TIAA CMO: Digital ‘Biggest Opportunity We Have’

Connie Weaver has invested in the power of digital to usher the Andrew Carnegie-founded financial-services brand through a customer-centric transformation.

TIAA CMO: Digital ‘Biggest Opportunity We Have’

A transformation is occurring within TIAA, a financial services company just a few years shy of its 100th birthday. This transformation involves how the brand presents itself to consumers, its own corporate culture, and the technology enabling those changes.

CMO Connie Weaver explained what has been going on, TIAA’s heritage, and how she plans to differentiate the brand in a saturated market. Tell me a little bit about TIAA-CREF.

Weaver: We are a company that was started in 1918 by Andrew Carnegie, when he observed way back when that educators gave their lives to serving and teaching others, but when it came time for them to retire, they basically had nothing. This was a time when there was no retirement fund. There was no pension fund. It didn’t exist, so he invented the first annuity–Teacher’s Insurance Annuity of America–and it was a product and that became our name. So we were born out of a product, born out of a vision by Andrew Carnegie, and we went on for the next 50 years to provide retirement to educators.

In 1953 CREF was created, which was the second product: College Retirement Equity Fund. So our name became TIAA-CREF. And then for another several years we went on to serve everyone in higher education and the nonprofit sector. Our mission is to serve those who serve. It’s very core to who we are, our values, the way we show up, and the way we engage people. So then your customers are teachers?

Weaver: We serve those in higher education, health care, various nonprofits, and government. That’s well over 4 million individuals served in well over 15,000 different institutions.

We were once considered a monopoly in the space, but, of course, today the market is very different. It’s highly competitive, and we’re finding that we need to compete just like everyone else. Now that competition is heating up, what are you doing to differentiate the brand?

Weaver: Today we constantly think about ways to make sure our brand is strong and relevant and that we have an engagement model that is relevant to people in different life stages—not just when they are about to retire. We’re also thinking about ways to ensure that people, and the institutions they work for, understand that we have multiple offerings. So you don’t just sell annuities?

Weaver: We also are a very large asset manager, managing somewhere around $900 billion in assets. Part of those assets are stewarding the retirement funds that we manage. Part of those assets, however, are mutual funds and other services and products that we provide globally to a variety of customers. We’ve grown very comprehensively in that area as well.

So we’ve really changed, and our customers are diverse. Our core is financial services businesses, which now has grown much beyond retirement to include retirement, banking, insurance, brokerage, mutual funds, and a whole variety of programs and services that are relevant to individuals. Wow, I had no clue you were involved in so many other aspects of finance. Now you’re going through a rebrand. Why the need?

Weaver: The rebrand is really the outcome of a five-year journey where we aligned the brand to the needs of the market. It’s very much customer-driven but also very aligned to the strategy of the company. If you think about it, as I said, not too long ago, TIAA was a retirement company. It provided plans for plan sponsors to individuals. With the changing market and, in particular, the changing needs of individuals, we went beyond providing investment, retirement, and advice to also being realistic about the things that matter to individuals: college savings, for example. We’re one of the larger providers of college savings programs.

We started a bank about seven years ago from the trust company that we had already owned and began to expand those capabilities. We’ve expanded our life insurance capabilities, our brokerage capabilities, etc. With all this happening, we’re now really a diversified financial services company able to engage with people around the things that are important to them throughout their lives. So at the same time I started a very deep effort around segmenting our clients and really understanding different clients and their different needs.

We went very deep. It started with all the basic, which I call, “name, rank, and serial number.” But the real difference was going into behavioral discovery, where you’re segmenting your market based more on the behaviors of individuals. We did a great deal of work around insight into customer behaviors and applied many of the principles from some of the behavioral economists to understand how to engage customers more frequently, more readily, and in a language and way that was relevant based on where they were in their lives.

At that point we realized we needed to not just expand who we were, but also what we were known for. We had to make sure that we weren’t just relevant for the generation that was thinking about retirement, but for all generations, including the millennials just coming into the workforce.

That set us on a path of one foundational brick at a time, understanding customers, building an engagement model, reimagining our website–we literally burned to the ground 2,500 pages of content and built it back up. We also shortened the name from TIAA-CREF to just TIAA. Can you talk about the redesign? How did your new focus on the customer guide this redesign?

Weaver: We built the site using a couple of key principles. First, simple, simple, simple, and plain English. Of course, we had to balance that with being respectful to the regulations in our industry. That said, we also used the data we had at our fingertips to understand what people care about and the way they feel, because the biggest barrier in financial services is inertia. The fact is, people who are really brilliant, I’m talking putting a Mars Rover on Mars, may not be as comfortable making investment decisions.

We also got inside of what matters to the people that we serve. We learned that people like to see, hear, and understand other people like them. Everything on our site, from the photography we use, to the stories we tell, that’s all real people. You talked a lot about this transformation from the consumer standpoint, but what about internally? How have you changed or restructured within for this digital transformation effort?

Weaver: Well, that’s a really interesting question because I don’t think you can do the change we just delivered and not make changes internally in marketing but also across the company. We had to transform ourselves, not only adopt all these businesses, but really, as a firm, become customer-centered. We’ve transformed from a product-centered firm to a customer-centered firm, and that goes way beyond marketing.

Being a digital company, having a digital mindset, goes end to end, and it’s something that is embraced across the company. In marketing, as a matter of fact, where I once had a digital group before, digital is pervasive. I call it air. It’s the way paper used to be 50 years ago, and so now you’ve got to consider, how do you bring together the way people want to meet you? That could be digital, it could be in print, it could be on the phone. How do you make it all work together and across a variety of devices so people can get what they want, when they want it, and how they want it?

We have created centers of excellence in the area of branding and marketing, which includes all forms of advertising and customer insights. And we named a chief digital officer about six months ago to help empower change across the firm; it is an enterprisewide function. What’s your biggest challenge in digital marketing?

Weaver: Digital marketing is the biggest opportunity I’ve got. Almost half of our marketing will now be digital marketing in one form or another. Digital gives us such an amazing way to test and learn. Analytics are fundamental under this program, and we have put very rigorous analytical metrics and testing underneath. Frankly, the beauty of digital is it allows you to get much quicker response and do much more tests to learn.

I never think about digital challenges because there are just so many opportunities. There’s so much empowerment that comes as a result of having that capability in the way that it presents itself today. But to answer your actual question, probably the biggest challenge is keeping up with all of the new things that one has in front of them and putting into perspective what to use when.