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CULT BRAND: How Old Spins to Cool

How does an old stodgy bank start-up a new cool brand? Is a bank even allowed to build a cool brand? Is that a thing?

It certainly is and Alexandra Nuth aka "The Nuth-inator" talks to the guys about how spinning the new Challenger Brand - Brightside - out of ATB happened.

All of this cult branding goodness brought to you by Smashfly recruiting technology built for the talent life cycle. And big believers in building relationships with brands, not jobs.


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Joel: This Chad & Cheese Cult Brand Podcast is supported by SmashFly, recruiting technology built for the talent life cycle, and big believers in building relationships with brands, not jobs. Let SmashFly help tell your story and keep relationships at the heart of your CRM. For more information, visit today.

Intro: Hide your kids, lock the doors, you're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts, complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark. Buckle up boys and girls, it's time for the Chad & Cheese Podcast.

Joel: Are you ready for the Nuth-inator? Chad, what's up man? We're talking to another Canadian. This is becoming a really bad habit of ours. Welcome to the show everyone. This is the Chad & Cheese Podcast. I am Joel Cheesman accompanied by my cohost.

Chad: Chad Sowash.

Joel: And today, we are blessed to have Alexandra, Alex, the Nuth-inator, Nuth. Alex, I think I can call you that because we're friends now. Welcome to the show.

Alex: Thank you.

Joel: No one in our audience probably knows who you are, give them the elevator pitch, an intro on you as well as your organization.

Alex: For sure. My name is Alex Nuth, I'm a born and raised Canadian, but I'm actually a dual citizen so I'm also American, so I'm happy when everyone wins at the Olympics, especially in hockey.

Joel: Very nice. Very nice. My wife is shooting for that dual citizenship.

Alex: It's pretty awesome. But yeah, I'm in the Canadian Rockies in Calgary, which isn't much of a tech hub, too many people that don't know much about it. But we actually have some pretty cool things happening in our city, and a little bit of under the radar place for some really cool HR and great companies and some great technology that's coming out. I work for ATB Financial, which is a regional financial institution in Canada. In the Canadian landscape we're pretty small. We've got about 6,000 employees and about a million customers. But when we look at the North American landscape, we're actually quite large. We'd be about like the 20th largest bank in North America. We're pretty much about the right size to do some really cool tech investments and really great innovations and really invest in our people, but we're not so big that we get bogged down in a lot of bureaucracy and aren't afraid to take risks.

Alex: It's a pretty cool organization, and I've been on a journey for about the last two years now to build a challenger brand from scratch. It's a bit of a skunkworks project for ATB Financial where we got pushed out of the organization, a whole new tech stack, got to hire people completely differently than ATB does it, and we were able to really kind of reinvent things from the ground up. We have a new brand called Brightside, which is the challenger brand, and we're hoping to actually go to public launch within about a month. So it's a pretty exciting time for us right now.

Joel: Do you have time to talk to us? Jeez-

Alex: I have a great team.

Joel: I feel so special right about now.

Chad: Stop asking those questions, she's going to leave. So building a challenger brand, but yet you still have this ATB old stodgy brand, how do you build a challenger brand in the financial space? Because I mean, is it really hip? Is it cool? How do you make it cool and hip?

Alex: We're actually pretty lucky, ATB is actually a great place to work. We're typically in number two or number three place of the best places to work in Canada, and we've got a great culture that comes along with that top class store rating. So we're really lucky that we actually had a pretty good foundation to grow from, but at the same time, it was pretty hard to try to beat that as well and try to make that even better and cooler than what ATB is doing. ATB is like the first one to do blockchain, cross border. We've done some great investments into agile, trying to be a tech company, and we're really ahead of a lot of our competitors. So that made it a little bit easier for us to really try to push the boundaries even more because we have a lot of appetite for that at the company.

Alex: But in terms of trying to make it cool, I think one of the things that was really interesting when we first started up the team, and we only had about six when we first started the team two years ago and we're over a hundred now, we really tried to find people that weren't bankers. That was kind of the number one thing we were looking for, people that really wanted to change things and break things. And so we hired a very different DNA, a very different type of person, and I think a lot of times people think that means younger, and that's not necessarily true. We just really hired people that don't really fit into molds very well, and really had some big aspirations for what they wanted to achieve. It was really the purpose over the work. We have people coming in every day because they really want to do something different and really break banking from the ground up.

Chad: So that's the big question is purpose, right? So what is the purpose that actually draws all those individuals to want to come and break things in the financial industry?

