On the Horizon: A Regional Bank’s Approach to Partnerships

On the Horizon: A Regional Bank’s Approach to Partnerships

Erin is responsible for corporate-wide marketing, brand management, and client experience for First Horizon, a leading financial services company in the southeastern U.S. Prior to joining First Horizon, Erin led the brand and go-to-market strategy development for USAA Bank. She graduated from Southern Methodist University where she played volleyball for the Mustangs.  

In conversation with podcast host Jim Andrews, Erin charts First Horizon’s sponsorship strategy, screening process, and evaluation methods, as well as the importance of coordination between central and local offices. Below are edited highlights of the conversation. 


Jim: Recognizing that First Horizon has many different types of sports and entertainment partnerships, what is the strategy behind those relationships? What goals and objectives are you planning to achieve and where does sponsorship fit within the marketing mix? 

Erin: We are headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee with approximately $90 billion in assets. We have a lot of fantastic markets within our footprint. So when you think about what we are looking for in sponsorships and partnerships, it really varies. Some of it is awareness, some is client entertainment. I love the sponsorships that are full funnel, that drive awareness and familiarity, but also drive down the funnel into the client experience or lead generation. 

We have some great sponsorships today within our footprint. In Nashville, we have First Horizon Park. We have done some great work with Fifth + Broadway. We’ve got fantastic markets from Miami to Atlanta to Charlotte to Nashville to Dallas, so we do a lot. It’s a mix between local and centralized. Every market is different—different goals, different objectives and are in different places in their business cycles. 

We work directly with the local markets to determine what is right for them. Maybe a sports sponsorship or partnership makes sense in one market but not another, so we may want to partner with an art museum or installation.  

On my team, sponsorships fall underneath brand strategy. I have a wonderful person on my team, Paula Beale, who runs brand strategy. She and her team will get involved, look at the opportunities and work with local teams in the market to make sure that there is a fit. That’s how the structure is today. 

Jim: So you have multiple objectives, sometimes, as you said, full funnel, but others that are targeted at different places along the customer journey. And that is both B2C and B2B, I’m assuming. 

Erin: Yes, so with some of the bigger sponsorships like naming rights of a stadium, you’re reaching the entire community, both B2C and B2B. A lot of times there is a B2B2C component in there too. 

It goes back to what is the objective. If it’s awareness, then we want to reach all consumers in the market. If we’re trying to drive more mid-to-lower funnel, it will be more targeted, perhaps events where we are inviting a specific prospect or client base and really pushing lead generation.  

It’s critical to determine what the objective is at the outset and not wait until you are in there and then ask what are we going to do with this. It’s nice to have the fun shiny things, but if they are not returning or making an impact for you it will be hard to explain that down the road! 

Jim: That up front work is so important, whether it’s screening, or vetting, or whatever name you want to put on that process. I’m sure like most people who sit in your and your team members’ seats, you receive a lot of proposals and communications from people who believe they have the perfect opportunity for First Horizon! Can you give us a sense of how you review those, or perhaps proactively find opportunities, if that’s the case? 

Erin: We do get a lot of inquiries and opportunities. There are so many great programs, teams and events out there, but of course we can’t do them all. So the first lens my team takes is: Is this a match for the brand? There are some things that just don’t make sense for us given how we are positioned in the market or the direction we are going. So that’s just the first high level line item. 

After that, it’s about what we are trying to drive. Is it awareness, conversion, etc. Can we tie this opportunity to that objective? And then it’s: Who’s attending? Is the audience going to find our association with the property valuable from their side? Are they going to make the right association? So there is a lot of work that goes into the front line. 

I would always recommend to partners who are looking to gain sponsors, start with the who and the what and give the value up front. That will take a lot of the time out of the close cycle for the partner and sponsor also. 

Jim: How do you activate your partnerships to ensure they are recognized by and relevant to your target audiences? 

Erin: Especially when you are looking at it from a budget perspective, if someone says this is going to be say, $100,000, to do this sponsorship, you have to add in what is the activation, because there is a cost to doing that, especially if it’s on the experiential side. 

Activation will depend on the objective of what the partnership or sponsorship is trying to drive. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s important to look at a multi-channel presence. For instance, if it’s something where you have boots on the ground—something where the local market has said they really want to do it—we can add surround sound from centralized marketing. When I say surround sound, it’s looking at media and social media—paid and earned. 

For example, Fifth + Broadway, which is a retail and residential development in Nashville, was an opportunity that the national market—the centralized marketing team—brought forward and partnered with the local market to create the assets around that sponsorship. We put paid media behind it and when there are events, we can also use some of our social media. That way, you can get a little more bang for your buck. 

Jim: The big question for sponsors is, of course, how to determine ROI and what’s working and what’s not. How does First Horizon approach performance measurement in terms of KPIs/metrics and methods of evaluation? 

Erin: This again goes back to what are we trying to do. Not all spend is created equal and not all spending equates to an ROI, a direct bottom line. For instance, if we want to raise awareness in the market, get more share of voice, we’re going to look at the brand tracker and see if we have had an awareness increase over time. So that’s a longer game. 

As you move down the funnel, maybe we have a partnership with an event that’s aimed at driving prospect and client lead generation. That’s where we will look at whether we were able to provide air cover and help fulfill the funnel through the banker and are any of those leads converting. 

There are many different levels of measurement within these types of events and partnerships. There is a lot you can do. We did a partnership with an event for one of our commercial groups where we were able to measure who was invited, what happened within the funnel and who converted. We can equate that two of the closed loans more than paid for what we spent for the event. 

That’s the model our team is utilizing. As a marketing leader, I find it critical that marketing becomes more about driving to the bottom line—less of a cost and more of a revenue contributor. And it’s not as hard as people think to develop that muscle within your organization. It also helps to gain buy-in from your business leaders for doing some of the events and sponsorships. 

Having that measurement piece in place for whatever your objective is for the sponsorship is critical. 

Jim: I couldn’t agree more. For many years, we heard, “Sponsorships can’t really be measured.” It may have been more difficult years ago, but technology now has allowed us to drill down deeper into those types of things. You can look at the data of here’s who we gave tickets to, here’s who attended and connect that data to the CRM system and follow those people almost automatically. 

Erin: And in regard to tickets and TicketManager, that is huge. As you grow and become a larger institution, that client entertainment and client experience is really important, especially as you build relationships, both consumer and commercial clients. 

Management of tickets has made it much easier, using applications such as TicketManager and other things, in getting local markets to engage because you can show the value for the spend. 


Jim: Where would you like to see your sponsorship program go from here and what would that require from either your current or future rights holder partners? 

Erin: On the local side, and specifically growth markets, we are getting better alignment between the centralized marketing component and the local markets. That is critical in terms of partnerships. 

The centralized team can sit here and say, “We think this would be great.” But if we get into the market and they say they would never want to do that, we’re never going to see success. Partnering more closely with our markets has been amazing. Over the past year, we have built out plans with specific markets that have the multi-channel approach and also helping them think outside the box in terms of opportunities they may not have thought about and having them help us think outside the box in terms of what is right for them. 

For the centralized sponsorships and partnerships, it’s really aligning our brand more closely with additional entities that can provide that full-funnel experience from the top down and where we can get that value to continue to drive forward and drive growth throughout the institution. 

Partnerships, sponsorships and events really are critical. They are things that the bankers ask for regularly. Paid media, campaigns, automation are all fantastic, but there is still something to be said for having an in-person experience. 

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