Our Guest: Laura Sullivan Ethridge, EVP Chief Marketing Officer
Company: Hancock Whitney
Laura Ethridge: You can do good no matter where you land. It's how you show up.
Allan Greer: Hello and welcome to Bank Marketing Today by Vya. I am Alan Greer and together with Martha France, we are interviewing Bank Marketing Leaders about current trends, new marketing technologies, branding and the overall state of the banking industry. We will be joined from time to time by additional co hosts and experts.
Martha France: In this episode, we spoke to Laura Sullivan Etheridge at Hancock Whitney, and she has a great philosophy on how you can be purpose driven and truly make a positive impact in the banking industry. Laura shared with us how to make a positive impact through authentic banking relationships, the art and science of data and analytics, and marketing's responsibility to intentionally tell your organization’s stories. You'll enjoy her positive attitude and fun “Journey” references. So let's get to it. We hope this episode of bank marketing today helps simplify your marketing tomorrow.
Martha: Hello, I am Martha France and I am joined today by my co host Alan Greer. We are truly excited to be talking with Laura Sullivan Etheridge EVP, Chief Marketing Officer at Hancock Whitney. Welcome to the Bank Marketing Today podcast Laura.
Laura: Thank you, I am so honored to be here.
Martha: I know you're relatively new to Hancock Whitney, can you tell us a little bit about your background.
Laura: It was a winding road and feels like the best landing spot I could have asked for. I grew up outside of Boston and I fell in love with a man from Mississippi. We call ourselves the union of Mass-issippi. But I spent my college years down in Washington DC at Georgetown where I thought I was going to be an executive director of a nonprofit and I found my way to business school and then to American Express and a career in financial services and was living out in San Francisco when my husband and I wanted to migrate east and south. I got the call from Hancock Whitney. And we're living right here on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. I spend half my time in New Orleans and half my time in Gulfport, Mississippi when I'm not traveling to our other locations across our footprint that range from Houston to Tampa. And it's just been such a nice landing place. We're loving our time here. And I think I'm clocking my eight month.
Allan: Well, Laura, it certainly does seem like you landed in a really good place. Hancock Whitney has been recognized with many awards, and I wanted to ask you about those awards. I just had a note that Hancock Whitney earned 17 Greenwich awards, raising the bank's grand total awards to 201, with 21 best brand awards ces 2013 in 180 excellence awards since 2005, which seems pretty incredible. Can you elaborate on what you think the success has been? And what what things attributed to it?
Laura: Well, I think the heart of awards tends to be the people and the leadership and the community and culture of a place, right. And I would say that it really is one of the most special places that I've worked. And I consider myself pretty lucky. I mean, I cut my teeth at American Express, which is kind of the blue chip place to develop marketing leaders and develop people managers in the financial space and its commitment to community. And I think that the leadership and the culture and the values runs so deep and in how we show up. And we really are, no matter what market we're in, whether it's our legacy markets of New Orleans, or Gulfport, we are part of the fabric of the community of institutions and businesses there and the consumers there and the schools and the nonprofit organizations. That authenticity I think shines bright. We're a great sized regional bank, that we are nimble enough to really have that connection to its communities. But we are large enough to have a very rich offering for our commercial partners and offerings for our consumer partners. So I think it's that sweet spot that in my mind is going to be the future in banking is that regional space that still connects with the community where the big banks are getting a little too large for themselves. I think that permeates our size, and our people, and our commitment to our values.
Allan: Talking more about your commitment to your values. Is that part of your whole training regimen? I'm talking about when a new associate comes into the bank, is that culture infused at the time or do you think that evolves over time?
