The financial sector has experienced plenty of change in recent years, but Citizens Financial Group has probably seen more than most.

Earlier this year, the 186-year-old institution launched an IPO that also began its separation the bank from parent brand RBS. In addition, the group has moved to rebrand all of its operations, including its 200 Charter One branches, under the Citizens Bank banner.

Arturo PerezThese moves are part of a major effort by CMO Arturo Perez to simplify the bank's operations and, in particular, its offering to customers. Perez, who joined Citizens last year, describes the 'Bank Better' initiative as an opportunity to regain public trust. In an interview with the Holmes Report, he explains why.

Why rebrand?
Even though the rebrand has got a lot of attention, it’s really a broader agenda we’re driving around just being easier. We call it our Bank Better initiative. It’s all about being simple, being clear. Managing separate brands just made it more complicated both for us internally and obviously for our customers. It wasn't the easiest or clearest experience.
When we did all the research, we found there’s a very strong brand equity behind the Citizens name. Even in the Charter One markets, the Citizens name resonated stronger and better with both customers and prospects. As a brand name, Citizens has been around since 1871. It has very positive equity with consumers. 
How difficult was the rebranding internally?
Strategically, it was not a hard decision. We really always saw that as the dominant brand. The real complexity has been with the amount of change required, in systems for example, to get the brand changed. In today’s banking, where systems are interconnected, and you have websites, online, automatically generated letters. There’s lots of systems that need to be reprogrammed.

How has consumer dissatisfaction with banks factored into the rebranding?
We always factor in customer research and attitudes. We are not rebranding as a way to change perceptions or move away from anything. It’s really more around having a consistent view and image. Where consumer perception is, post-recession, there was a lot of things that the financial services industry was doing that drove that perception. It has rebounded since.

That said, there is a structural change in how consumers relate to their bank and their financial services right now. It’s a lot more on a 'help me, do my banking with me, not do it for me.' Consumers tended to be very hands-off with their financial relationship before the recession. That has changed. Our Bank Better initiative is really about helping customers bank better — be very simple, be very clear and be very personal in the relationship.
Presumably, this requires frontline customer service staff to be a big part of the process. How did you achieve that?
It’s a huge part. The frontline. For example, the conversations some of our call centres were having with customers, obviously a lot of those were about customers incurring overdraft fees. We got info via our customer service reps that in many cases they were getting overdraft fees for very small transactions — and they were customers that were not regular overdrafters. For the most part we would reverse those fees. Using all that data, we said why don’t we just eliminate the fee from the get-go — that’s how our $5 overdraft pass came to be. It creates a better customer experience. That came from understanding the conversations that our frontline reps were having with customers. It was just a bad customer experience.
We also increased empowerment of our phone reps. Where we’ve allowed additional abilities in some of our phone reps and frontline bankers to use a little bit more of their own criteria when they decide if they are going to waive a fee. 
Has the separation from RBS affected perceptions of the Citizens brand?
On the consumer side of the business, it’s had no impact whatsoever. Few, if any customers, knew that Citizens Bank was a part of RBS, or saw any benefit from that.
For the commercial business, there you see some impact. Now you are talking about large mid-corporate or MNC clients that do have international trade. The agreement we have with RBS is that even after we are fully divested, we would continue to maintain a working relationship with them. There’s a lot of needs that Citizen can do for RBS clients. And there’s a lot of capabilities that RBS has in international markets that our local clients are interested in. As we’ve done the math, the referred business back and forth is about the same in size. So it’s a win-win.
How are you measuring the success of these efforts?
In multiple ways. For project pieces: are we hitting our timelines? We are also tracking our brand awareness and brand consideration. It’s part of our standard brand health metrics. 
And as Michigan and Ohio switch over, we will start tracking the Citizens Bank brand within those markets. 

Also, the general response rates to DM campaigns. What’s going to happen as our
marketing switches over from Charter One to Citizens in Michigan or Ohio. We haven’t started that yet. 
And, brand awareness and brand consideration. We had been in decline on brand awareness for a few years. A lot of it driven from just being out of the media and not being very visible. We’ve seen a material and faster-than-expected rebound as we’ve got back on media this year. Citizens as a brand has very strong appeal and very strong equity. The moment we got the awareness out, the consideration and equity went up. We weren’t being loud enough.
Is there’s a specific media mix that’s working for you?
There’s the direct marketing — search, display — everything that is bid-based. Those we manage mathematically.
Then there’s your more strategic spend — mass media, TV, out-of-home. For those, the measurement is not as math-based. We have econometric modelling that we use to tie that back to business results, brand awareness, brand consideration and so forth. We are about 20/25% mass media and around 75% direct marketing and social engagement, which is interesting because traditionally it’s been more of a 50:50 mix for big banks.

With all of the new targeting technologies, especially in the online space, there’s just a ton of opportunity to invest more. That’s where we’ve seen a lot of our growth.