susan somersille johnson headshot
Susan Somersille Johnson, CMO, SunTrust Bank (which will become Truist after merger with BB&T) — SunTrust Bank (soon to be Truist)

When you think about an engineer, you might picture a left-brain individual who prefers to solve problems with a logical calculus rather than a creative approach.

Susan Somersille Johnson, chief marketing officer of SunTrust Bank, which is set to merge with BB&T later this year to create Truist, would prove you wrong.

Although the Harvard and Wharton graduate began her career as an engineer, she’s now reinventing marketing for the 127-year-old financial services brand via content and storytelling that often isn't part of developing technology.

Somersille Johnson has been spearheading SunTrust’s Momentum onUp financial wellness initiative, part of its onUp Movement, to help catalyze that reinvention. “Our data revealed that financial stress kept more than 80% of Americans up at night,” Somersille Johnson said. “When we learned that, we knew we had to claim our role in improving Americans’ financial confidence,” she told CO—.

The onUp Movement was launched in 2016 as a national effort to help people move from financial stress to confidence. To date, its blend of tech tools that help consumers calculate what they need to reach their financial goals and creative storytelling has drawn more than 4.5 million participants. Somersille Johnson expects that number to top 5 million in 2019.

The impact continues to lift the entire organization. At SunTrust in 2018, revenue was up 3%, deposits rose 1% and loans increased by 6%.

SunTrust’s latest integrated marketing campaign is “#bestlife,” which Somersille Johnson pointed out is tough to do when you’re not financially secure. “As part of the campaign, we’re challenging social influencers and consumers to create new habits on their journey to financial confidence,” she explained.

Now that SunTrust is merging with bank BB&T, the combined company will be the sixth-largest U.S. bank based on assets and deposits when the deal closes in the fourth quarter, and Somersille Johnson will continue in her role as CMO overseeing it all.

For us, sustainable growth is what happens when we find better ways to meet client needs.

Susan Somersille Johnson, CMO, SunTrust Bank (to become Truist)

Here, Somersille Johnson discusses her career leap from engineering at Apple into marketing at a major bank, and how she plans to lead the organization into the future.

What did you learn from your time at Apple early in your career that you continue to use today?

Culture matters. At Apple, every employee feels like they contribute to the business’s success. They fully understand their place in the big picture. For me, the feeling was electric. I’ll never forget the first time I walked into an internal product launch in Cupertino — I felt like I was part of something great, and we were doing something good. I’ve worked to foster that mentality everywhere I’ve worked since then.

Apple also taught me to have confidence, take chances, and embrace change. I began my career at Apple as an engineer and left as a marketer. When I became a marketer, I never would have guessed I would rely so heavily on my technology skills. Marketing has evolved to where creativity now works hand in hand with data, analytics, digital, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies to create effective customer experiences. That intersection of technology and marketing is my sweet spot and I encourage other marketers to embrace it.

When you came to SunTrust, what were your goals and how have they changed, or not?

When I joined the SunTrust team, I had two primary goals in mind. The first goal is to help SunTrust build financial confidence in America. When we learned [about consumers’ financial stress], we knew we had to claim our role in improving Americans’ financial confidence. That first goal is in the DNA of every new campaign we run at SunTrust.

The second goal is to improve business performance through integrating data, analytics and digital technology with marketing. They give marketers more certainty in targeting segments, predicting behavior and measuring returns.

You’ve said the CMO’s role is to drive growth. How do you determine what kind of growth is sustainable rather than just for growth’s sake?

For us, sustainable growth is what happens when we find better ways to meet client needs. Put another way, it’s growth that is grounded in our purpose. Our purpose is to light the way to financial well-being. We continually focus on knowing our clients and understanding what they really need from SunTrust in order to become more financially confident. We build relationships with them based on trust and driven by our purpose. All of this has had a tangible, measurable impact on our business as well as clients.

Momentum onUp was sparked by an internal review of employees’ financial confidence and a desire to be a more purpose-driven organization rather than to explicitly sell a product. How did you initially get buy-in from the executive team?

Momentum onUp, SunTrust’s not-for-profit workplace financial wellness program, addressed a significant gap in teammates’ financial confidence.

When I first met [SunTrust CEO] Bill [Rogers], it was immediately clear to me that he was on a mission to lead differently and to let purpose — lighting the way to financial well-being — drive the business. That was part of what attracted me to work at SunTrust. Purpose starts at the top.

Because of the program’s positive impact internally, SunTrust now offers Momentum onUp to other companies at cost. More than 150 employers have signed up, including companies such as Delta and Hilton that are counted among the best places to work. Among those who complete the program, employees living by a budget increased from 43% to 87%, employees with emergency savings improved from 68% to 98%, and employees increased investment contributions for retirement by 35%.

How important was it to collaborate with all areas of the business in order to bring this movement to life?

Defining and galvanizing purpose is not just a marketing exercise. The entire organization has aligned under the purpose of financial confidence, from operations to technology to marketing. This was never clearer to me than during the early days of forming and launching the onUp Movement.

Teammates across multiple functions met constantly to explore how they could all contribute to the movement. At SunTrust, we have a robust outreach program driven by purpose ambassadors—a volunteer-based and cross-functional program that provides teammates with special training and tools to have difficult money conversations. As part of that role, they volunteer in their communities to advance financial literacy and help people attain financial confidence, whether speaking to students or giving a seminar on financial topics.

Our technology team also works closely with marketing and sales to make sure the onUp Movement also comes to life in the way that our clients interact with the brand. We have partnered with behavioral economics experts at Duke University to identify when the right message and digital experience can guide people toward healthy financial decisions.

Were there any challenges or unexpected outcomes related to onUp?

Talking about money is taboo. Most people don’t want to think about money, let alone confront areas in their personal finances where they may need to make a change. With creative tools and content that is approachable, engaging and interesting, we’ve been able to connect with people on such a challenging topic. Today, ahead of schedule, there are more than 4.5 million onUp participants who have taken a step, onward and upward, toward financial confidence.

How has onUp’s approach impacted the trust consumers have in SunTrust, and how will you continue to measure it?

Financial stress is significant, and research shows that 78% of American workers say they’re living paycheck to paycheck. That’s four of every five people you meet who are experiencing significant financial stress.

Our research shows that clients that participate in The onUp Movement are more loyal, are more likely to add new accounts, are stronger brand advocates and are more likely to say SunTrust helped with their financial confidence. The impact carries over into traditional metrics of business success, too. Revenue, deposits and loans are up, and we’ve seen in- creases in brand sentiment, loyalty and consideration. The onUp Movement is not only resonating with consumers, but also contributing to the brand’s profitable growth.

What advice would you give to a small or medium sized business that wants to grow its own loyal customer base?

For businesses of every size, the need to create change and to stand for something real is more present than ever. If you have not already done this, take the time to step back from the day-to-day work of running a business and ask yourself what your purpose is, why you exist. Once your organization has clarity on your purpose, leverage it to build trust, motivate your audience, activate your team’s creativity and, ultimately, drive positive change.

Where do you hope to take SunTrust in the next two to five years?

Earlier this year, we announced a merger of equals with BB&T, set to close later this year. The combination of these two iconic franchises creates the sixth-largest U.S. bank with 275 years of combined history serving clients and communities. With our shared mission- and purpose-driven cultures, our combined company will have an accelerated capacity to invest in transformational technologies for our clients. I will continue as the chief marketing officer of the new company.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published June 13, 2019