“The fiercest competition for eyeballs that’s ever existed.” That’s how Justin Morcelle, chief marketing officer at KeyBank, described the current competitive landscape in financial services to Insider Intelligence while explaining why contemporary CMOs need to revisit their marketing strategies.

“Digital marketing is why being a marketer is so different today, and the pandemic accelerated that,” Morcelle observed. “A portion of the population that used to be nearly single-channel now isn’t anymore. You have to find folks where they are—which in a lot of cases differs from where they were a year ago.”

Morcelle identified the greatest challenge that marketing professionals face is how fast they can pivot their organizations toward being more digitally minded—and how to stop thinking of the data they’re gathering as an enabler or an afterthought. Marketers that aspire to become leaders should be thinking about “how you can bring data to bear on your marketing technology stack so it can help you become meaningful and relevant.”

“That’s a bigger conversation than which of the latest marketing tools from the latest providers you should buy to get results,” Morcelle said.

Morcelle is one of the executives Insider Intelligence recently spoke with to better understand how CMOs are redefining their roles as digital becomes the default banking channel for customers—and how they’re facing their biggest challenges, operational and consumer shifts, and opportunities.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Insider Intelligence (II): Could you talk about your professional background and path to becoming the CMO of KeyBank?

Justin Morcelle (JM): I’ve had a nontraditional career path. By my education and early job experience, I’m not a marketer. My degree’s in accountancy. After school, I went to PricewaterhouseCoopers, and then I kicked around the finance side at banks for about 10 years. I jumped from there to the product-management side, where I got some exposure to marketing. And the acquisition of First Niagara Bank brought me into KeyBank.

Coming in from the outside to lead a marketing team, I got a baptism by fire. There was an awful lot that I didn’t know and had to learn. But fortunately, if you put smart people around you who know what they’re doing and you get out of their way, everything will be fine.

II: Do you think that career path gave you an advantage?

JM: Yes—because where marketing was and where it’s going really differ. Knowing branding and the creative side is table stakes. Your understanding of digital technology, numbers and analytics, and your client experience orientation—those are now the defining characteristics of great marketers. That’s what I tell marketers aspiring to become CMOs.

II: How has marketing changed over the course of your career?

JM: In the past, you could get away with awareness as your primary KPI. If you produced television spots, put some surrounding media around them, and tended to the website, everybody would have considered that an acceptable performance.

But we’ve moved on from that. The level of accountability and expectations for marketing have intensified. People want to understand how you’re driving returns. Every dollar needs to be working hard toward advancing the long-term brand and short-term conversion. You have to ask: “What’s our investment in above-the-line media doing for us? How are we optimizing folks once they’re in our channels, and what are we doing from a modeling perspective? How are we integrating first- and third-party data?”

II: If you were to write a job description for yourself and your current role, what would you say are the top three to five components?

JM: Ultimately, you’re a storyteller, both internally and externally. Internally, storytelling helps you influence people and get their buy-in. I’m surprised by how much time I spend selling creative and influencing business partners. A marketer doesn’t own most of the value proposition, but you have to influence it so that it’s differentiated from your competitors’ and meaningful to your target audience. You have to help create a strategic vision for the organization and sell it.

Externally, your brand has to build a higher-level connection with consumers. People don’t really want to buy products per se. They want to buy into what you’re doing. You have to go to a more human place, connect to something deeper—some shared values or beliefs. That’s always going to be more powerful than just talking about product pricing, convenience, features, and benefits. The audience will just use those specifics to justify the decision they’ve already made—which is based on their feeling about who your brand is.

Some of the best work I’ve seen was the iPhone commercial that Apple shot using an iPhone. That stirred up a feeling of accessibility in the audience: “I have an iPhone. I could do this, too.” Think about how powerful that is. That gave people a different feeling and connection to the product and brand than if Apple had just rattled off something like, “My iPhone 10 has 12 megapixels.” Nobody’s inspired by a list of product features and benefits. They’re inspired by what they saw somebody capture with an iPhone.

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II: What marketing challenges did you face in this past year, and how have those affected your priorities?

JM: When the pandemic got going, things changed rapidly. Sheltering in place, the disruption of the economy, the acceleration of the social justice movement—those things all came together to create an environment we’d never seen before. There was no playbook for it. We marketers had to be sensitive to that: “What is the mood of the room?” Every single piece of content on our website, every social post, every video—the world we’d made those in didn’t exist anymore.

