FITTING IN WITH THE FINTECHS: HOW A CLASSIC BANK BRAND KEEPS PACE TO REMAIN RELEVANT

Jan 28, 2020

Uwe Hellmann

 

Uwe Hellmann is the head of brand management at Commerzbank. He sat with Leonard Sommer, a Berlin School alumnus of our Executive MBA and co-founder of SOMMER + SOMMER and martech consultancy, XQ Digital to discuss his ever-changing day to day responsibilities in managing such a classic yet innovative bank brand. Uwe also tells all on what Commerzbank is doing to stay relevant — like moving fast and being agile —  in not only the traditional banking industry but also amongst its emerging competition within the fintech ecosystem.  

 

 

Tell us about your role at Commerzbank.

I'm head of brand management. This includes four main sectors. The first being brand strategy, which includes the brand positioning, brand promise, brand architecture and brand protection. Under Commerzbank, we have different sub-brands: comdirect, CommerzVentures, Commerz Real and MBank. Brand architecture answers the question on how all of these brands can coexist synergistically. And in doing business in over 90 countries across the globe, the ‘protection’ of the brand has to be actively managed.

The second area is corporate design. Here our focus is on our online branding and communications of our web portal and mobile app since online banking is where most people are banking these days.

Then, there’s corporate marketing where we produce all of our campaigns. This is also where we have the media buying for the entire Commerzbank group.

And finally, there’s our corporate sponsoring sector. For instance, this is where we plan and foster our sponsorships with our partners like the German Football Association and DOSB (German Olympic Sports Confederation), of whom we’ve had a 30-year strong relationship with.

 

That’s quite the day you’ve got cut out for yourself! There must be something new going on every day!

Most definitely! And we are actually quite a small team of 24 for all the tasks at hand. That’s basically six people covering each brand discipline. For a company of this size, it is not so many people, but we are all specialists and can handle it.

 

In your opinion what are the biggest challenges banks will be facing in the next two years?

Definitely the changing customer needs from traditional services into digital banking offers. This is the biggest challenge we have because it means two things. First off, we have to put all the necessary digital systems in place. And secondly, the brand, which is now 150 years old that comes with all the corporate design and communication, needs to continue to be received as the same state-of-the-art bank brand, but now ‘online’. This is because there are a number of new players in the market locally here in Germany as well as internationally. With this in perspective, we have to be very very fast. You say two years, but I can tell you we are planning things out through the next three to five years in order to stay ahead and continue to be that state-of-the-art brand.

 

Recently, Commerzbank claimed to be making the transformation in becoming a tech company. Why did you decide it was time to give the brand this transformation and move away from the traditional institute?

This has to do with the fact that changes in the banking industry are happening so rapidly. Because of this we only had two possibilities: to become extinct like the dinosaurs and disappear from the market or to work extremely fast. This is something I learned from my travels to Silicon Valley where most of the companies were thinking seven years ahead. So, if you want to compete with these fast acting companies, then we, too, have to be extremely fast. It is either be a dinosaur or work fast and make the right investments. We chose the latter.

 

How do you manage agility in the team to stay up with this fast-paced environment?

We cannot evolve with small steps, we have to always think big to move this classic brand into a modern brand. It takes making brave decisions. For instance, if you look at one of the last campaigns we did with the German Women’s FootballTeam, you’ll see a very big difference from anything we’ve ever done before. It shows the Commerzbank brand is offering a completely new experience. The second thing, in my role I have to ensure that all employees have the skills, like agility and more to handle this fast-changing digital-first environment we’re working in. For example, we created a 24-month-long educational program inhouse for the entire team to go through and improve their hard and soft skills. This helped us look at the challenges we were facing with a keener eye. I always ask what can we do to be even faster, to be even better? And this inhouse upskilling program was the answer. And this is why I know the campaign with the German Football team was so successful.

 

How did you bring and integrate this learning program to your external partners?

