Sukhi Sahni | The Innovator 25 North America 2019

Sukhi Sahni 

Consumer Card PR Leader Sr. Director 

Capital One  
Washington, DC/McLean,Virginia  

“There is a wide-held belief that consumers don’t want to be marketed to, but I disagree.”

Sukhi Sahni focuses her communications around real-life outcomes — the kinds that inspire consumers to take action. In 2018, Sahni helped create “The Purpose Project” for Captial One, described as “a conversation to showcase how people are rethinking the power of travel to change us.” At the center of the initiative, is a study commissioned by Capital One that explores how travel fundamentally changes us. The multi-faceted, multi-channel campaign rallied around the company’s mission to promote purposeful travel through real-life stories. The campaign burst online with #MeaningfulMoments, stories from Zooey Deschanel and ultimately 87% of the media coverage connected Capital One to rewarding travel experiences. 

In what way(s) does PR/communications need to innovate the most?
Keeping an open mindset. Test and learn a variety of agendas to create an insights driven communications strategy for storytelling, whether it's about the community, a product or the ethos of a brand and its culture. Taking an omni-channel approach to communications is [table stakes]. PR is so much more than just a press release. It's about leveraging the right people (associates, customers, experts) to tell a human and authentic story designed keeping in mind your target audience.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
Lagging the others
As an industry we have a lot of ground to cover. But the good news is we are trending in the right direction with a continued focus on omni-channel storytelling driven by insights and showcasing ROI in terms of true impact to the business goals vs just old school KPIs.

Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
Integrated marketing
Taking a PESO approach starting with earned media is the biggest lever for the PR industry. Equally critical is enhancing the impact of PR on business goals.

How do you define innovation?
Innovation can be defined in several ways. It could be a a twist on the familiar and shift of perspective that alters your view on the world. In PR, it could be breaking new ground in how stories are told. To tell stories in partnership with and not to your customers. In short, innovation is co-creating with them. What's truly important is how innovation is achieved. Innovation is achieved by remaining interested, and actively seeking out the interesting and extraordinary…allowing ideas the freedom to flourish. Without creativity, audacity and risk, innovation isn’t possible.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen in the last 12 months?
My personal favorite within my world is the Capital One Purpose Project. An insights driven PR program, focused on creating beautiful and compelling content around purposeful travel. Externally, I am still in awe of what Nike did with their integrated campaign with Colin Kaepernick.

In your opinion, what brands and/or agencies are most innovative around PR and marketing?
Brands that are innovative, take risks and start with a shared purpose and operate as a truly integrated machine across across all marketing channels. Nike does a really good job of integrated storytelling.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
The last two years of my career have been very exciting because of the opportunities we have created to position PR as a strategic lever for the business at Capital One.  Whether it's purpose driven storytelling through the lens of travel or impact driven storytelling through the lens of communities and people; it's been an exciting journey to test and learn what content resonates with our key audience and how we can enhance our storytelling efforts to reach our target audience. We no longer just measure results. We measure impact and test our learning agenda.

Most underrated trait in a PR person? 
Ability to listen. People often associate PR professionals as someone who just talk for a living. Active listening is critical to build relationships and create solutions in the most collaborative manner.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
Staying curious. Taking a moment to step away from your desk and laptops to go for a walk and actively watch and listen to what’s unfolding around you. Another way is to be around children, they are fearless. Build a network of, and engage frequently with, friends, colleagues, mentors, family that are different from you and see the world uniquely.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
Keep an open mindset. Take more meaningful risks to connect with sophisticated, multi-faceted consumers. There is a wide-held belief that consumers don’t want to be marketed to, but I disagree. I think consumers appreciate well-designed, integrated and clever marketing/comms programs that provide a solution to their life. Brands need to listen and observe consumer behaviors to better understand how they are consuming, digesting and connecting in a meaningful way. 

Sophisticated consumers want the unexpected and novel balanced with the familiar, and brands should not feel confined to stay in one space. For example, the Capital One story is so much more than a financial institution or a credit card company; it would be a shame for us not share who we are – our mission and values – through far ranging stories of impact – whether that story originated through a product, a community imitative or philanthropic effort.

What are you thinking about most these days? 
Purpose driven; impact driven storytelling is top of mind for me and making sure the stories we share are human, real and authentic.

What one movie, book, TV show or podcast do you recommend someone rent, read or stream tonight?
I am currently watching The Sacred Games on Netflix. A gripping story of the past and its impact on the current and potential future. A book that has left a deep impact on my own way of thinking is Sapiens: A brief history of mankind by Yuval Noah Harari.