We pivoted over just a few weeks and produced new content. But stuff that felt really good in late April into May didn’t feel good anymore by the time June rolled into July. COVID fatigue was setting in. The mood of the room changed yet again.

We learned that you can’t be married to a traditional four- to five-month television cycle. You have to be aware of what’s happening in the marketplace; you have to be nimble and do things that are faster and lighter-weight if you have to.

We also needed a faster feedback loop. Marketers are always measuring the health of their brand, trying to figure out how customers and prospects perceive them. Most of that happens episodically—quarterly, twice a year, annually. When the environment is constantly changing, that doesn’t work. The question becomes: How do you shorten the cycle?

To my earlier comment about why being a marketer is so different today—it’s absolutely because of digital marketing. The pandemic accelerated that. For a while, we were closing down lobbies and physical locations. That forced early adopters of digital to say, “I’m going to take a second look at mobile checking, et cetera.”

Since then, transactions in the branches have been recovering. But a portion of the population that used to be nearly single channel isn’t anymore. You have to find folks where they are—which in a lot of cases differs from where they were a year ago. It’s the fiercest competition for eyeballs that’s ever existed, and you have to think differently about marketing strategies.

The challenge we’re all facing is how fast you can pivot your organization toward being more digitally minded and how you can bring data to bear on your marketing technology stack so it can help you become meaningful and relevant. That’s a bigger conversation than which marketing tools from the latest providers you should buy to get results.

Many people focus more on the platform and the technology and then think about the data as an enabler—or even as an afterthought. To help people put data into context, I use an analogy: Data is the superhighway, the platform is the car, and our teammates are the drivers. Having a car with no highway is useless. Having a really great runner sprint down the highway is useless. You need a complete infrastructure, including technology and people, to take advantage of investments in digital marketing and platforms.

II: Could you share how your team is organized and who you work with?

JM: I’ve got seven direct reports and overall about 100 people, plus some contractors and a handful of agency partners that we rely on for some specialty functions. One group is relatively unique to us—nonpromotional communications. That’s communications like statements, overdraft notices, systemic letters, like: “You’ve been approved for credit; you’ve been declined for credit.” Those used to be relegated to operational or product management functions. We took them on to make them client-centric and friendly, bringing them into our voice and eliminating as much legalese as we could.

My primary day-to-day contact is the head of the consumer business. That’s the biggest audience and offers the most opportunity, but it’s also the most competitive space. You need to play defense because an awful lot of people—not just traditional banks—are trying to carve up the consumer revenue stream.

II: What led Key to shift to focusing on audiences rather than channels?

JM: We used to be organized by channel focus: digital marketers, mass media, direct mail, etc. Now, we’re largely focused on audiences—the consumer audience, the private bank audience, the small-business audience versus large corporate audience.

If you just optimize siloed channels, you’re leaving most of your opportunity on the table. That’s not how clients interact with us. You have to think about how they all work together. There’s a clear client journey for getting to conversion and becoming a loyal client. They want to see a television commercial. They’re going to check you out on social; then, they’re off to shop your website. And the thing that’s going to convert then will be the direct mail piece that they get at the end.

II: Five years out, how would marketing success support the business goals at KeyBank?

JM: The thing that we’re chasing—and in this particular category, it’s a tricky one—is how you create real distinctiveness for your brand. If I had a magic wand, that’s the wish I’d grant. Less than a handful of folks in our category have a distinctive brand. By that I mean, when people hear their name, see their advertising, and interact with them, they have a different feeling about that organization compared with others.

My goal is for Key to belong to that very small group and to stand for something that’s very clear. We’re still early in that journey, but we’re making progress. Right now, we’re working with our executive leadership team to refresh our brand framework and strategy.

II: Would you be able to share any advice with your peers?

JM: Question your assumptions about your audience. As a marketer, it’s your job to be a little presumptuous. But you can’t presume that you truly can put yourself into the mind of your clients or that you know best when it comes to the exact words, tone, image, et cetera, that will speak to them. You have to be open to data and insight research, bring multiple viewpoints into the conversation, and be willing to test a lot of things to figure out what works.

We all have a lot of great ideas, and we all have been wrong more than once where we thought, “For sure, this message is going to win.” Then you A/B test, and it loses by a landslide. As a marketer, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of, “I’ve done this before successfully. I’m going to keep doing it.” It’s critical to challenge the status quo.