Language of banking rebels
FinTechs, or digital-only banks, are redefining the rules of customer service. So are traditional banks lagging behind or are they taking a leaf out of these newcomers' books?
You cant miss the simple, stylish, witty adverts while traversing the London cityscape. In one ad, a hand emerges from a hole in a wall, holding a card against a sophisticated white and rhubarb colour block background. The caption next to it reads: "Sexier than your ex #26reasons". Your first impression could be... is this advert for the latest fashion trend? Upon closer inspection, you realise, no: its advertising a bank.
The new crop of FinTechs or digital-only banks, such as Monzo, Starling and N26, are eschewing traditional banking advert conventions in favour of more rebellious peer-to-peer dialogue.Their language and product design means that service in the banking category has shifted from an oligopolistic environment, predicated on rigid rules, to one that is highly competitive. Early category challengers like First Direct, Halifax and Santander have been joined by a new breed who are basing their offer on consumer expectations of accessibility, flexibility and transparency.
Birth of FinTech
Government-sponsored competition has opened up the market, and FinTechs have been quick to address younger consumers unaddressed emotional and practical customer service needs. Millennials and Gen Zs, young adults during the 2008 global financial crisis, experienced significant economic downturn and austerity. This uncertain climate, defined by high personal debt and capped job progression, lessened opportunities for wealth accumulation and ultimately shaped feelings of financial anxiety.
Apprehension and scepticism underpin this generations financial decisions, along with questioning the ethics of traditional institutions including the banking sector. This worldview shaped the key values which now govern their service expectations, including personal agency, transparency and openness. Millennials, particularly those born in the developed world, and Gen Zs, however, also benefit from rapid technological advancements in the 21st Century. Comfort and familiarity with the internet and handheld digital devices make them tech savvy, with expectations of rapid innovation and flexibility from the brands they interact with. These expectations are not being met by the less technologically nimble banks. They risk assuming that the service needs of an older demographic, such as loyalty, authority and trust, also apply to a younger one. FinTechs, by contrast, appeal because they are digitally adept and communicate transparently.
Traditionally, the banking category communicates service through longstanding styles of dark sombre livery and serious tonality. Yet this has been evolving, as brands like First Direct, Smile and the Co-operative Bank have shown. Digital-only banks are now developing this trend. Brands like UK FinTech Monzo and German start-up N26 are subverting established service cues. They introduce cool pastels, matt metallics or brightly hued palettes and peer-to-peer tonality to attract a younger demographic for competitive advantage. Monzos comms uses expressive colours reminiscent of many tech disruptor brands such as Deliveroo. We see this trend in its graphic novel-style ad, showing a woman lounging on a spotted purple inflatable float next to its signature hot coral bank card. Similarly, N26 #26reasons campaign employs monochrome pastel hues, which often feature muted block lettering, reminiscent of minimalist aesthetics of premium brands.
All this is accompanied by casual expressions mainly seen in social media, including hashtags and colloquial language like "glow-up" or "rubbish". N26 even adapts its tonality geographically; e.g. more explicit language for Germany and drier wit for the UK. These cues signal stylishness, clever playfulness and relatability. The current top-down approach to service seen from traditional banks is shifting to a modern, conversational and peer-to-peer style by their challengers.
Accessibility and support centred
Current banking services are tethered to time and place. Guidance, when opening a new account on a legacy banking website, is in a non-interactive legal-like format, with sequenced instructions about branches to visit during select times with requirements for printed documentation to gain trust. The emergent trend, however, focuses on accessibility, flexibility and support. Driven by tech innovation, digital banks have branded their service offerings around mobility, global connectivity and ease.
Recent comms from start-up banks feature imagery of mobility (e.g. space suits, world maps) and language of connectivity (e.g. "Banking anywhere" and "The world at your fingertips"). Additionally, features like Monzos Bill Pots or Starlings Goals help individuals visually and interactively manage money in a simple, stress-free way. Yet building society Nationwide has begun to shift its messaging. Comms language such as "We wont judge, We listen" indicate a tonal shift to accessible support.
Unlike FinTechs, it targets a wider age demographic through references to understanding communities. HSBCs comms, meanwhile, focuses on major UK cities with their unique idiosyncrasies, communicating an inclusive service. While FinTechs also provide a sense of community, centred on membership that challenges the banking status quo, this may be narrow and exclusionary to those unaware but open to digital finance.
Millennials and Gen Zs are becoming the majority consumer base in financial transactions and their expectations of brands are defining new trends in other industries. Look at, say, the drive for on-demand media in entertainment, anywhere-anytime ridesharing in transportation and conscious clothing in fashion. Taking a customer focused approach shouldnt be seen as a mere fad, but as an opportunity to future-proof your brand.
Senior Semiotician, Crowd DNA
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, December 2019
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2019