Virgin Money’s CEO on beating fintech disruptors

Virgin Money’s CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia explains how the Virgin brand impacts its communications, why ‘lounges’ are its best marketing channel and how it plans to beat fintech start-ups at their own game.

Jayne-Anne Gadhia is one of the few female CEOs at the helm of a FTSE 250 company. Traditionally trained as an accountant with Ernst and Young, she moved into marketing at Norwich Union in the late eighties. She has since climbed her way up the career ladder to become Virgin Money’s CEO.

Banking is still a traditionally male dominated environment, and so it’s unsurprising that self-confidence is a natural trait for Gadhia – she previously told the BBC this is due to being sent to a boys’ school at age thirteen. She is also on a mission to get more women into top jobs, after heading up a Government review into inequality in the financial sector earlier this year.

Speaking at an event organised by The Marketing Society this week, she told the audience that more marketers need to “say yes to everything” in order to progress. Gadhia takes this life motto very seriously. When questioned by the host on her ability to sing every verse of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, she subsequently sang, on full volume, one whole verse in front of a slightly stunned audience.

Her sense of wackiness also transcends into the brand’s marketing activity. Last year, the brand launched a campaign looking to “avoid banking clichés”. Its TV ads showed a pigeon bemused by a ‘There’s Money’ logo, but dancing on the pavement to the seperate ‘And There’s Virgin Money’ logo. The campaign ads also featured squirrels, guide dogs, a goat and a tortoise.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Gadhia talks about marketing being “the window on the world”, moving money to digital out of necessity and her plans for Virgin Money to beat fintech competitors by launching its own digital bank.

As an accountant by background, how do you view marketing?

I don’t think functionally [about marketing]. Marketing in an organisation is all to do with the way in which we want to interact with our customers. For the Virgin Money brand, it’s undoubtedly our window on the world. Marketing at Virgin Money starts with the Virgin brand. We’re hugely fortunate to have such an iconic brand to help define ourselves. The wonderful thing about the Virgin brand is that because it stands for adventure, innovation and being a consumer champion, it says something about the organisation before you start. That’s a really powerful thing, particularly in the world of banking where new brands aren’t known and old brands aren’t trusted.

What role does marketing play in terms of restoring trust after the financial crisis?

“Rebuilding trust is about making sure the the truth is told rather than the spin spun.”

Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO, Virgin Money

During the financial crisis and even before it, the sector undoubtedly saw some spin. We saw that in product design, with PPI becoming the way of making profit on unprofitable products. And the marketing perhaps wasn’t clear enough so consumers knew what they were dealing with.

Over time I’ve always used the kitchen table test. I went through a phase where I was thinking quite technically about financial products in my business. Then I’d go home, and on a Saturday morning I’d sort through the post of the week while sitting at my kitchen table. I’d think about opening that letter and seeing a note from Barclays or Lloyds, and I’d consume it differently from the way I’d think about my own product technically. In other words, when that communication lands on a consumer’s kitchen table or on their tablet, is it really meaningful rather than a technical communication? So we apply the kitchen table test to our marketing communications. Post-crisis it’s all about making sure communications are clear, transparent and fair.

How are you planning to develop the brand going forward?

As part of our brand and marketing approach, we have started to open a new type of branch, which we call lounges. We now have seven Virgin Money lounges across the UK. They are very different from branches as they are much bigger and we don’t sell any financial products in them. Customers can go into a lounge, put their feet up, wait for their partner, have a charity meeting or read the paper. We’ve invested quite substantially to make them into places that people want to go. To start with, people were cynical and asked: “What’s the catch?” But there isn’t one. Once they realise that, they bring their friends. And to come in, they have to become customers first so they sign up. They remain stickier as a consequence.

When we first set up our lounge in Edinburgh, our nearby Edinburgh branch increased its sales by 300% within six months. It has been an interesting experiment in behavioural economics. If you were to tell our marketing director that he has an extra couple of thousand pounds worth of marketing spend, he’d pick lounge over social or digital every time. It’s a unique beacon for us that shows a difference between us and the other banks.

How are you reacting to disruptive players in the fintech space?

We are definitely viewing them with interest and respect. Particularly the likes of Atom, Monzo and Number 26, they are all coming out with ways of thinking about banking for the digital world. Undoubtedly that is the right way to be thinking. On the other hand, they have to create their own brand in that digital world. We know people have before, like Google and Amazon, nevertheless they aren’t built on an existing banking platform.

I do think that the distribution of banking can be improved and made more accessible and fun, but it does have to be built in a stable platform. We saw that in the financial crisis, which is that banks need to be handled by people who have experience and are analytical. In the way we’re looking to the future, we believe the Virgin Money brand definitely needs to develop our digital capability much more significantly.

We want to compete with what we call the “neo” banks, but the fact we’re a famous brand, known for innovation and agility but built on a traditional banking background, I hope will bring the right balance of experience and creativity. So I don’t fear them. I hope we can learn from them, copy the good things and then beat them.

The real strategic work for the brand going forward, which will be later than 2017, is the launch of our own digital bank. I’m comparing that to a service similar to Atom rather than another ‘traditional’ online version such as RBS or any of the other big players. We’ll also be launching a marketing campaign that’s appropriate for that kind of business.

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