Liudas Rimkus started his journey at SEB back in 2004. Once employed as the B2B marketing manager, Liudas has moved through the ranks to become first the CMO of SEB Lithuania to then finally replacing Karl Multer as the head of Baltic marketing and communications in late 2020. As the head of marketing for one of the biggest banks in the Baltics, he shares his thoughts on the differences between the three countries, the need for localisation, importance of strong personal brands and why the competition between the Baltic states can serve as a brilliant PR opportunity.
You are overseeing the Baltic markets and have been with SEB for quite some time. In terms of consumer behaviour and business culture, can you spot unification or are the three still inherently different?
Prior to replacing Karl Multer back in 2020, I was the Lithuanian CMO for more than 10 years. We have finally started to operate as a Baltic marketing function. There used to be major differences between us and it took us some time to fully align our structures.
Looking at the consumer behaviour towards banking then I don’t see any significant differences, hence it makes sense for us to have a unified approach and a single creative agency. Banking as a product is a commodity, whether it be a mortgage loan or an investment product, why should the needs of Estonian consumers be any different from the needs of Latvians. So from a customer need perspective, the differences are marginal or none.
The differences come in the form of the media mix and the way we communicate. We have always been respectful of and considered the cultural differences. I remember a study from some years back on how Baltic countries perceive each other. The conclusion was that although we think that we are different, we are actually quite similar. These differences live in our head as opposed to reality.
Despite that, some differentiators can be spotted. Estonia has been leading the digital transformation and has more products digitally available, but Lithuania and Latvia are catching up. Secondly, Lithuania is very keen on social media. Engagement and the number of followers, close to 300,000 for some influencers, is massive, communities are huge. Crisis communication is often happening on social media and Lithuanians expect social customer support on a 24/7 basis. In Latvia, Twitter is very prominent, but almost non-existent in Estonia and Lithuania. Otherwise the media landscape is quite similar with big players present on each market. There are also issues regarding the language – the tonality has to be adjusted on each market. So to sum up, the way we consume media might be different, but otherwise we differ very little.
What about creative solutions? Can you implement the same solution across all three countries?
That’s what we’ve been doing for 10 years. Think global act local has been our motto. The differences are too little to invest in. We are working with Ogilvy Lithuania and Havas across the Baltics. It’s hard to implement the Swedish solution because we are quite different, but not in terms of tonality, but in terms of business agenda. Sweden is ahead in investment and venture products, the Baltic market is still a bit behind the curve. 80% of our work has been localised, but we are moving towards relying more and more on the Swedish creative.
What’s your experience with B2B marketing and communications?
We are strengthening our B2B marketing and communications, but it’s a very specific competence. We are still looking for interesting ways to do B2B. It’s actually a missing competence in the market in terms of agencies.
SEB has the luxury of having their own customer base so the majority of our activities are related to existing customers: events, Innovation Lab, growth program for SMEs, etc. The biggest struggle is onboarding new customers, but we are trying to be creative here. For instance, we have launched an E-academy, where companies can get advice not only on banking matters, but on the different stages regarding entrepreneurship. Participating in entrepreneurship centres, clusters and fintech hubs is very important.
Two years ago we discovered LinkedIn and started to get a grasp of this channel, which despite being expensive, is very efficient in terms of lead generation and thought leadership. We try to push our experts to be more visible in the media. They are the public faces of SEB.
It’s a major trend and many companies are coming to the realisation that personal brands are often stronger than corporate brands. On the other hand, there is always the threat that once they become influential, they will wonder of to work for the competition or start their own venture.
I have a brilliant example here. Lithuanian SEB economist is now the president of Lithuania. He worked for us for 20 years. Looking at the share of voice – economists are by far more efficient even compared to country heads or board members. Some of our opinion leaders who are brave and active on LinkedIn are creating bigger engagement than SEB’s corporate posts. We have provided trainings on how to create relevant content. But there are trolls and people who are flooding the internet with negative comments and some debates are started on personal profiles, hence they should also be prepared for that.
Meanwhile, we are also trying to translate our corporate posts to human language. Instead of posting about a new deal that SEB has financed, we try to bring out the real benefits for the regular consumer. It’s an emerging trend.
How universal are the content pieces? Is translation enough or does it have to localised?
There are two sides here. In general, unless you put them into perspective where countries are compared, Estonian media doesn’t care about Lithuanian facts. Competition works. Even our Swedish colleagues have been surprised that their news are irrelevant for the Baltic society. We have started to do a Baltic business outlook where we compare countries. The CFO community is another good example. We gather them once a year to present our CFO survey, which we conduct ourselves. In order to have a track record, the same questions are asked each year: how many people are you going to employ, are you going to invest or pay dividends to shareholders, etc. This is extremely interesting both for the media and CFOs. The project has created a mutual benefit because the content is beneficial for the customers and we have a great source for insights.
LHV’s Madis Toomsalu has recently said that they are seeing explosive growth and in five years’ time LHV will be the second biggest bank in Estonia after Swedbank. How do you see the competition?
I have a different view on what’s going on in the banking sector. I don’t think we are solemnly competing with traditional banks – fintechs are the biggest competition in the whole industry. Revolut is a great example here. They emerged out of the blue and everyone was regarding them as a fintech, but now they are a bank. There are other payment solutions companies and peer-to-peer landing businesses which seem small players today, but I can already see them materialising. It’s not about measuring five banks anymore – the financing universe is evolving.
On the other hand, we should keep our eyes open for cooperation as well. Cooperation with startups and fintech will be one of the key drivers in future banking. Banks have solid brands and customer bases, but these new players are fast in building digital solutions. We already have examples of partnerships here.
Let’s say we have a young graduate interested in a marketing job at SEB. What are the characteristics or skills you are looking for?
We have a brilliant program here at SEB called Youth Lab, where talented people can apply for internship. Several people from our lab have become solid project managers at SEB.
As for the characteristics, tech savviness is hygiene today. The person should also possess PR skills, understand how social media and performance marketing work and have some sense of branding. The boundaries between sales, marketing and communications are merging, 360 communication is key here. But most importantly, they should have a sparkle in their eyes, the rest we can teach.
The older generation complains that young marketers have become too technical. Creativity has been destroyed by algorithms. Do you agree?
I wouldn’t put it as a millennial thing. Of course it’s easier for them to keep up with the digital agenda, but as a CMO, I try to combine people with different competences. Everyone should possess the skill that they are the strongest in. Nowadays, many companies are obsessed with performance marketing, but if you take it too far – you will damage the brand. It should be a delicate balancing act between branding and performance. Having a diverse team is the key to hitting that balance.
Clients and agencies are like a married couple. Blissful times of romance combined with conflict and even breakups. What are the most important factors you are looking for in an agency?
Consistency. It’s very valuable to have a loyal person who understands your background and values. And sticks with you for a long time. Agencies should be like family members. I really value the agencies who we can treat as consultants. Looking at agencies in Sweden, I noticed that there are a lot of senior people. In the Baltics, people usually switch agencies for brands, oversees it’s the opposite. For them, the ultimate career is to work as a strategist for an agency. They are not just executers, but also consultants. I’m expecting agencies to not only deliver on the task, but to also challenge me and possess the deeper knowledge of our agenda.
Photo sourced from Delfi.lt