Some market sectors have a certain issue: no public, consumer-facing persona. Or if they have one, it's about as warm and cuddly as Zardoz. Take the credit bureau world. Yes, the three horsemen: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. If you're on the business side of the fence, they are invaluable. Ignore credit at your own risk (unless it’s 2008 and you’re selling mortgage-backed securities.)
Even I appreciate the depth of information they have. When I get an email from Equifax or Experian, I open it without thinking, because it's going to be market research, and not of the “Hey, Gen Y is gearing up to buy above-ground vinyl swimming pools. (and in small print) We know this because we interviewed seven people.” No, these guys have a data pool deeper than Lake Baikal, and I, for one, will always take a look at what they've pulled up in their net.
But should financial institutions working at a distance from consumers work to be consumer brands? Can they? If anyone knows how to give voice and enthusiasm to a brand, it's Kristen Simmons. As VP of marketing at Mazda's U.S. unit back in 2001, she helped usher in the brand’s “Zoom Zoom” mantra, and the childlike exuberance that it embodied.
Oh, and Simmons also happens to be, as of about two months ago, the CMO of Experian Consumer Services. That’s a big leap, although she has been consulting for the past few years. Can she humanize the company? She wants to and thinks it's possible and necessary. Her goal is to make Experian represent, well maybe not something warm and fuzzy, but at least a positive force to the person on the other side of that desk. Not that side, the other side: the guy biting his nails, waiting to hear “Sorry, I know you were the voice of ‘Zoom Zoom’ in those Mazda ads when you were a kid, but your credit rating isn't good enough for a loan on that 2015 MX-5 Miata. However, I have good news! You see that pre-loved Ford Probe out there? The one on cinder blocks ...”
Simmons, who handles strategic direction, development and execution of all marketing activities for Experian’s North America consumer services business, agrees that, especially now, when less and less of what we do is done privately, and every button we push spins off more personal data, there is a lot of serious and probably legitimate fear about who knows what. And in that sense maybe Experian isn't all that different from maybe even a car company. After all, it is more and more the case that your car knows things about you, and can tell others what it knows. Which can work well if, for example, you're driving a Chevrolet and have Progressive insurance: drive better, and maybe you can lower your rates.
Simmons gets that, and sees Experian as having a consumer-facing value. “I have been having more conversations about the similarities than I anticipated. I want to make sure that customer experience is awesome, and I do think this is a customer-focused company.” The key, she says, is creating and promoting Experian consumer-facing proactive — not reactive — services around empowering consumers to improve their credit health and, generally, achieve their larger goals.
But she concedes Experian is seen as “a standoffish entity. It hasn't had a human face to show people, and part of our challenge is that lots of consumer interactions with a credit bureau are negative and rearward facing: it's the report that the auto lender pulled that didn't get me that financing.
“It's something you hear about that wasn't a great experience,” she says. “What I see is that lots of people feel powerless. One of our big tasks is to communicate that we can be your advocate.”