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01 MARCH 2012
FNB’s chief marketing officer, Bernice Samuels
by Peta Krost Maunder

Bernice Samuels, FNB’s chief marketing officer.
FNB’s chief marketing officer, Bernice Samuels, has made a great success of the position in the short time she has held it. Her journey from telecommunications and media to banking has had interesting turns and fascinating challenges.

Many South Africans are moving to First National Bank – and it is all because of a relatively inexpensive radio advertising campaign, nicknamed ‘Hello Steve’. It is undoubtedly the most successful FNB – and possibly local – banking campaign ever, according to the effect it has had. The woman behind it, FNB’s chief marketing officer Bernice Samuels, only moved into the banking world in January 2011. But, judging by her career to date, it doesn’t take her long to make an impact and settle into something totally different fast.

This WBS Postgraduate Diploma in Management (PDM) and MBA alumnus is a powerhouse – in the most elegant and happy package. She still looks and moves like the ballerina she dreamt of becoming as a child.

Four years ago, the thought of running the marketing department at a bank was not even in her realm, let alone her expectations. And when she was a BSc Honours student in genetic engineering at the University of Cape Town, nobody would have believed this was her future.

“I don’t wake up in the morning to pursue a grand plan,” Samuels says. “I believe that what is revealed is revealed, and there will always be something exciting ahead of me.” She takes on the challenges that life brings her. Her journey has had interesting turns and fascinating challenges. “I feel as if I am doing my thing now, and doing what makes me happy. I believe I have landed with my bum in the butter. My days are very busy and certain things have to happen, but what we are doing here feels far more like fun than work.”

Samuels grew up in Durban. Her mother started out as a domestic worker and her father had equally basic employment. They both came from families of 11 children. “Understandably, they were determined to have only one child,” she says, “and they had a firm belief that education brought empowerment and made sure I got every opportunity.”

She chuckles at the thought of her father asking her: “Why after all your studying are you still working for someone else?” He always worked for himself, owning a taxi, running a laundry and a removals service before her parents got the tender to run the shop in the Wentworth Hospital. “They were incredibly entrepreneurial, hard-working and disciplined.” And she recalls her childhood as being very happy and filled with love, but hard and disciplined. And when it came to school holidays, there were no family vacations – instead she helped out at the shop.

She looks back at the years living in the Wentworth house as “fortunate”, despite having been forcibly removed from Durban and relocated there during the apartheid years.

“I have taken so much from my parents, like ‘you manage your own morale’, ‘take small steps forward every day’, ‘focus and go for what you want’ and their deep-seated values and morals. These are things I live by,” Samuels says.

Her mom dreamed of her being a lawyer, and her dad, a doctor. Samuels only fancied being a ballerina – something at which she excelled at school. “I gave it up in matric to focus on my studies.”

When she was an American Field Scholar, she spent a year in a small farming town in Kansas where genetic engineering was the big thing. So, she followed that path at UCT on her return.

Her BSc degree was funded by SA Breweries (SAB), so she had to work for this multinational during her holidays and after her degree.

While employed at SAB, she applied to do her masters degree – but she had to put three choices on the Wits University application, She got in for both her masters and a PDM at the business school, and chose the latter as it seemed an interesting alternative. Just 18 months after completing that, she was back to do her MBA. “All it took was Mike Bendixon, my quantitative methods lecturer who I held in high esteem, to ask me when I was going to do it.

“I had an amazing time at WBS. It was the combination of the quality of teaching, academic staff, working in syndication groups with confident people who were mostly specialists in their field.”

Samuels says she was challenged by the way the course was structured and by her peers, and she enjoyed the support. “Those who were good at something helped the others who weren’t, and vice versa.” She says: “My highlights were definitely the incredible friendships I made there.”

Although the man who was to become her husband five years after graduation was doing an MBA at the same time, they were in different classes and only met up afterwards when they were chosen to do a graduate exchange programme in Australia.

After her business studies, Samuels’s career moved away from science.

In 1996, she became head of business and strategic development at M-Net and was later made CEO of Channel O and New Media. “It was amazing! I worked in channel development, did the negotiations and implementing of new channels and many other incredible things before Channel O and online. Although it wasn’t day-to-day marketing, M-Net is a marketing-driven organisation, and I had so much exposure to that without my position having that label.

Then, she moved to MTN as head of strategy. “Until 2005, there was a Frenchman running marketing, and his contract expired and they offered the position to me and I grabbed it,” she says. “Marketing is interwoven with the guts of the business and requires an understanding of other parts of the business,” she says, explaining how she could move into this area so easily. Samuels repositioned the MTN brand and it became one of South Africa’s favourite brands for the first time. When she joined MTN in September 2000, the share price was R9. When she left in 2009, it was R137.

“Marketing is about understanding how people buy, and advertising is creating a demand where one doesn’t exist. I love it and have so much fun combining imagination, business and innovation. You can push boundaries with a set of basics. You need to understand words, colours, emotional trigger points and other essentials.”

Samuels hadn’t intended to move to FNB, but she was contacted by brand director Derek Carstens in 2010 and was so impressed with what she saw that she took the job.

She doesn’t believe jumping from telecommunications and media to banking is a big leap. “FNB doesn’t fit the stereotype of the ivory tower and grey suits. It is very unbank-like,” she says.

“It is an innovative and non-hierarchical environment with a strong owner-manager philosophy, where the customer comes first.”

She was the person at the helm of the FNB ‘Anthem’ advert that was acclaimed for reinvigorating national pride a year after the World Cup; the ‘Lost Dog’ television commercial, playing on the concept of going out of the way to help people; and most recently the ‘Hello Steve’ campaign. In her hands, FNB has undergone a brand revitalisation and repositioning.

With ‘Hello Steve’, she says: ”We realised we were on the high ground because our customers love us and are therefore our secret weapon. So we started interrogating how people buy, and realised it is not about just one thing but a cumulative set of things, and people have different needs. But instead of advertising ‘this is my thing’, we put two or three things on the table with a different value proposition that tipped it. Instead of us telling the world how great we are, which would have little credibility, it is our enthusiastic customers convincing others about what they love about us.”

The radio campaign has grown legs and is churning out business for the bank, both from new clients and upgrading and expanding seasoned ones. It has also changed the paradigm of radio adverts because it is far longer than most – some being 90 seconds.

While she gives her all to her work, Samuels saves some time for her husband Rowan and her three-year-old son Matthew. When she isn’t in her suit, they are scuba diving, cycling, visiting the zoo or just enjoying each other’s company in their “lovely garden”. She says: “As an only child, Matthew is very grown-up as he is so often surrounded by adults. He is a self-assured and confident child.” Can’t say that is surprising, having met his mother, who is probably so successful in whatever she does because she believes she can be.
Useful resources:

Wits Business School Journal
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