Alex: That was really hard because we found really early on, nobody really cares about their bank. Banking's pretty commoditized. People are pretty apathetic, and banks aren't really cool. It's not one of those things where people are talking about it at a barbecue, "My bank was so cool, they did this thing for me." It's usually when they're complaining about their banks. So we were really trying to figure out, what does that look like? We started first with our customer, and really looked at where our customers not being served well currently. One of the things we found is that banks typically try to put people into nice, clean life stages or boxes or kind of tell you that the successful end state is that you're going to retire on a sailboat with gray hair.

Alex: We don't think people are really following that prescription of success anymore, so our purpose is really around helping people save and do what's right in the future without sacrificing for today, and serving people as they are, not as they should be. So we're never stepping in to say, "You should have this much in your retirement account," or, "You shouldn't be spending money on that coffee every day even though it makes you happy." It's about saying, "That's who you are, and we're all flawed and that's okay, so how do we just help you do that, and be yourself without trying to make you feel bad about it."

Joel: I'm curious from an employment perspective, it sounds like you guys almost started from the ground up in terms of the talent that came to work for the new company. Was that a bit of a minefield? Did you have a lot of good people at ATB saying, "Well, I want to work with this cool, digital bank site. Why do I have to stay here at ATB?"? Or was that a problem? How did you handle the people that were maybe jealous or wanted to come over to the new company?

Alex: We actually have a very funny story for the first kind of founding six that we hired. So it was with our old CEO, he's quite the visionary and he was one of the guys that really took us from really low engagement scores up to about 90% and really changed the culture at ATB. And so he had this kind of idea to do a bit of an experiment and almost like a secret interview for the first set of people. And so what we actually did is we identified about 35 high performers from across the company, and then we created this facilitated kind of two day workshop where we put people into purposeful conflict and lots of really hard situations. We gave them a problem to solve over the workshop that was pretty much unsolvable. We knew that we weren't going to come out with an answer, and we watched them and we had some facilitators and ourselves walk around and watch them and see what happened.

Chad: That's just mean. You put them in a cage with some boxing gloves.

Joel: That's why she's the Nuth-inator, dude.

Chad: Sorry. Keep going.

Alex: It was fascinating though, because there's a lot of people that were high performing in ATB, and then through that process you start to learn that maybe they're not comfortable killing their ideas, or maybe they can't step out of their comfort zone or they're not as collaborative as you might think they are, maybe they're trying to showboat a little bit. And so through that process, we were able to kind of whittle it down and say, for the DNA that we needed at this venture, which was around people that are just going to work really hard and aren't going to be swayed by the highest paid person's opinion, the hippos in the room. And aren't going to get stuck on an idea, not give it up, and are comfortable stepping outside of their areas of expertise and just helping out a team.

Alex: We were able to create this initial team that had so much chemistry and was totally the right DNA for us to really go try to break banking in a meaningful way. And then from that, they were able to hire people beneath them that were able to still have that part of the DNA. So we definitely had a lot of people across ATB putting up their hands, but we've been very, very strict on the types of people that we want to bring in, and the fact that they all have to fit into that very teamwork oriented, very fast, not holding onto those ideas and being able to really think differently about things.

Chad: Curious from sort of a longer term perspective, to piggyback on that point, will the new company, Brightside, have its own HR department? Will they have their own recruiters looking for unique people to that organization? Or do you believe that the cultures will sort of bleed together and have sort of the same DNA, if you will, or same vision? Or will they remain separate in the longterm vision?

Alex: We haven't really figured out the answer, to be perfectly honest. It's a little hard as we've evolved. Early on, we definitely did things more separately, and I think now we're starting to learn that there's some areas that we can definitely collaborate. I'd say some of the things like just HR administration, recruiting, some of those pieces, it makes sense for us to work with ATB, because they're recruiting many of the same roles, and so we can find great talent all at once and not compete with each other. But in other areas, rewards and recognition, we're doing a lot around rituals and how do we get rituals across the team that get people excited and motivated towards our goals and towards celebrating our wins.

Alex: Those things are more custom for us, and those are things that we're running with, and that we've got dedicated people within our teams working on. So we're trying to figure out what the secret sauce is, and really invest in that within our four walls. And then anything that's not really the differentiators or really substantially influencing the employee value prop, we're using the parent for.

Chad: So you're starting with Brightside, this kind of cult brand journey, right? First question is how did you even find out about this? We just did last year, right? And we totally got immersed into it. How did you find out about it? And what's the starting point of actually getting Brightside on that journey?

