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By Beth Snyder Bulik
As the 32-year-old CEO of Travelocity in the mid-2000s, Michelle Peluso was one of the youngest CEOs in the country. She had engineered a major turnaround in both profitability and brand perception. And under her direction, the beloved and effective brand-building Roaming Gnome had become synonymous with Travelocity.
However, as is often the case in the C-suite, she was working 18-hour days, and frequent travel meant little time at home. When she gave birth to a daughter in 2009, Ms. Peluso realized she needed to make a change. So she actually did what many executives say they're going to do -- quit her job to spend more time at home with her family.
"I lived, and loved, Travelocity for so long, and it was a really hard decision. When I gave birth to my daughter -- I had been agonizing about it for nine months when I was pregnant -- I had been on the road every week, and I just said "I can't do it,'" Ms. Peluso said. "So I began a six-month transition."
However, she didn't want to leave the workforce entirely. She just wanted to spend less time traveling, and she wanted be closer to home in New York. Ms. Peluso put the word out to key associates, and Citigroup came knocking. She agreed to take on a consulting job at first, working several days a week on digital strategy. Later that year when Citigroup launched a CMO search, she was asked to step in as interim chief.
In 2010, that role became permanent when she was named both CMO and chief internet officer for North America. Later that year she was given global duties for both areas. But why would a proven CEO want to take, what some would perceive as, a step back to CMO, even with a company that is No. 20 on the Fortune 500 list?
"The first thing that attracted me to Citi was what, in a way, attracted me to Travelocity: a transformative time for a company and a leadership group that really is open and eager for digital," Ms. Peluso said. "I also met a lot of great people [while consulting there] who I thought were really terrific and deserved to win again. And third, I just thought the intersection of marketing and technology and consumers was a really fascinating challenge."
Last week Citigroup announced both its CEO and chief operating officer were leaving the company, though a spokesman told Ad Age Ms. Peluso's role would not change.
Her unusual leap from CEO to CMO goes hand in hand with her far-from-typical marketing background. In fact, the Citi role marks her first official marketing job title. Before Travelocity, where she was COO and then CEO, Ms. Peluso was founder and president of the last-minute-travel portal Site59, which Travelocity bought in 2002. Site59 had been backed by the Boston Consulting Group, where she worked as a consultant in the 1990s. She also did a stint as a White House fellow and senior adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration. Even her education is nonmarketing specific: She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and holds a master's degree in economics, philosophy and politics from Oxford University.
Her first experience with big-time traditional marketing was at Travelocity. Along with ad agency McKinney and Travelocity CMO Jeffrey Glueck (who co-founded Site59 with her after they met as White House fellows), she helped create an aggressive advertising approach built around the Roaming Gnome icon and the tagline "You'll Never Roam Alone." The gnome quickly became a cult hit and brand accelerator. After the campaign launched, website hits increased nearly 30% in less than seven months. By 2004, Travelocity was profitable for the first time in two years.
"In many ways the challenge at Travelocity was similar to the challenge at all companies. How do you not just project from on high? It's great to have beautiful TV commercials, but more and more brands are talked about in more authentic and unstaged ways," Ms. Peluso said. "One of the nice things about being a digital company was you really had to understand that integration of the brand message that you're projecting, with the experience people are having in digital marketing, in the social space and the like."
She added, "That's a big challenge for Citi. How do you take a brand -- which is a remarkable brand in 160 countries with 100 years of experience -- and make it relevant, engaging and dynamic for consumers that are highly digital?"
Ms. Peluso will also need to make the Citi brand stand out in the me-too banking and financial marketing world. "In big companies, it's easy to get very generic very fast. You start to sound like what you're saying is what everyone else is saying," she said. "Part of what we have to do is ask, what is our point of view? Put a little more edge in it, a little bit more distinctiveness, a little bit more humor in it. I don't think we're there yet."
Yet, because of her digital background, Ms. Peluso realizes that great messaging alone isn't enough to affect Citi's bottom line, particularly in an industry where rapidly changing mobile customers still have a distrust of banks and remnant misgivings over dashed brand promises.
"It's not good enough to have great marketing. It's not good enough to have a better customer experience, if you aren't communicating it the right way. It's not good enough to do things as "friends' if we're not leaning digitally," she said. "Bringing it all together is the only way we can live up to the highest expectations of our customers."
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