Do you remember your frustration as you waited on hold for almost an hour to speak to someone at your bank? Or what about when you got a “deal” on a mortgage only to later find out your lender wasn’t transparent and you owed hundreds more each month in interest charges? How many times have you heard people joke about keeping “bankers hours,” which always seemed a lot less than the hours the rest of us kept?
Fortunately, as the adage goes, something good almost always seems to emerge from something bad.
As ordinary Americans and titans of the U.S. banking industry alike struggled to survive during the Great Recession, several of our executives were working on a way to disrupt the banking industry from the inside out, taking those all-too-common customer pain points and using them to forge a new type of bank — one truly designed around the customer, not the banker.
Read on as Ally’s leadership team discusses the launch of the bank in 2009, followed by a decade of growth and progress that not only established Ally as a leading digital financial brand, but forever changed the landscape of the banking industry.
In Our Voices: Ally Leaders Reflect on the Evolution of the Brand
Andrea Brimmer, Chief Marketing and Public Relations Officer: When we think about the launch of the Ally brand, it’s important to remember the landscape of the financial industry back then. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression began in 2007, so it was an exceptionally tumultuous time. Consumers were in one of two modes: Either they were apathetic because they felt like they couldn’t do anything about what was going on around them, or they were outraged. People were taking money out of the banks like they did during the Great Depression and hiding it under their mattresses because they didn’t really know what was unfolding around them.
Jeffrey Brown (JB), Chief Executive Officer: Our company, whose legacy business had always been auto finance, was in a similar situation to other financial institutions. The entire financial services industry was at a crossroads, and there was a unique opportunity to move forward in new ways.
Diane (Di) Morais, President of Consumer and Commercial Products: We wanted to do something that had never been done in this category.
JB: A number of executives here at the time began to evaluate how to bring value to customers in a new way, and the idea began to take hold to become a new type of deposit-taking bank. So, there was a fast and furious effort around the end of 2008 to be granted bank holding company status by the Federal Reserve.
Di: We were granted bank holding status on Christmas Eve 2008, which gave us the opportunity to redefine the future of banking, its mission, and its purpose.
JB: The combination of the uncertainty in the financial industry and the growing frustration of customers, led us to launch our online bank aggressively at the start of 2009.
Andrea: We knew the path forward was to create this new brand and disrupt the category forever because it was in such need of change. And as a team, we came together quickly to seize the opportunity.
Di: From the beginning, we knew we wanted to create a really different experience for the consumer. There was a huge opportunity to put the consumer at the center of the conversation.
Andrea: One day, a group of us sat in a room, and we said, “What’s everything you hate about banking?” Up on a whiteboard went things like the exorbitant, ridiculous fees, the fact that they’re not open 24/7, being routed to an offshore call center, the use of jargon that doesn’t make sense and purposely confuses you. It was a big light bulb moment for us. We wanted our company to solve for these pain points.
Di: We weren’t encumbered by any legacy practices, so we designed our bank from a blank sheet of paper. We took tried-and-true banking practices and completely re-engineered them with the customer in mind.
Andrea: Everybody said to us, “The world doesn’t need another bank. Why would you launch in the midst of a financial crisis?” And our answer was, “You’re right. The world doesn’t need another bank. It needs a better bank.” That became our rallying cry, and it fueled us and brought us together as a team.
Di: We decided if we’re going to start a new bank, the customer truly had to be at the center, and so there would be no hidden fees. There would be no fine print. They could talk to a live human whenever they wanted. Because people, particularly at a digital bank, are going to bank anytime they want around the clock, and we need to be staffed accordingly.
Andrea: It went from the worst of times to the most fun times. We had this scrappy mentality where we behaved and acted like a 90-year-old startup.
JB: There was a lot of skepticism about the branchless model and the quality of our customer base.
Di: In the very early days, there was a very small group in Charlotte. It was magical in a way because we were all super tight, problem solving and ideating all day long. We worked in a giant operations center and joked we could bowl in it because it was so empty.
[Ally Bank officially opened its virtual doors for business on May 14, 2009]
Di: We made the strategic decision we were going to be a digital bank, but we were going to invest in our human element. We knew we were onto something, and 10 years later, we are incredibly proud of what we have built.
JB: We’ve embodied — and really rallied around — this idea of being a disruptor. But not narrowly-defined disruption — purposeful disruption that has forced our entire industry to evolve.
Di: We had 0% brand recognition and only two basic products: a very good savings account and a number of CDs. We had a very simple website, but we did a lot of things to make our call center experience really stand out. Instead of getting customers off of the phone as fast as possible, we worked to solve the customer’s problem the first time they called. That way, they didn’t have to call back two, three, four times and get frustrated and annoyed in the process. We want customers to call and talk to us before they make the important decision to open an account and make a deposit. That is a real differentiator for us and continues to be part of our secret sauce today.
JB: We learned very quickly that our bank was resonating with both the young and older demographics, and a much higher net worth demographic as well.
Andrea: We all have such incredible pride around our brand. Every year feels like a new challenging phase, but in a good way. When you create the kind of disruption that we have, you are never in a period of stillness. You’re constantly trying to figure out how to exceed that next expectation.
JB: As we look forward, we are focused on fulfilling our transformation as a full-scale digital financial services company, bringing the best of our brand to a full suite of digital products.
Di: I always say, “Ally was born out of necessity, but designed to be different.” Ten years ago, we knew we had to be a company that stood out. We couldn’t be like every other bank. We did that by treating customers better than they had ever experienced with their bank. Our brand pillars — do it right, tirelessly innovate, obsess over the customer — drive us to continue to do that to this day.
Andrea: Every single conversation at Ally starts and ends with the customer. If a legacy institution tries to do some of the things we do, it comes across as disingenuous or a marketing ploy. Consumers accept who we are and don’t think we’re pretenders because we don’t have 100 years of doing otherwise. We’ve been like this since the beginning, and they appreciate it. We’ve always talked the talk and walked the walk, which has led to a dramatic acceleration of the growth of our brand.
Di: I don’t know if any of us really anticipated the extent to which that customer obsession and foundational focus on “do it right” would reverse bleed over into our company culture in such a deep way.
JB: Our “do it right” culture is truly incredible. I think Ally is very different. We are a very nimble, adaptable, diverse and inclusive culture. And that continues to drive our success.
Andrea: Our team is always aware that what we do matters to people — we’re dealing with people’s money, which empowers them to do things in their lives for themselves and the people they love the most. Our business value proposition has grown, reaching more people than ever before and providing them financial solutions, not just products. I love that we help people be more money mindful for their overall wellbeing. That continues to excite me every day.
Di: We’ve successfully built true digital capability — offering credit cards, investing services, and home mortgage products. We’re constantly innovating around our products, services, and capabilities to give our customers control. Our future will continue to be fueled by great customer experiences so people can manage their money in ways that are easy for them, especially as we evolve our focus to providing true financial solutions, not just financial products.
Andrea: We’re at a precipice where our company is about to soar and accelerate to the next level.
JB: We have this tremendous customer-centric brand and have been on a growth path for a few years now, but the exciting part is that we are just getting started.
Read more on Ally Bank’s 10 Year Anniversary.