Alex: We worked with Cult Marketing who kind of specialize in the cult brand arena. And again, it comes back to that purpose and trying to make sure that you're doing things, not just for profits, not just for the kind of extrinsic values that drive a lot of companies and drive a lot of people, but what's the intrinsic motivation for everybody to show up and to be doing the right things for customers? So the inside out brand is something that we've talked a lot about. So how do we make sure that the brand that we have within the four walls and how our employees are thinking about our customers, and how do we bring the customer into everything that we're doing, from rewards and recognition to training, to time that they have to spend talking to customers every month, or actually working in our sales and service functions?

Alex: How do we bring the customer into our employees? And then how does that then translate out into what the brand shows up for? Because we believe that if there's a disconnect between how people work and what they prioritize at work, and what we're doing externally in the market, that that disconnect will show up in our product. It'll show up in our services. It'll show up in everything. So it's really been this journey about how do we really kind of bring what we want to be outside and first start to live it inside.

Joel: Alex, you did a interview with a Calgary magazine, Avenue Magazine, fairly recently, and the article is titled, Four Ways to Optimize Customer Experience in the Digital Age. If you would humor me, there are four pieces that you highlight, could we talk about each of those four separately, just real quickly. I think our listeners would love to know what are the four ways that you recommend optimizing in digital environments. So number one is put customers before tech.

Alex: Yeah. I think one of the things I found a lot ... And I try to avoid banking conferences as much as I can, because I-

Joel: Oh, I can't imagine why.

Chad: They're so exciting. They're probably just as exciting as HR conferences by the way.

Alex: I find that they're all saying the same thing. And bankers, yeah, they're always like, "Oh, everyone loves math and everyone loves analytics and wants to do tons of spreadsheets for their finances." That's not true. But I think that's a big thing is that a lot of times when organizations are trying to innovate or work on customer experience, they start with the tech and then try to backwards engineer into the problem that's solving for customers. So when you think about organizations looking at trends, you hear the typical ones of analytics, AI, blockchain, wearables, voice, all these kind of technologies, but that's really separated from what the customer actually wants.

Alex: And so where we've kind of oriented is if those things help solve a customer problem, great, but we're not going to start there and then try to say, "Hey customers, how do you want to use voice banking?" We had a lot of customers that even said, "My bank allows me to do Siri Pay, but I can't even get my card reissued in two days, and then I'm without money for two days," or, "My card gets frozen when I'm traveling and I have no access to cash." Those are the things that matter to them a lot more than whether or not they can do Siri Pay. And so sometimes the investments into customer experience try to go towards, it has to be frictionless, or it has to look a certain way from a technology standpoint, but it's missing the mark substantially for what customers actually want and need in their

experiences. So we're going more on that side.

Alex: And again, a lot of the places where we're focusing on is customer rationality. People don't like math, people don't really like to look at their money, it doesn't always make them feel good. And even though they might know what they should do, it doesn't necessarily mean that more technology that highlights where they're not doing something well is the answer. I relate a lot back into fitness industry. I know if I ate that donut, I'm going to gain weight. I don't really want someone to tell me not to eat the doughnut, I just want to eat the donut.

Joel: Which is a great segue into maybe your second point of don't try to boil the ocean.

Alex: Yeah. And I think that's exactly part of it. I think a lot of times, everyone's trying to catch up with competitors, lots of table stakes, trying to add feature sets, wanting to have a deep product shelf. And we're just trying to figure out, again, to that tech kind of startup way, what's the MVP? What's the real focus that we can do for one customer segment really well to build that customer love and then expand from there? We're not trying to be things ... Everything to all people or trying to make everyone happy, because we don't believe we'll win or get that real kind of cult brand or that love if we're just kind of vanilla to everybody.

Chad: We'll get back to the interview in a minute, but first, a quick question for Chris Kneeland about The Gathering of Cult Brands.

Joel: The vast majority of our listeners are in talent acquisition, human resources, recruiting. Many of them, if not all of them, have never heard of the Cult Gathering before maybe we started talking about it. For those who are now learning about and maybe asking, "Should I attend? Or should we send someone?" What message would you send them?

Chris Kneeland: Yeah. Well, it's why I'm so grateful to have met you guys, frankly, because for years we've been talking about this three legged stool of customers, prospects and staff, but we've been under-representing the staff portion in terms of our attendees, in terms of some of the subject matter experts that should be there. So even though the CEOs and the brand leaders will talk at length about the things they do to enhance their culture, we haven't had an equal number of people in the audience to be able to action that great advice. So yeah, I would say, again, anybody who feels a responsibility to create a business that people will care about, and those people can be customers or employees, would have a ton to learn from the most notable brands on the world. Getting a sneak peek into, what are their talent acquisition strategies?

