Kathy Klingler

In October 2013, it seemed like all of the familiar red Sovereign Banks around Boston disappeared overnight, magically replaced with signs bearing a white, swirling graphic and the mysterious word “Santander.”

Whether or not you were a Sovereign customer, chances are you were one of thousands who noticed the re-branding of the bank nationwide. Driving this change of face was Kathy Klingler, Boston-based U.S. chief marketing officer for Spanish bank Santander, and The Ad Club’s guest-of-honor at its quarterly CMO Breakfast event last week.

On Thursday, Klingler, sporting a sharp Santander-red blazer, broke down the rebirth of the Sovereign-Santander brand to a packed room at the Microsoft NERD Center.

In 2009, Banco Santander purchased the primarily Northeastern Sovereign Bank. “At the time, we made a conscious decision to not rebrand Sovereign,” shared Klingler, noting that the corporation was focused on profitability and technology. It wasn’t until 2013 that Santander decided to officially begin the process of bringing Sovereign under its branded umbrella.

Early last year, Klingler and her co-executives set a date – October 17th – on which Sovereign’s Santander makeover would be complete. “It was about introducing a new bank into the market, with a new identity.”

Hundreds of people across many, many departments were working on this project, and marketing was only one of them,” explained the CMO.

Each Santander and Sovereign office had a countdown clock, denoting how many months, weeks, days, minutes and seconds remained until that fateful autumn date. Recounted Klingler, “It was an entire new website, a new experience, new navigation and a complete transformation of the retail network.”

Santander worked with Boston company Communispace to ask questions and listen to what customers were saying. “In order for us to be relevant, we needed to know what was important to them,” shared Klingler, noting that the company’s top priority was meeting the needs, and dreams, of the consumer. The bank’s team also tapped ad agency Arnold Worldwide to turn newfound insights into fresh creative content — one of which was a commercial that toyed with people’s tongues tripping over the Spanish phrase.

When D-Day arrived, the company was ready. Hundreds of conversations with 1,200 stakeholders, 32,000 gallons of red paint and 1-million square-feet of new carpeting later, Sovereign Bank successfully metamorphosed into Santander.

BostInno circled up with Klingler for a quick Q&A post-presentation.

BostInno: What was so different about the Sovereign and Santander rebranding than the other rebranding work you’ve done?

Santander CMO, Kathy Klingler: This rebranding was a little different from some of what I’ve done in the past because it was not as much about a name change, or changing a logo or business cards, which is often what you find. … This was about introducing a new bank, a new experience, new capabilities, new products and services, all wrapped around a rebrand. On October 17th, the Sovereign name had to go away from every single document, every sign had to change, every internal website, every phone message, every email address. Everything needed to change.

 … It just wasn’t about the marketing; it was about the whole business. This was by far one of the largest [rebrands], and in a very concentrated period of time, that really touched every aspect of our business.

What was your biggest lessons learned from this experience?

I think because the enormity of this [project], my biggest lessons were about being very well-organized and being with the right people at the table who could make decisions. Having that leadership buy-in helped bring the whole company together as one. For me, it was important to empower different people in the organization to be a part of it and include them in a really strong, clear communications process so that we all knew what we were doing and were working toward a common date, as opposed to everyone being off doing their own thing.

What’s your marketing advice for young companies and startups that likely have a much smaller budget to work with?

We were doing a lot of things at the same time. We were launching new mobile applications and new ATMs, and every branch was changed. The budget was a reflection of everything, beyond the marketing side. For companies that have a smaller budget, you really need to prioritize. You really need to figure out what’s important. On the marketing side, understand who you’re trying to go after and what’s the best mechanism to do it. Maybe mass media isn’t really the way to go. Maybe it should be more digital, social and targeted. For us, we needed to get our name and brand out there to build awareness. It’s important to know what stage the company is in, what they are trying to accomplish and prioritize.

Image via Yahoo!