Insider Intelligence spoke with Carolyn Feinstein, Varo Bank’s chief marketing, growth, and design officer, to better understand how CMOs are redefining their roles as digital becomes the default banking channel for customers. She emphasized how fast it’s been changing, particularly during the pandemic.

“Everyone who works in this field has this low hum of anxiety that while they’re sleeping, a new social network was born and they don’t quite know about it yet.”

Below, we highlight excerpts from our conversation about how banking CMOs are facing their biggest challenges, operational and consumer shifts, and opportunities.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Insider Intelligence (II): If you were to write a job description for yourself, what would it include?

Carolyn Feinstein (CF): I think the CMO title is the most broadly defined of almost any in business. It means something very different in one company than it does in another. .

I’m responsible for:

  • Our marketing organization and all of the component pieces, from social to brand … to product marketing.
  • Our growth organization—growing our number of users. That’s everything from our acquisition and engagement marketing, to our growth experimentation, and our partnership with product and engineering around that work.
  • Our design organization, which ranges from design as it impacts building our customer experiences, brand design, and creating the messages and the stories that we tell externally.
  • And communications obviously fits in there, too.

… I see my job in many ways as a seamstress. Everybody’s doing brilliant work individually, and my goal is to ensure that it’s stitched together so that the sum is more than the parts.

II: How does the CMO role at neobanks differ from other industries?

CF: Several viable models are in play in Silicon Valley, and that’s what you’re probably seeing in the neobanks. I’d imagine that there’s not a fintech-specific organizational model right now.

What’s interesting about tech marketing—and I’ll put fintech in that bucket—is that, unlike many other businesses, these companies go through their life stages in 18-month, super-fast flywheels. The organizational construct and people that are ideal at one life stage might not be ideal at the next. It’s why you see people moving so rapidly through these companies compared with other industries.

II: What marketing challenges did you face last year, and how did those affect your priorities?

CF: Varo has a unique competitive advantage as an all-digital bank with a bank charter. That gives us the opportunity to acquire consumers both from traditional banks and from neobanks.

We’re a few years behind in aggressive brand-building and advertising. Like many companies at our life stage, we’ve concentrated our marketing investment at the bottom of the marketing funnel to tune and optimize our acquisition engine and engagement capability.

In January, we started to advertise and tell our brand story at the top of the marketing funnel. Our challenge is that we’re currently at a single digit on aided awareness. Over 90% of the people we want to talk to still don’t have a deep awareness and understanding of Varo. That’s also an opportunity, leaving us a lot of headroom for entering the cultural conversation.

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II: Over the next 12 months, what are your plans?

CF: We’re just putting our toe in the water. After we started our brand storytelling in seven test markets and got a sense of its impact, we expanded in April through national cable, connected TV, digital videos, some outdoor, some radio—but still comparatively lightweight in media.

We did some pre-studies before we kicked this off, and we’ll test midway through this year and again at the end to see how we’re doing. If we can statistically create a lift in awareness and understanding of who Varo is and how it can help, that would be great.

As we go, we look at some proxy metrics around search volume and web traffic, et cetera. We’re already seeing some positive directional signals at the bottom of the funnel. We will expand that storytelling in the back half of the year.

II: If you were to look ahead five years, how does marketing success support Varo’s business goals?

CF: …One of the smartest people I ever worked for,…told me, “Carolyn, just build it for the next nine months—no one’s smart enough to see further than that.”

… I’ve participated in writing a lot of mission statements and my sense is that, at Varo, the mission is genuinely and universally deeply felt. We want to help solve systemic inequity in the banking system. We really believe in inclusion for individuals, for families, and for society as a whole—so that we all have the opportunity to thrive and to prosper financially. A big part of accomplishing our goals will depend on our ability to make our brand promise deeply felt and real.

We’re now introducing Varo into the conversation with people about their financial wellness, and about banking in general. We need to tell our story, secure our place in people’s consciousness, and make good on that promise through the experiences that we build. Over time, as the entire category continues to move to a more digital solution for banking, we want to lead that.

II: What skills and experiences have been important to your success in the CMO role?

CF: Voracious intellectual curiosity is an important part of a marketer’s personality, and having the energy to stay curious. Being devoted to consumers, and celebrating and searching out diverse perspectives and voices is also important.

This sounds a little cliche, but it’s true: We’re in a moment of constant and rapid change. Whether you’re in a big company or a seed-stage startup, having a sense of agility and flexibility and being comfortable with change is super important.

If I compare the beginning of my career with now, consumer behavior and how they absorb content changes faster, and the platforms where consumers get and share information change constantly. Everyone who works in this field has this low hum of anxiety that while they’re sleeping, a new social network was born and they don’t quite know about it yet.

II: Is there anything that you’ll carry forward with you once we return to some level of normalcy in the workplace?

CF: The days of any company saying, “We’re in San Francisco, and so is our entire employee population” may be over. We’re going to be more flexible as companies and as leaders. This gives us the opportunity to find the talent and the work experiences that suit us best. Having teams in diverse locations allows us to incorporate more diverse thinking and voices. No matter where we’re located, we do tend to bubble, whether we like that or not.

II: What advice would you give your peers?

CF: The “what” that we need to accomplish as marketing leaders is often the easiest part, yet we tend to spend a lot of time there.

It’s better to spend more energy on “Why are we here? What is the impact that we’re trying to make? Is our ‘why’ deeply resonant and relevant to the people we’re trying to serve?”

And, “How are we going to accomplish it, and with whom?” That last question tends to be where the rubber meets the road. Investing in extraordinary people and helping them grow and do their best work is almost always the secret sauce.