In general, we have many meetings where we bring all our partners, like our creative and media agencies, together along with my corporate brand team. At these meetings, we go through the plans for the next six to 12 months and how we want to tackle any issues in front of us. One of the toughest challenges is to bring all the teams across the globe together to have the same level of education and capabilities in order to really leverage the newest and most efficient tools out there. On one hand, it is to achieve our brand goals, and on the other hand, marketing budgets are tighter than ever before.

 

Traditionally banks are associated with buildings and long cues, so how are you competing with these fintechs or so-called ‘non-bank’ banks who are gaining market share?

Before the financial crisis in 2008 when traditional bank brands were highly respected, customers were asking themselves if they were good enough for the bank. Now this question has been turned on its head and they’re asking if the bank is good enough for them. Several classic bank brands have problems accepting this psychological shift in mindset and struggle to keep up. I only can say at Commerzbank in the brand department, we completely understand this shift and have changed our approach to be more customer-centric. The main question we are focused on answering is how to make our customers satisfied and attract new ones.

Also, I take all the fintechs very serious and it’s exactly why we have dramatically increased our speed and changed how we approach our customers in our communication and product offerings. For instance, N26 here in Germany has a very limited product offer, but does a really great job at marketing the brand, especially for the younger demographic. This is one of the brands I look to as one of the top three competitors in the German market.

 

What is Commezbank offering its customers in terms of digitization through its product, services and features. What could we expect for the future?

At the moment, for private customers we have our online banking and mobile app. We’re getting great feedback and this is something we work on to improve as fast as possible. Apple Pay we offer since December. This is one of the things, to be honest, we were a little bit late on, but it is now up for offer. On the corporate banking side, we are using blockchain technology to stay on top and ahead of the market. Corporate banking online is much more sophisticated than retail banking as we have to make sure all the payment systems worldwide are working seamlessly - it’s a bigger task we have to sort and solve. Many people don’t know this, but the majority of foreign trade payments are made via Commerzbank, so it’s another big challenge that we have to tackle.

 

Let’s talk a bit about change management. What are the internal challenges of injecting innovative thinking into a legacy business like Commerzbank? How do you create trust and innovation throughout the company, not only in the marketing department?

You’re right, it’s one thing to change the minds to increase the pace in my brand department. There it’s easy because we can see our campaigns driving results and we want to keep the momentum. The tough one is to get the entire organization to believe in innovation, learn it and use it.

One thing we are doing to drive innovation across the corporation is through internal restructuring. We are placing IT professionals in every single department. With this, project minded people are learning together alongside programmers and both have a shared goal: to drive product innovation.

 

For 2020, Commerzbank is claiming the title the ‘Bank of the Future.’ What are your predictions for success?

It’s the only way we can go. There’s no alternative to not be this ‘future bank.’ If you were to ask me where I would want the bank to be in three to five year’s time, it is to be one of the clever bank brands in the German market. This is my personal goal and I think we can achieve that.

 

In your opinion, what will be the role of banks in 2030?

Good question, I think there will be a number of banks, especially in the corporate sector that’s similar to what we see today. In retail banking, I can assume that we will see some dramatic changes - that different brands and retailers, like the Amazon’s of the world have interesting offers. For example, they would have their usual product offer and also a banking offer. It’s like we saw 15-18 years ago with the big car manufacturers when they started their own banks. They did this to make it easier to finance the cars. Surprisingly, though, they didn't go into the market as I had expected. So, I think a number of banks should also go and see how they can really solve problems that are closely connected to financial services and offer those services. We’ve also seen in the past that many insurance companies tried to offer financial service and it didn’t work out either. Interestingly, the other way around, companies like Apple are going into payment and it shows me that if a bank can offer the right products, then they have a good chance to exist in 2030 - unfortunately, not like the dinosaurs.

 

What the fewest of words, what is your advice to creative leaders in how to deal with the following challenges?

Complexity: Reduce it to the max.

Diversity: Great opportunity. Use it.

Empathy: It’s the foundation. Be empathetic.

Learning: Every day. From morning to night.

 

 


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