Betterment’s Katherine Kornas on Stimulus Behaviors, Brand Building and COVID Planning

Editor’s note: This interview is part of Mission North’s new “Marketing Risks Worth Taking” series, an ongoing forum with marketing leaders who are sharing their perspectives about adapting to a new reality. 

Katherine Kornas knows a bit more than the average person about what Americans are doing with their stimulus checks. As VP of Growth at money management platform Betterment, she has an exclusive view into how consumers are behaving in a world turned upside down—all of which gives her some amazing insight on how they may react as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds and resolves. 

Given her industry perspective and experience as a growth leader, Katherine is a natural fit for Mission North’s ongoing series about how marketers are adapting to our new reality. We chatted about digital marketing during COVID-19, why brand building needs to start before crises happen and found out which companies were inspiring her during this pandemic. Our Q&A, below, has been edited for length.

What are Betterment customers doing with their stimulus checks? What is the data saying?

They are saving it. We’ve seen our customers deposit stimulus funds into their Betterment investing accounts, high-yield Cash Reserve accounts, or split across both. You’d think there’d be quite a bit of risk aversion to investing right now given wild market fluctuations, but that’s not the case. In March, 25% more Betterment customers were depositing than withdrawing. They’re seeing opportunity in this situation. 

How do you get through to your audience and make sure they do what’s best for their portfolios, even amid the panic?

It helps that we’ve always touted the importance of staying the course when it comes to investing, even in more stable economic times. We’ve built our brand around trust, transparency, and peace of mind, so we haven’t had to scramble to reposition ourselves during the recent turbulence; in fact, all of those attributes are highly valued right now. 

We’ve built our brand around trust, transparency, and peace of mind, so we haven’t had to scramble to reposition ourselves during the recent turbulence; in fact, all of those attributes are highly valued right now.

How has your email marketing and customer communications strategy changed in the last few weeks?

We haven’t necessarily gone out of our way to message around what’s going on, but we’re providing resources—videos, webinars, articles—for customers looking for extra reassurance. Our tone, though, has shifted. We recognize the humanness in this pandemic. People are worried about themselves, their loved ones, and the world—we feel it, too. It’s important to us that our customers know that, so we’re incorporating a vibe of safety and security, even vulnerability, into our communications.

How far out are you planning marketing right now?

Acquisition marketing dynamics in particular are changing wildly right now. How we were acquiring customers in March—campaigns, channels, audiences—is almost completely different from what’s working in mid-April. A planning cycle that’s longer than two to three weeks would miss real-time market signals that could call for a pivot.

A planning cycle that’s longer than two to three weeks would miss real-time market signals that could call for a pivot.

What other brands do you admire for their COVID-19 response? Why?

New Balance, which is switching their U.S. factories over to mask production, and Delta flying much-needed medical workers to hard-hit areas for free are two uplifting examples. I’ve been watching smaller, NYC-based companies as well. In early April, The Wing posted a piece on Instagram explaining their difficult decision to lay off or furlough the majority of their staff. It was a moment of raw honesty that many brands would be reluctant to embrace, but it feels so essential right now. 

On April 29 at 2 pm ET, I will be hosting a Dispatch Live conversation with marketing leaders at Dosh, ServiceChannel, Knotch and Red Roof Inn about what’s next for marketers and what it means to take smart risks today. RSVP and learn more about the event here.