Chris Kneeland: One of the things that we even ask in the interview process is what percentage of your new hires come from employee referrals versus more traditional headhunting or recruiter fees? You talk to somebody like Zappos, they have 20,000 people on a waiting list in order for the privilege to go work inside that company. Unfortunately, they're the exception, not the rule, and that's because lots of brands have a lots of room for improvement about how they're going about nurturing their talent acquisition strategies.

Chad: Register now at

Joel: Yeah. And then you close it up with remember the emotional experience and make it fun.

Alex: Yeah. And that kind of comes back to the rationality piece. We believe money is emotional, it's almost like relationships, and people have huge emotions towards it, and a lot of it’s learned behavior. It's not something people talk about a whole lot. And so again, it's easy to say that everybody should just be able to read some PDFs and understand where to put their money and that it's super easy math. But at the end of it all, there's social pressures to spend pieces of money or spend a certain way or look a certain way. And so trying to help people not change some of those emotional parts of themselves, but still be successful to kind of the 10,000 steps in fitness. What are those kind of ways that you can just get people doing the right thing without having them to really overhaul their lives or feel bad about themselves? And I think that's a really important piece.

Chad: What are those things to make banking fun?

Alex: It's not so much fun as much as it's just not painful.

Chad: Okay.

Alex: We think a lot of it too when we were doing a lot of our work. We don't think banks have much of a voice, and we don't think banks have much of a brand, and so we really want to be our persona that we talk about that we are with our customers is the wise wing woman. We want to show up in that way with every communication that we have with customers that we're there to kind of give them a little bit of advice like your best friend would, but not tell you that we don't love you or that you're stupid or make you feel really bad about it, or just give you facts because nobody just wants facts thrown at them. And so how do you build that into the experience, into the voice, into the way that you're communicating with customers? And those are nuances that are harder to quantify, they're not, "Here's a savings feature, here's a specific product." It's more about how everything's delivered. And I think that's something that banks haven't really thought about a whole lot yet.

Chad: One thing that we always hear, especially when we're starting to talk about purpose, when we're starting to talk about cult brand, is people over profits or over boardrooms, right? Now that's easy to say, but from your seat, how do those conversations actually go with bankers and the actual business people when you say, "Hey, don't worry about the profits, we have to worry about the people and then the profits will come around."? What kind of conversations do you get in? And how hard was it to start those conversations?

Alex: And again, I'll give a lot of credit to ATB for being quite on the forefront of that. We had a very progressive board that really focused on people first and believed that if you focus on people, everything else will follow. And so it was an easy one for us to continue on with, but we always overinvest in the processes about how people are working, and trying to invest in people's learning and development and getting the right people in our offices and setting them up for success. We also have something at ATB and we use it at Brightside as well, that people deserve great leaders, not perfect leaders. And so it's all around just really trying to pull all the value out of everything and get the costs down, but also not trying to be perfect on the people front either.

Alex: It's all around, how do we just really give people a great place to work, where they're going to be their most productive and best selves? So honestly, for us the conversation was quite easy and we're very lucky on that. I think other companies definitely struggle with it a lot more because it is, how many customer service people do you have per call? Not, how did the call make people feel? And are your customer service people exhausted? And so we're focusing more on those other metrics and try to bake those into how we're measuring our success.

Joel: We cover diversity and inclusion quite a bit here on the show, and I think it's fair to say that when you think of banking, you think of middle age and old white men in pinstripe suits.

Alex: Yeah.

Joel: What was it about ATB that appealed to you as a woman? And maybe speaking to young women out there who do want to get into the banking world, but are maybe a little bit intimidated by the aura of what banking is, what advice would you give them coming into the business?

Alex: For sure, and that's an interesting one. I think, again, it's kind of the top down leadership. So one of the things when I made the switch to ATB, it was definitely looking at what the leadership team looked like. And again, we've got a board that's 50/50 women and men, so it's all the way down from our board, and we've got those targets and those goals around that. There's a lot of activity that ATB does. Our 11th value for all of our corporate values is around being able to be yourself at work and accepting people's all around diversity and inclusion. It was actually a gift from our departing CEO to us was an 11 value focused on diversity and inclusion. I think when you look at how the organization's investing in those things, actions, what the leadership team makeup looks like, you'll see whether or not they're just talking the talk on diversity inclusion or whether they're actually walking it. And that was something that I looked for.

