INTERVIEW: The West Brom Head of Marketing on balancing innovation with inclusion

Alex Sword


The Financial Services Forum

The West Brom is seeking to combine the best of the past and the future as it goes through its digital transformation journey, says its Head of Marketing.

Georgia d’Esterre started in the role in August, bringing experience from brands such as AXA and Holloway Friendly. Since she started, she and her team have been auditing what’s working and where the building society needs to shift its marketing strategy.

This has involved looking at team structures and the company’s digital marketing estate as the company looks to modernise its customer experience, meaning it can serve customers how and when their customers want by automating its paper-oriented processes and outputs. It has also meant examining the martech structure, with the introduction of some automation features to make processes more streamlined behind the scenes.

One example is the mutual using AI to create some of the more basic marketing communications.

“We’re also looking at ‘no code’ content creation tools to help us produce animated videos, infographics and e-books to help consumers have a more in-depth understanding into the world of savings and mortgages,” Georgia says. “The challenge that needs careful thought is how do we reach more customers in a purposeful way through digital channels, with the right content, in both retail and intermediated markets.”

The moves come after some major new hires at the building society: in April 2023 it hired a new Chief Operating Officer called Martin Boyle, formerly of Metro Bank and Nationwide. In May, it took on a new Chief Customer Officer called Alex Windle, bringing a background at blue chip firms such as Vodafone, LG Electronics, and BP, as well as experience working on the recent rebrand at Cumberland.

All these changes come ahead of the firm’s 175th anniversary as the Society thinks about how it can develop its brand further. Nationwide’s recent rebrand focused on positioning itself as different to high street banks, in a world where many people are no longer aware of the real difference between a bank and a building society.

In Georgia’s view, the West Brom brand stands for authentic customer centricity which can be seen through many of its customer offerings, interactions and its community focus.

“We’re a purpose driven company that genuinely thinks about our customers and what pain points they are experiencing right now. What I am most excited about is demonstrating our purpose through our marketing and communications in a way which is meaningful, and cuts through the noise in a crowded marketplace where many others claim to do the same.”

“Our impact report highlights the great ESG initiatives we have delivered in the past 12 months and shows we’re committed to what we do, but more importantly how we do it. We’re here for our local communities as well – we’ve raised an extraordinary amount of money for Barnardo’s over the past few years.”

The culture is very customer-oriented, she notes, with decisions approached from the perspective of what they will mean for the community and customer base. Responsible behaviours are embedded into the core processes of the building society, such as the fact that the West Brom doesn’t charge customers fees for being in arrears on their mortgage.

This means not just finding ways to reach new customers but appealing to existing ones and ensuring that vulnerable customers are not left behind in the move to digital.

“Digital isn’t necessarily the right way for everybody to interact, and so we’ve got to be really mindful of that in any kind of customer transformation that we might put into place.”

The West Brom ensures that these options remain open to people – for example, people can apply not just online but also in branch, by phone and by post, to avoid exclusion.

The centrepiece of Nationwide’s recent rebrand – ‘A Better Way to Bank – was branches and a pledge not to leave any town or city in which it is based before 2026. How do branches factor into the West Brom’s thinking?

“It would be quite difficult to be a building society that’s there for its community if you don’t have some type of physical presence.”

However, one of the impacts of digital adoption is that the definition of community has changed from something based in a physical place, Georgia notes.

“Particularly for digital natives and Gen Z, a community actually probably is online just as much as it is where you live.”

Her view is that a physical presence doesn’t necessarily have to be a bricks and mortar location on the High Street that’s open from nine to five every day.

“What people want is access to real people on their terms. This could be either in a branch, on the phone or through instant messaging, even if they are transacting through a digital channel. When they need help or information, we want to be able to help them, or signpost them to the right information and support. I know some Banks have pop-up sites, and some branches can be used for other purposes, whether as community hubs or workspaces for local entrepreneurs.

“[A pop-up] might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it is still a physical presence in a community.

“I think a branch network is important and for some customers it’s their preferred way of interacting, however it’s about making our services relevant to the community it’s in as well as the type of customers it wants to attract.”

Of course, there is a balance to be struck. The West Brom is named for a specific place, but it targets a national audience with its savings and mortgages products.

“It’s important to be regionally important and nationally relevant. You need to remember your heritage in what you do and how you do it.

“But also, if you want to be relevant you probably do need to have a wider appeal as well.”

Looking ahead to 2024, Georgia says the mutual isn’t interested in chasing rates, but will remain focused on trying to help as many people as possible to own their own home. Recently the mutual launched a mortgage deal with £1000 cashback.

“We’ll be continuing to look at what niches of customers need additional support in terms of the products and services that they offer.”

From a marketing perspective, the focus will be building awareness with different groups of customers around how they can break into, and stay, in the housing market. This may mean talking about shared ownership, mortgage prisoners or supporting more first-time buyers.

“Just because you might have an adverse credit history or a thin credit file, that’s not necessarily a reason why you couldn’t have a mortgage. We want to be able to help people overcome some of those barriers.” In 2023, 44% of all West Brom’s lending was to first time buyers.

Georgia also wants the West Brom to be talking more broadly on the theme of financial resilience. She highlights L&G’s “Deadline to Breadline” report which found that most people only have four weeks of savings in the event they run out of money to pay their mortgage or their bills.

“Some people aren’t in a regular savings habit, or they might not think they can afford to save or don’t know how to save.

“I think it’s really important that we try to raise financial education and awareness: even if you only save £5 a week, it’s about getting into that regular habit because that will help you build a more sustainable and financially resilient and secure future.”

Young people are a particular target audience for this message, with West Brom staff regularly going into schools with financial education sessions that seek to introduce students to key themes such as savings, mortgages, and pensions. In the past 15 months the West Brom have delivered ‘Money go round’ workshops to over 2,300 school children in more than 67 different settings.

“That is something we really want to build on and what I want to do from a marketing perspective is package that up so it’s more accessible and more obvious.”

This could mean animated videos aimed at explaining concepts such as mortgages.

“I think we’ve got a lot of work to do as a sector to be able to make finance more accessible and more understandable.”

Georgia will be speaking at our event in April on the relevance of building societies.

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