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At CFA Institute, ‘Great Brand Transformation’ Starts With Its CMO

Michael Collins spent the bulk of his marketing career spearheading large change efforts—launching new products and services, re-creating brands, driving field marketing, and preparing companies for sale or public offerings—for companies including JPMorgan Chase and CSC. But the marketing journeyman left the world of corporate turnarounds last year to join not-for-profit CFA Institute as managing director and CMO.

Since joining the CFA Institute, the largest association of investment professionals in the world, Collins has set about reorganizing the marketing group to increase its understanding of local customer needs and launch a global brand repositioning campaign. CMO.com spoke to Collins about the benefits of working in a mission-driven organization, the differences and similarities between the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds, the necessary ingredients for brand transformation, and why he’s looking forward to a chance to make long-term change.

CMO.com: What drew you to chief marketing role at CFA Institute?
Collins: What really appealed to me was CFA Institute’s focus on its members, which are our customers. We are a global, mission-driven organization focused on investment professionals and setting a standard for excellence. We have 147,000 dues-paying members, and, at any given time, we also have 250,000 candidates going through our credentialing programs. We have what we believe is the highest global standard for a credential, but CFA Institute is also a champion of ethical behavior and a key source of investment management industry content for our members.

Even at the best companies I’ve worked for, it was easy for the organization to lose sight of why we were there: to make a difference for our customers. Here, I’m working in an organization of 600 people, and every one is focused on making that difference.

CMO.com: Is that the organization’s biggest marketing asset?
Our biggest strength is our colleagues’ passion for the mission. I’ve worked with people who are incredibly good at what they do, but I’ve never encountered people so passionate about it across the board as they are at CFA Institute. It’s our secret sauce. Our colleagues around the world have an innate understanding of what we do and are emotionally invested in it. That comes through in the programs that we create.

When I worked at Iomega, we introduced zip storage drives. The company grew rapidly—it was a stock market darling. By all measures, it was a success. But at the end of the day, it was a product we were selling to make money. No one really cared about it.

CMO.com: What was the biggest challenge when you arrived at CFA?
One of my mandates was to reorient our global marketing approach. We serve members in 160 different countries and territories. Before I arrived, marketing and communications was structured by discipline with everyone reporting into the global head of each function. We wanted to change that so that those functional professionals report to the head of their own region. We now have three regional marketing leaders, moved the bulk of functional responsibilities under them, and are creating a very small but nimble global team.

I was recruited to bring that focus on the local market and structure marketing so that we start our efforts locally and then bring that local knowledge back to the center to create global campaigns. It can have a big impact if you do it right, but the challenge is keeping things consistent at the global level and not driving inefficiencies.

We also found a new global communications partner. Most agencies we talked to took a localization approach that amounted to creating something at the global level and then throwing it to the region to “localize” it. The partner we are working with now has strong local teams capable of creating messages that are synchronized at the regional level and then float up to the central team.

It’s about discipline rather than control. It’s easy to control something from the center, but the real magic happens when you put frameworks in place that enable local markets to act autonomously.

CMO.com: You spent most of your career in financial services and tech. Any reservations about joining a nonprofit?
I was wondering how we were going to measure success. As a global leader operating as a not-for-profit, we don’t have typical competitors. We’re not Coke worried about what Pepsi is doing. And we’re a not-for-profit. So how do you know when you’ve succeeded other than a gut feeling?

What surprised me is that CFA Institute is really excellent at this. You can measure things just as you do in for-profit world. We look at the cost of campaigns per customer and our overall cost-to-serve metrics, for example. These are measures that give you a good benchmark of how you’re doing and how and where to continually improve.

CMO.com: What is the biggest difference in working for a nonprofit?
The difference has less to do with CFA Institute being not-for-profit and more about it being an organization that has such a rich and deep heritage. We “sell” a program of professional credentials and set ethical standards, for example. The brand is the cornerstone of the entire organization. We’re not just protecting our market but all that the brand stands for.

CMO.com: What were the business drivers behind your current global brand campaign?
We are in year two of the campaign, [which has been] focused on building awareness with investment management institutions in the 11 country markets that reach the bulk of our members. We’re now expanding the campaign into 11 U.S./Canadian city markets where we aim to reach 80% of high net worth investors. The goal is to transform our message from that of a credentialing body that has some content into an organization that is building and defining this profession around the world.

Our positioning line is: “A difference that matters.” The idea is that what we do ultimately helps people reach their dreams or create benefits to society. The work our professionals do can ultimately bring clean drinking water to areas that don’t have it, for example. Those are real-life examples of the downstream result of hiring CFA charterholders to work for you or your firm.

CMO.com: Where do you begin with that kind of an effort?
We built our brand promise by working with our societies and our members. Then we looked at our markets to determine the execution strategy.

The CFA charter is better known in the U.S. and U.K. than in India and Brazil, for example. So we shaped a series of executions that start with introducing ourselves in areas where we aren’t well-known and launching the new brand promise in areas where we are later on. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

CMO.com: How is your experience driving turnarounds, repositioning brands, and launching new products helping you in this role?
Collins: One CEO a couple of companies ago told me, “Keep your focus on your customers, and keep everything else in your peripheral vision.” I brought that with me as a key mantra.

What we’re doing here isn’t very different than what I’ve done in the private sector: simplifying the message, structuring the marketing team so we’re locally focused, and balancing efficiency and effectiveness. Great brand transformations all start with those disciplines. It’s like being a head coach in professional sports. You’ve had success in the past with your strategy, but you flex it based on the team.

CMO.com: Will you be moving on to a new team after the global brand relaunch?
Hopefully I have longer than just the transformation. My background has focused on helping organizations transform quickly in preparation for being sold, for example. But what attracted me here was the chance to make a sustained impact versus just sprinting. We’ve done some sprinting, simply because it’s easier to get after it and get it done so you can start to leverage the new framework. We are a global organization, and there’s an opportunity for a tremendous amount of meaningful work to be done.

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