Alex: And definitely joining ATB, I'd say there's other topics like ageism or LGBTQ or women, and those things are just non issues at ATB in many ways. Where there are issues, they work really hard to create policies or help fix those things, whether we're looking and exploring, do we do gender pay corrections if they exist. We're at least figuring out, Do they exist? Do we invest more sponsorship for women with very formal succession planning and making sure that we've got women considered in those places? I would say looking at those investments and asking questions on those investments to find a company that is going to support you is really important, because I think too many ... And I read an article where just putting a rainbow flag on your logo during pride month isn't DNI.

Joel: Oh, now you're speaking Chad's language now.

Alex: You need to show up every day.

Chad: Right.

Alex: Yeah. You need to show up every day that way, and you need to have the policies and the processes and the investments to match that kind of talk.

Chad: How does that help from a culture standpoint, when you can bring your whole self to work? How does that help you get on track faster to be a cult brand? Does it help or do you think it's just one of the ingredients, but it's not one of the main ingredients?

Alex: The thing that I think that it gives is ... My team, we're even more diverse than ATB in terms of makeup. Most of our senior developers are actually women, which is really cool. My head of technology co lead is a woman, I'm a woman, so we've got a lot of women in leadership roles. I think the thing that you get when you're giving people that opportunity to bring, in LGBTQ, their partner to Chris's party and it's a nonissue, you're getting these huge advocates. People really appreciate the fact that they can be themselves, and they're there to fight for you, and you get everything out of them. They are so invested in your success because you're invested in their success and who they are. So you just get these real, passionate hard workers.

Alex: I think also, it's kind of that thing where you get access to people that other people have overlooked, and you're just like, "Oh my God, this person is amazing." Thank goodness you came to me. It's a great opportunity to be able to snatch up all this high potential that maybe other companies or other organizations wouldn't support, and be able to just kind of create these superstar teams of people that were overlooked for stupid reasons.

Chad: Yeah. Did you hear that everybody? Listen to that. So last from me, what advice would you give a company who want to have a cult brand, but they just don't know where to start? Where do they start?

Alex: I think again, it has to be championed by somebody that really believes it. Where I've seen it fall down or where I've seen organizations, and I've talked with a lot of organizations that say, "I want a challenger brand," or, "We're going to create this cult brand that's going to be really cool," but then you start to here, "But I'm scared about the risk or the reporting," or, "I'm scared about what the board's going to think," or those things. You really need to find somebody that's going to say, "We're going to reinvent this," and have someone that's really passionate and believes in it and is going to champion it and really fight for it. And I think that's the biggest thing. You need to fight for that space, because when it's uncomfortable or when your board or your customers are a little bit uncomfortable, you have to stick with it, and I believe that wholeheartedly.

Alex: Again, there's a story about our old CEO. I remember a call where one of our customers was quite upset that we were supporting LGBTQ and he just said, "Well then don't be a customer of ours." And I think having that strength to live your purpose every day-

Joel: Ballsy.

Alex: ... is something we need to be really honest about, to say, can you actually do that? And are you willing to actually do that? So that'd be step one, and step two is just setting up the structures and the processes to do it right. Again, a challenger brand instead of ATB is really easy because ATB is a great culture. And other organizations, I'd say, set it up as a subsidiary, so the parent organization can't influence it. Give it the structures and the processes to make sure it can be successful and it won't get eroded.

Joel: All right Alex, I'm going to let you go on this one. I realized that we've been calling you the Nuth-inator this entire podcast, and no one knows exactly why because they weren't in on the pre-recording. Enlighten our audience as to why you have that nickname, and then just go ahead and close it out. Let us know where we can find out more about you and your organization.

Alex: Perfect. This nickname has nothing to do with my personality whatsoever.

Joel: Obviously not.

Chad: Sure.

Alex: My fiance is an avid gamer and has been trying to get me into Call of Duty and various other games and needed to create a scary screen name for me on my profile, so he nicknamed me the Nuth-inator for when we were playing together. So it has nothing to do with how I am at work in any way

Chad: So if you're on Call of Duty and you get waxed by the Nuth-inator, you know exactly who it was.

Joel: Alex, we appreciate your time. For those who want to know more about you or the new company, where should they go?

Alex: Our website is, and we also have an Instagram channel @hibrightsider that you can follow as well. And then for myself, I'm just on LinkedIn under Alex Nuth.

Joel: Outstanding. Thanks for your time today.

Chad: Thanks Alex.

Alex: Thank you.

Joel: We out.

Chad: We out.

Outro: This has been the Chad and Cheese Podcast. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts, so you don't miss a single show. And be sure to check out our sponsors because they make it all possible. For more, visit Oh yeah, you're welcome.

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