Marketer of the Year: Susan Somersille Johnson of SunTrust
Susan Somersille Johnson sprang forward a bit in her chair and exclaimed, “Patience!”
The EVP and CMO of SunTrust Banks said that’s what works best when bringing ideas to leadership at any company, and it was the hardest lesson for the former New Yorker to learn along her
career path. This path led her to keynote at the Sept. 28 Wharton Women’s Summit in Philadelphia, where Johnson provided that advice.
Patience and “deep breaths,” she added, laughing.
Marketers might think Johnson is ready to exhale now that she’s gaining recognition for her achievements, not the least of which is encouraging Americans to gain financial confidence through the “onUp Movement” she leads. With 4 million participants as of presstime on Nov. 14, the 2018 Marketer of the Year began the onUp effort with a 2016 Super Bowl ad titled “Hold Your Breath.” She says SunTrust wanted to give stressed Americans tools and knowledge to make better financial decisions and gain breathing room.
In one of three nominations for Johnson that Target Marketing received before editors chose the marketer who embodies “the best the marketing profession has to offer, with notable
professional accomplishments, integrity, innovation and service to the marketing community,” Miguel A. Sepulveda, SunTrust’s VP of corporate communications, cited Johnson’s leadership of the onUp Movement: “onUp is resonating with consumers, contributing to the brand’s profitable growth: 2017 YOY revenue grew 5 percent, deposits grew 2 percent and SunTrust Banks ranked third in brand consideration amongst top banking competitors.” While Johnson received the most nominations, her accomplishments stood out among impressive competitors.
Johnson’s tech and engineering background, including at Apple, meant she was well-prepared to employ data-driven insights in a martech-fueled digital marketing environment. And she has. But she also has a good hold on the creative, collaborative, silo-agnostic aspects of modern marketing that she’s helping employ at SunTrust to make it a successful organization.
Asked what achievement first showed SunTrust that she could transform its marketing, Johnson says: “SunTrust has always been a purpose-driven organization, and it codified its purpose about five years ago with ‘Lighting the Way to Financial Well-Being.’ SunTrust leadership has a keen understanding that we have to lead with action to connect with consumers; that our purpose boils down to doing things that help people achieve financial confidence. And when done right for the right reasons, it sets SunTrust apart. That is what we’re achieving with the onUp Movement. onUp stands for ‘onward and upward toward financial confidence.’
“We have reinvented the marketing playbook, bridging technology and creativity to bring our purpose to life, while spearheading a cultural movement to inspire confidence through personal finances. And we’re seeing tangible improvements in business performance, brand consideration and teammate pride.”
Driving Growth Beyond the Core Initiatives
Johnson’s seen her role since starting at SunTrust in August 2014 as being very clear.
“The role of the CMO is to drive growth for the organization — brand and business growth. I am a growth driver,” she says. “My job is to build a marketing team that pushes the boundaries of marketing in our industry. One that is willing to try new tactics and question the status quo. And, importantly, [SunTrust is an organization] that understands we have to drive growth for the lines of business, while creating an emotional connection between the brand and our clients.”
She knew that even in this age of media fragmentation, 115 million eyeballs would be on the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, 2016. That’s where she said the purpose-driven brand’s onUp Movement should debut.
“There was resistance,” Johnson said.
But the commercial with award-winning actor Gary Sinise’s voiceover tied for No. 1 in social sentiment among that year’s Super Bowl ads.
“It was the right decision,” Johnson said.
Consumers started opting in to the onUp Movement and 25 percent of them clicked through to see what SunTrust.com had to offer — which is the financial institution’s main home for its products and services.
onUp now has 4 million participants, none of whom are required to be customers, though many do bank with SunTrust.
“We started from zero,” Johnson said of the onUp participants.
Learning Marketing on the Job
Johnson had no marketing background.
She’d earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering sciences from Harvard University (cross-registered at MIT) and an MBA in finance from The Wharton School.
But during her five years at Apple, her binary mindset expanded. A colleague told the engineer she should learn marketing.
“Apple’s a marketing-driven organization,” Johnson explained.
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