Catherine Roche shows the good in BMO

The Marketer of the Year was one of the key architects behind a purpose platform that helped frame up everything the bank stands for.

MajaNeable

This feature was first published in strategy’s Winter 2022 issue. Every day this week, we are publishing one of the five Marketers of the Year for 2021. Check back here again tomorrow to see who else made the illustrious group of MOYs. 

Catherine Roche isn’t your average marketer. In fact, she actually wasn’t a marketer until about five years ago. That was when she left one of the Big Three consulting firms, BCG, for one of the Big Five banks, BMO. There, she quickly climbed the ranks and was appointed CMO in 2017. But spending 20 years as a consultant, never the client, isn’t what puts Roche in a league of her own – it’s that she had a significant hand in crafting, articulating, and enacting BMO’s raison d’être.

“To Boldy Grow the Good in Business and in Life” is what she and her colleague Richard Rudderham – the chief HR officer at the time – called the bank’s new purpose platform when it debuted in late 2019. It’s not that BMO wasn’t “growing the good” before Roche and Rudderham formally set the strategy to drive positive change. Giving back had always been a core part of the bank’s brand, but the architects of its manifesto uncovered a way to better communicate that to the public.

“We wanted to have a conversation with our community about what we stand for in a way that not only spoke about our charitable good deeds, but also connected to our work as bankers,” says Roche of the reason they spent 10 months in 2018 speaking with 18,000 employees and thousands more customers on how they perceive the bank. They also consulted with professors of anthropology, biology, environmental science and theology to unearth BMO’s strengths.

When they were done, a manifestation of the bank’s purpose was released with a set of commitments to “support a thriving economy, sustainable future and inclusive society.” That entails things like doubling the size of its Indigenous banking business, increasing its support for small businesses and, especially, women entrepreneurs, as well as mobilizing billions of dollars for sustainable finance by 2025.

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A massive component of the bank’s new mission is to create “Zero Barriers to Inclusion” and there are several programs that Roche and the marketing team of 350 have developed to support equity, equality and inclusion.

Much of the bank’s focus is targeted at fighting gender bias by addressing the root causes of women’s financial disempowerment. This can be seen in “Jane’s Story,” a 2020 short film – created by FCB, with media by UM – that shows a young girl as she experiences a lifetime of negative stereotypes that condition her to become financially dependent on someone else.

The bank then set out to #bankruptthebias and encouraged society to dismantle the myths that women don’t know how to handle Above: In a 2021 Earth Day campaign, BMO connected the dots for consumers by showing them how they can contribute to sustainable finance. In 2021, Roche and the team released another campaign as an evolution of “Jane’s Story” and which centered around a petition to eliminate terms like “gold digger” and “shopaholic” from the dictionary.

BMO had been a strong believer in removing roadblocks that exist for women, long before Roche joined the bank. In 1994, for example, it was recognized for bringing women into leadership roles when it was the first Canadian company – and North American bank – to win a Catalyst Award. In 2017, it did it again, becoming one of only nine companies to win the medal twice. Beyond its internal efforts, the bank also breaks barriers through funding, having created the BMO Celebrating Women Grant Program in 2020 to provide financial support as pandemicinduced lockdowns wrecked havoc on small businesses.

“When women aren’t empowered, that costs the community and we lose economic opportunity. BMO believes that’s a reality it can change,” says Roche. “We’ve been a pioneer on that journey with women for a long time, and therefore, it’s only natural for marketing to be thinking about how to bring that into conversations with customers and the community more broadly.”

The marketer says her mission is to create “an ongoing, steady drumbeat of stories” that go beyond one-time campaigns. For example, while “Barrier Breakers” was launched during Black History month in 2021, it continues to grow with the digital series being regularly updated. “Barrier Breakers” kicked off with stories of black business owners who face various obstacles, but has since evolved to include entrepreneurs of different cultural backgrounds. So far, it’s featured 12 BIPOC business owners.

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That same reiterative approach has also been applied to the work BMO is doing in sustainable finance, says Roche. The brand claims to have been the “only bank to deliver a sustained climate message beyond Earth Day” when it aired “Banking for Change” – a commercial that communicated how BMO is financing sustainable businesses with $300 billion by 2025. “It was a campaign where we communicated to a more mass audience about what we’re doing to contribute to a sustainable future,” says Roche, adding that a big opportunity for the bank going forward will be around articulating how consumers are a part of that journey.

“When people talk about sustainable finance, it can often feel so lofty, so distant,” she says. “But how can I – as a consumer and the way that I work with my bank – contribute to a better future? That’s something we’ve been very mindful of. We’re looking for ways to show, in our retail banking space, how the choice of a credit card, for instance, goes directly to initiatives like rebuilding forests. We’ve got to make that connection clearer for our customers.”

It’s not everyday that a CMO is asked to construct a company vision that rallies an entire enterprise as vast as BMO. But Roche believes that because “marketing is the front face of the bank and the connection to consumers” that it was only natural for the department to be at the centre of the conversation.

“Marketing continues to play a central role, telling stories and bringing proof points to life in a powerful way,” she adds. “Leaning on our purpose-driven dialogue is so important to us. So you’re going to see a continuation of a steady drumbeat around zero barriers to inclusion, with sustainability becoming a bigger area for us.”

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