Laura: I can talk about my experience of how they recruited me and I think so much of the vetting process was not only my resume and ensuring that I had a wide breadth of marketing experiences; direct marketing, to digital marketing to commercial banking to consumer, but it was also the cultural fit and that collaboration. And so I think if I were to backup and add to the answer of why we win awards, the collaborative nature of our teams and how we show up, and given our size, we can find those people, right. So the bigger banks can claim, we've got a wealth division, we've got a commercial banking division, we’re got a private banking division, but the nimbleness of bringing those people with that expertise to the table to service your clients needs, whether it's in surround sound, so it's their business needs, their family planning needs, or their day to day consumer needs, that team camaraderie was definitely something that they were looking for during my interview process. And I think that comes from there's a lot of folks that have a long tenure here. I think that naturally, is how they've operated, right. So I think they probably tried to recruit for this same kind of skills. One of the things that we're doing right now is using the predictive index, whether it's a Myers Briggs, etc, to kind of assess what your work style is. And we use it during the recruiting process, we use it as a team building, I did it with my leadership team. So the CEO and the heads of the business units that said, and I did it with a marketing organization, so you understand what our styles are, and how you actually can meet each other based on the style. So I think that commitment to those kinds of tools also helps bring forward that collegial experience that I think has been here for all the decades, the bank has been in existence.
Allan: Myers Briggs, and so forth, I've been through a number of those that I always come back with, I am not that difficult of a person. I love doing those tests, but it is so revealing.
Laura: It gives you a common language to explain your style. I think they also use it marriage counseling, or if it helps someone laughed with me, I was talking to a CEO of a local business in Baton Rouge, he was saying he does it with his team and someone came up and said, “My marriage is so much better”. There's a benefit for your personal life and professional life.
Martha: For I think it's so cool that you have always kind of been purpose driven and that you were able to find your purpose in banking, which I think is not what people would necessarily think about, right? You really have a very wonderful take on the banking industry. Because I think that young professionals right now, if they have that community and that purpose of wanting to do good, they're not necessarily looking to banking. How were you able to find your purpose in the banking industry?
Laura: My father is one of the people I most admire. And when I was in college, I would always go for long walks. And when I was in college thinking about what am I going to be when I grow up, my dad told me this story. He said, you know, as a young Irish Catholic man in Boston in the 50s, I thought it was my duty to consider being a priest and I got to the priesthood, got to the seminary, and I was like, this isn't for me. I really want a family and I want to be a dad. And so I joke that he became a litigator, he went to law school, became a litigator and went on to be a judge and what his takeaway for me was Laura, you can do good no matter where you land. It's how you show up. I spent time before I went to business school, I was in the first class of AmeriCorps and I started a nonprofit. And I was very purpose driven. But as I started reading a lot about the founder of my nonprofit, a guy named John Gardner, who's an accomplished leadership professor at Stanford. And he talked a lot about the importance of a skill for leaders is being able to flex your style across all three sectors, nonprofit, the government, and the for profit sector, which became my inspiration in going into business. And then it became the journey of how does Laura, the history major at Georgetown, that’s sitting in a nonprofit in a communications role, get to business school, and at the time, AmeriCorps was bubbling up front and center, and I had a bunch of friends who had been ROTC, their inspiration of the call to service and also being able to have money to pay for their education. And I was like, oh, AmeriCorps is the perfect fit for me because I was a little scared of going into the military. Ironically, I married a man who served in the Navy for 24 years. From there, I kind of found my way to find companies that you believe in their culture and their approach. And I think American Express did just that. And I think Hancock Whitney does as well. And you can create good in the way you show up as in your day to day job as a people leader and in how you approach what you're offering is, and we succeed through our financial health. So that's where I think banking is one of the most instrumental tools that we have of how are we helping young consumers have healthy financial habits? How are we supporting entrepreneurs that want to create businesses and supporting businesses keep their legacy going, especially those businesses In the middle market space that are transitioning now from one generation to the next, as we see this massive shift in reality of the baby boomer generation thinking about what's next for them.
Martha: And I think what's so interesting is that you bring to the table and keep combining these things that seem opposite and bring them together. You definitely have a very analytical side to you, but a very personal side, too. So like when you look at the tools that you use, and the data that you use, as you approach the marketplace, how do you bring that together in a way such that you're being analytical, but not thinking about the people that are behind the numbers, it has to be an art and science, right?
