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How to Convert Customers’ Passions Into Inspiring Content

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Western Union banks on its customers’ passions to inspire remarkable content. Laston Charriez, the company’s senior vice president of marketing for the Americas, explains how it innovates in a conservative industry.

Few brands have been household names as long as Western Union. Launched in 1851 as the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company (the company changed its name to Western Union in 1856), the brand boasts an impressive list of “firsts”: the first transcontinental telegraph, first trans-Atlantic cable, the historic telegram that confirmed the Wright brothers’ first flight, and the world’s first commercial beam radio system.

Along the way, the telegraph company transformed into a leader in global payment services. Today Western Union’s portfolio of brands – including Vigo, Orlandi Valuta, Pago Facil, and Western Union Business Solutions payment services – provides consumers and businesses with fast, reliable, and convenient ways to send and receive money around the world.

In 2014, the Western Union Co. completed 255 million consumer-to-consumer transactions worldwide, moving $85 billion between consumers and completing 484 million business payments.

Charriez leads marketing for the company’s largest region – the United States, Canada and Mexico. He sat down with me to talk about the Western Union strategy and the brand’s ability to connect with a diverse audience.

Western Union has an amazing content microsite dedicated to home cooking around the world, a recent collaboration with Marvel Comics, and even a stint on Jimmy Kimmel. How do ideas like this come about?

We do “points-of-passion” studies with the help of an agency, Networked Insights. We bring consumers together and learn about their interests, and then we keep peeling the onion to understand their true passions. We use an index – a numerical indicator – that lets us know how strong these areas of interest are for the general public and for our consumers in particular. When our consumers over-index on a topic (i.e., when their numerical indicators are much higher than that of the general public) then we know we’re on to something that really matters to an audience we want to reach. For example, when we did research on how to better reach families with small children, we saw that they over-indexed on family movies. That’s how we came up with the idea for Rio 2.

It was this same process that led us to understand the passion that a group of consumers has for home-cooked meals from their local region or country of origin. We discovered that food was a point of passion and then our social media team listened to what people were sharing. The #WUHomeCooked approach was a very personal and meaningful way for customers to tell the Western Union story on our behalf.


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The idea for a Marvel comic came about the same way. We wanted to understand young men age 18 to 34. Our research showed that they over-indexed in comic books. One of our brand managers worked with Marvel to produce a comic book – brought to you by Western Union – released at Comic-Con in July. The brand is embedded within the story, and it’s a fun way for us to bring Western Union forward without overdoing it. We worked closely with Marvel and saw the storyboards and characters from the very beginning and gave them the green light on how the Western Union brand is presented, but we didn’t have control over the story line.


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Many brands have preconceived ideas about how to tell their story. In the case of Western Union, you followed insights and were open to where they led. How did you resist the urge to control the story?

We don’t try to control the story or the content, but we do work closely with our legal team to make sure that we pay tribute to the Western Union brand and follow guidelines. For example, our research showed that food is a passion point, but we didn’t know how that story would unfold. We looked for what mattered to consumers, and that’s how we landed on video and the #WUHomeCooked hashtag. When we tapped Jimmy Kimmel to create something around Mother’s Day this year, we didn’t have full creative control. But both of these were ways to create rich content and then bring it to life in surprising ways that create delight for consumers.

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By venturing into family recipes, movies, late-night TV, and comic books, you’re nothing like a rigid financial services company.

We’re unwavering about the message of sending money, but we’re trying to expand the conversation platform to a larger number of points where we can engage with consumers. In the last year, we went from 160,000 “likes” on Facebook to 5 million. We’ve done that by expanding the menu of touchpoints through which we talk to customers. We ask ourselves if these points are true opportunities to engage based on the points of passion. Are they true entry points through which to keep the conversation going? We don’t buy attention, but we do look for authentic conversation points with consumers.

How, as a leader, do you act in a way that your team operates with no restrictions on what’s possible?

We have a 70/20/10 breakdown to our approach. Ten percent of our work are things that have never been done. Twenty percent are things that we’ve piloted and are in the pipeline for regional expansion, and we’ll keep refining them. Seventy percent are things that we’ve done and they’re proven. With this prism, my team understands that 10% has to be new, even if it won’t work. If everything is working, they aren’t taking enough risks. As crazy as some of the things we’ve done are, it’s really all about what will engage consumers.

As you look ahead to the next 12 to 24 months, what do you want to accomplish?

I want to make sure the transformation is complete. It’s a journey. Like unfolding a big rug, you can’t do it on your own, it’s wide and heavy and you need help from others.

As for what complete looks like, I’m not sure and that’s OK. It’s an illusion to say that we can define the brand because it’s consumers who actually do that. I guide it within our brand parameters, but the definition of the brand comes from the experience that people have with it.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to CMI’s bimonthly, print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute