brand campaign, your internal audience is one of your first audiences. It was to ring true and be exciting and motivating for them. And, like I said, it needed to serve a cultural function of making us all one. The cultural values were actually quite similar but distilling them down to ‘Lending Done Human’ has been a very rewarding experience for me. I see a lot of excitement internally and a lot of energy having this rallying cry be articulated for our company, our culture and our values. It’s exciting to see and has taken on a life beyond the campaign.
LBB> And as a platform, you can see that it has legs to go in a number of directions. What’s next?
KW> It’s going to be very exciting. The birthing process has taken a while but now that the baby is out, we’re starting to think, ok where do we go from here? It’s going to be very exciting to see how we grow this child.