Laura: So, if you think about kind of what the academics will say about oftentimes, the math geniuses are wonderful musicians, right? There's a yin and yang of all of it. There's an art and a science to insights and analytics. First of all, you have to look at identify the problem you're trying to solve and look at the data in the right way. So you actually tease out the insights. But you have to overlay intuition and the people observation. A good example of a recent debate over the past 12 months is with COVID, we saw a massive shift in the adoption of digital tools to manage your banking, even in places where we didn't expect it. Now, there's a trend perspective that if you look at the raw data, it still doesn't look like it's trending, but it's probably more of a hockey stick, right, we're probably just at that tipping point of behaviors that are shifting of how and when people are showing up in the financial centers. So people will always need to have that physical contact, I still will coach my 20 year old that's having banking problems and say just get in your car and go to the your local branch and talk to the banker and ask them how they're going to help you with applying for your student loan or whatever the situation at hand is. But the adoption of digital, that's an example of if you look at the raw data of the usage trends, you need to overlay the human insights of what's going on. And that happens in all decisions that we're making. Oftentimes, if we're doing massive projects, in my past career, we'll do quantitative research, as well as qualitative research. So you've got that voiceover and we'll do stakeholder interviews, we'll talk to the leaders, and we'll talk to the front line bankers to see what are they hearing? And what are their observations of what the consumers feeling? And then what are the consumers telling of you?
Martha: And what's the data telling when you look at the scale? And then does that become key to getting buy in for your ideas? you're relatively new to your organization? How do you get buy in for your ideas and your team's ideas?
Laura: So I think this is being the child of a litigator. How do you build your case? You know, our dining room table was round, because there was no head of the table. We had to debate everything. And you had to build your case. And I think part of it is building your case and being able to extract the human insights, what's going on in the industry, what's the data telling you? But what is critical is the relationships. And I think that's going back to our earlier conversation of how do you build those relationships and earn trust, I certainly throughout my career, have thought I've solved the problem. And I want everybody to catch up to me. And I didn't take the time to actually make sure people were pacing on the journey that I was on because everybody goes at different speeds and taking that time to kind of meet people and there's one on one conversations so you can get that feedback. And you can that back and forth and you can iterate and then there's the group meetings where you're kind of making sure we're all on the same page or we all have the same marching orders. And that takes a lot of time. But that is as important as the rationale. But what's the business case? It's does everyone believe in the business case? Are they are they willing to march up the hill with you?
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Allan: A question just to change things up a little bit. Now the environmental and social responsibility that has gained so much momentum, Hancock Whitney released the company's 2024 report on environmental and social responsibility corporate governance, and has been around for 122 years. You know, how does your marketing team shine the spotlight on those community efforts?
Laura: One of the roles of marketing is to ensure we are intentionally telling our stories, right? So this bank has over a century of commitment to its communities. There are certain activities, communications mechanisms that you can use to tell our story. We have to keep doing more, whether it's our CRA activities and our home lending activities. Plan your way home is a program that we dedicate to first time homebuyers across all of our communities with a keen focus on a low to moderate income communities and telling those stories and doing even more work around that. From an actions perspective, we've been leaning into it. From a telling our story perspective, we've got a platform that we call Project Hometown. The artifact that we use is telling our video stories of the clients that we have and their stories. In the first half of the year, we had video stories that paid off on the way our recovery efforts, so the way that we show up for our communities in need, and it tells the story of our communities when they're hit by hurricanes and how we show up and it is one of the things I fell in love with during the interview process. It was the height of the hurricane season, it started with ironically, hurricane Laura. And then in my last interview, I literally was boots on ground in Gulfport for hurricane Zeta. We have an 18- wheeler that we've converted into a portable financial center that drives to the impacted community and all of our bankers and our our associates kind of migrate to that impacted community. And we've got another trailer that is kind of a support trailer in a box that has tables and things like that. So we can grill and provide food for the community. And we brought in gas so that associates could actually get to the location and support folks. So how we show up from a recovery standpoint, we told our stories. We also did a lot of great work around PPP, and we showcase this this kind of heart wrenching story of a young woman who owned a dance studio and how she was able to open up the dance studio and everyones in masks. The important need of community and physical exercise that we lost and how we supported that business. We're about to launch two new video stories as well. One is around kind of our market relevance. And we have a great strategic partnership in Mobile with the University of South Alabama, and we're showcasing their football coach who relocated and came home and we're talking about how Hancock Whitney helped him and his wife kind of build their new home and buy their new house. And we've got these two great stories that we're telling. One a a young woman who moved back to New Orleans and bought her first home and then a young father who is actually a doorman in a local hotel that was hit hard during COVID. And he and his family, he’s from Honduras, and he wanted to raise his family in a house, not an apartment. And we helped him. We try to bring to life the stories of what we're already doing. The environmental social responsibility and governance report, or ESG report, as it's commonly known, also brings to life the big kind of infographic headlines, we've got $7 million dollars worth of community work that was dedicated and 1.4 million pounds of paper recycled in a given year, we've just tried to use those artifacts, right, whether it's the ESG report, it's the video storytelling and the way we tell our stories and blogs and social about our commitment to the community. But it's the actions as much as the telling of the story. The use of YouTube and short term, more casual videos and storytelling has been a really powerful marketing mechanism to get our message out. And it doesn't have to be a fancy-smancy, let’s hire some actors to film a commercial. It's the people we serve.
Allan: Laura could talk about that all. Another question I have is about financial services. And as you know, we serve the banking community. And we definitely see a trend of the banks offering more and more services and try to become really more of a one stop shop for their customers. Do you see Hancock Whitney following that suit? Or do you feel you fall into a certain niche? Or how do you feel about that overall?
Laura: Hancock Whitney has always been committed to serving the humans that bank with us, which is kind of the concept that you're talking about is, what are the relevant services that a human needs for their businesses that they're running for their families and how they're buying that first home or saving for their retirement or saving for college education or their day to day consumer banking needs, the paying their bills, they're getting their cash, etc. And I think we have always keenly been focused on that kind of full customer surround sound of how do we leverage our commercial banking and small business bankers, our wealth team that we have in our consumer offering. It's not about having everything in your toolbox. It’s, are you understanding the human and what their needs are and providing those tools for them. And I think a regional bank has that ability to navigate understanding the human. What’s their business needs, what are their investment needs and what’s their day to day consumer needs.
Martha: That leads into a question that I had regarding kind of this difference between regional banks, midsize banks versus the larger banks. And one of the things we're trying to achieve with this podcast is to give midsize bank marketers a peer to peer forum. You’ve talked about what some of the advantages are, for the regional, the mid-size, are there certain challenges that are unique to your size bank?
Laura: The most practical and obvious, especially for those of us who have woven their career through big, small, medium, and startups is the magnitude of resources and budget that you have in the banks. Now, the benefit is, I think you are more purposeful and creative about how you actually connect with your customers in a really authentic way. It's really about the people and the way you serve, you need to make your marketing dollars work harder, and you give yourself room to stop some of the bureaucracy that you can get in bigger banks. The benefit of small is you really are in your community, you know the woman that runs your financial center, and you see her at the grocery store, and you see her at the restaurant. You know your mortgage lender, because you see him on the soccer field. Being able to scale that in a consistent way that still feels really authentically part of the community. But you've got the efficiencies of scale across your communities. That's a sweet spot that is achievable, but takes real collaboration and real trust. Most people want to believe if you run it like you own it, you hit on all cylinders. And for a midsize bank, there's this Goldilocks moment that you have to find, which is how do you take that secret sauce of that “run it like you own it” and create some processes that are consistent across your footprint that scale. And the other reality is the regulator's have an expectation of documenting certain processes that we are going to be held accountable for that the bigger banks might have the resources to implement, but the complexity of bureaucracy of making it happen. And we've got the expectation that we're going to have that same level of rigor and without the responsibility to be ready for the regulator's expectations.
Martha: I think something that's consistent there. It sounds like in many ways, you have to be creative. And I'm wondering, how do you keep that creativity flowing for yourself? When we talked to you previously, you talked about a walkabout and I don't know if that comes into play, how you kind of keep that creativity flowing?
