Bethany Bolton recently joined Ecology Building Society as its new Head of Marketing and Product. In this Q&A she talks about consumer duty, building a brand around ESG and how the concept of a mutual is relevant today.
Congratulations on your new role – what has been on your to-do list?
2023 is a big year for the Society with lots of new starters and change. My focus has been on building the team and setting the rhythm and routine for us to deliver outstanding results and support Ecology’s change and growth agenda.
Top of my to-do list has been leading the implementation of the Consumer Duty. I really appreciated the recognition that first line are responsible for ensuring good consumer outcomes and it’s given me opportunity to get to know the wider team and understand all facets of the Society very quickly. In turn this has helped with my second priority, our five-year plan and defining our strategy together as a team. At the same time have been supporting the team with the launch of our innovative new Off-site mortgage product and we’re busy preparing our annual results and planning our AGM for our Members.
It’s been incredible to see everyone so united in values and vision, embracing what we want to achieve. I feel like we’ve already achieved a lot in two months, so I can’t wait to see where we are this time next year.
Have there been any big similarities/differences with your previous experience?
The biggest difference so far is that I’m proud to be working for a member-owned organisation which is genuinely mission-led and has a meaningful positive impact on the environment and society.
Our purpose-driven approach provides the strategic framework for all of our activities including our sustainable lending, ethical savings products and desire to be changemakers, agitating for change and pioneering new ways of delivering solutions to environmental and social issues.
Our insight tells us that, while Ecology is well known and celebrated in the green building and ethical finance communities, we’re not widely recognised elsewhere which needs to change. It’s a real privilege for me to apply my experience of defining brands, driving good consumer outcomes and delivering commercial results to help extend the reach and success of the Society.
How would you characterise the overall brand and marketing strategy of Ecology?
Our brand and strategy is very much characterised by our mission and values. We’re a Member organisation dedicated to improving the environment and society by enabling sustainable buildings and communities our focus will be on Member experience, Member growth and with our inclusive community of Members creates positive impact.
We aim to create a community united with our mission to make a greener society. We’re investing in Ecology’s brand to support the next chapter of Ecology’s journey and, while the team keep on creating ground-breaking products, we will be well on our way to achieving our goals.
What channels and messaging are you finding most effective in 2023?
All roads lead to digital. Digital channels such as our website and social media enable us to cost effectively target our messaging based on meaningful data and insight to reach our target audiences. As with all activity the channel and message effectiveness all depends on the recipient, where they are in their purchasing journey and synergy between channels. We’re using our Member insight to focus on that zero moment of truth and what they need from us. Video is obviously key and we’re keen to develop that channel.
With many building societies superficially appearing similar to banks, what do you think is the relevance of the model today?
Mutuality has been at the heart of our model since we were established 42 years ago. Our founder members were committed to building a sustainable future and they came together to start a building society to help finance environmental building renovations and support sustainable development. The scope of our lending has widened since then but throughout we’ve remained committed to our ethical principles.
Being member-owned benefits the wider financial services ecosystem through increased consumer choice alongside other banking providers, product innovation and greater systemic resilience. Building societies do not pay shareholder dividends, enabling them to have a long-term view to use profits to reinvest, in line with our purpose-led approach, to support the needs of present and future Members.
How does the building society label factor into how you present yourselves, particularly being run for the benefit of members?
Ecology is powered by nearly 16,000 Members who expect us to uphold our commitment to sustainable lending. Our members are at the heart of our decision making. Last year more than 200 Members participated in a series of events, helping to shape our future. We’re looking forward to our AGM and Members Meet-up next month with more events planned for the autumn. We wear the building society badge with pride, we’re luckier than others as we exist simply for our Members and it allows them to trust that we really do have their best interests at heart.
With the cost of living crisis, do you think the sustainability agenda has had to take a back seat?
Not at all, the cost of living crisis helps drive the sustainability agenda. The more we do now, the better for our planet and pockets in the long term. The continuing climate and financial crisis needs radical solutions. We’ve got to address financial inequalities and find practical solutions such as transforming the UK’s housing stock which is at the heart of the sustainability challenge. Making green improvements to homes reduces bills and it can also lower your mortgage repayments as well as increase the value of your property.
We’re seeing product innovation across all industries and this is driven by what customers are telling us they want. Ecology’s sustainable lending has never been more relevant or important. Huge increases in home energy bills are at the heart of the cost-of-living crisis, which means that we urgently need to ensure that new homes are energy efficient and we are retrofitting our ageing and leaky housing stock. Tackling the climate crisis is urgent and needs everyone – Governments, policy makers, businesses and individuals – to work in concert together and play their part to build a sustainable future.
The firm’s focus on environmentalism since the 1980s precedes the recent discussion on ESG – is this an advantage in cutting through current ESG claims?
Yes, it’s the reason we exist, every savings account funds our lending and our mortgages help communities and the planet. In a recent survey of consumers we found that nearly three quarters of savers want their money to have a positive impact on people and the planet. That’s something few others offer and when anyone chats to our team of experts they’ll quickly realise we’re very different and can support them on their journey with much more than just financial support – our values align with our Members values, not many others can say that.
We’ve been focused on the triple bottom line – people, planet and prosperity – since we were set-up in 1981. Our ecological policies, aligned to the principles of sustainable development, are hard wired into the Society’s memorandum and rules (similar to a company’s articles). The recent focus on ESG is positive but we need more transparency and action. Too many firms seem to think that they can get away with planting a few trees and hitting key metrics, this simply doesn’t cut it and consumers expect and want more.