Laura: At one point in my career, I worked for Lonely Planet, which is an Australian based travel company. And so I learned some of the colloquialisms in Australia about this concept of a walkabout, which I use as sometimes you just need to divert your thinking and go out and do other things, whether it's go for a walk, or whether it's to go out to dinner with friends, or it's to read a book, or it's to go to a music event, or it's to go shopping, exploring other ideas oftentimes gives you that creativity. The other thing about a walkabout is giving yourself permission to diverge and think up 15 ideas and one of them might stick. I'm an extroverted thinker, right? So, I’ll oftentimes brainstorm 15 ideas, and one of them is a great idea and needs to just be revved up. The other thing that I do is I socialize ideas. I lean on my personal networks, I pick their brain. We've got a concept right now that we're ideating on about how do we connect with our local communities that have been going through some change. And we've got the nugget of the idea. And I've probably had three or four meetings with stakeholders that have done local events in the past at the bank, and have been here for 10 years and just continue to riff on the idea to make it better, and then come back and tighten up the original concept, the importance of giving yourself permission to socialize an idea and listen to feedback and Ideate, I think that's a bit of a metaphor with the walkabout.
Allan: I'm curious, you know, as a marketer, you know, what slows you down? What are things that keep you up at night?
Laura: One of the hardest things, which ironically gives me some kind of energy because I think it's so important, is navigating change, and the importance of keeping stakeholders engaged and actively listening to them as you're trying to navigate change and iterating, right? Like that takes a lot of energy. And a lot of time probably my natural tendency is a bit of a yin and a yang. I come up with a creative idea and I just want to be like, oh, I think this is great. Let's go. The other trait is I really understand and want people to be on the journey with me and believe it's a good idea. And that takes time, right? You've got folks that are resisting and change is hard. And there's different people paced differently. So that takes a lot of energy, right? To stay upbeat to not get frustrated, to kind of keep going back to, this is what we're trying to do. Let me hear what your concerns are. So and I think all of us have navigated so much change over the past two years, that that is probably one of the things that slows us down, but it's probably worth it. But at some point, you gotta hurry people up. The other thing that keeps me up, though, is the regulatory pressures. And going back to culturally and just my upbringing is, I always want to do the right thing, right? And I do believe if you lean into doing the right thing, all things will follow. Once you have a prescribed rule that you have to follow, it becomes harder to navigate, because you got to follow those rules. And I think making sure everyone's pacing with doing, you know, exceeding the expectations is what I always like to say about what the regulator's want, because what they want is us to be intentionally doing all the right things.
Allan: Where do you go to keep up with the latest and expand your knowledge?
Laura: I was joking with a colleague on my team, who does a daily post. And my first job right after college, I worked in a press office and I got up and I got to the office early in the morning edited all the newspaper clippings, we've got a daily post that keeps us up to speed of trends that we're seeing across the financial industry. and so I often am reading through that. I listen to podcasts when I'm driving. I pick the brain of my network, I go to my team, I go to my friends and colleagues that I've met along the way in the agencies that have supported me, and in places that I've worked, leaning into my first role as a CMO and as a female executive in an organization that is mostly men, I lean on women that I know that have been ahead of me about things I should be thinking about and how to show up. There's a podcast called, “She Said, She Said” by Laura Kaplan that I listen to and I follow on LinkedIn.
Allan: We love the part that you listen to podcasts.
Laura: They are great! There are only so many times you can listen to “Don't Stop Believing” in the car radio.
Martha: Well, Laura, we want to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. I know Alan and I both enjoyed the discussion. It was fascinating learning more about you and the good work that you're doing, and the good work that Hancock Whitney is doing, and we wish you continued success there in the future.
Laura: Thank you so much. I enjoyed the conversation and thanks for your work because it gives me something to listen to on those car rides from Gulfport to New Orleans. So I appreciate it.
Martha: I have so much respect for Laura and for Hancock Whitney. I love that Hancock Whitney has always been committed to serving the humans that bank with them. And that really comes to life because of the fact that their associates are in the communities they serve. Also, Laura's walkabout approach to divert your thinking is a practice that I'm excited to start putting into action myself. In addition, I admired the commitment to environmental and social responsibility. Even right now as we record this Hancock Whitney is involved in hurricane Ida recovery efforts. We hope Laura and her team stay safe.
Allan: Thanks to our listeners for joining us, we really appreciate it. You can check out more episodes in the show notes at vyasystems.com. Vya Systems is V Y A systems with an S dot com. Or you can listen wherever you listen to podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and give us a review. And if you have ideas or topics or questions you'd like us to cover in the future, just email us at marketing at vyasystems.com Thank you so much.
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