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FinTech’s brand problem

17th September 2019

Kevin Claypoole-McCloskey

Managing Director

FinTechs are relying on product attributes to get them noticed. But that’s not how consumers make buying decisions. We discuss the benefits of a strong brand narrative, especially as the FinTech category becomes increasingly crowded, and functional differentiation becomes more of a challenge.

I was browsing LinkedIn recently when I came across a job ad for Head of Brand at a certain groovy new bank. It struck me that the definition of Head of Brand alters hugely when you apply it to the brave new world of FinTech; I could just as easily be talking about any number of new providers working across pensions, insurance, payments or savings and investments. The requirements for the job were focused almost entirely on web design, user experience and testing. Applicants were required to have an online portfolio showing their work and be well-versed in working with product and dev teams. So far so sensible; after all, the online user experience is paramount when you’re working in these industries, and it’s a key differentiator.

But it got me thinking, haven’t they missed rather a large part of what it means to be a Head of Brand? Like, telling the brand story? It seems like most of the sector has forgotten. I get it; you’re in a high growth environment and you’re obsessed with testing, learning, refining and your entire user experience is online. So the broader story you’re trying to tell your audience might seem irrelevant. But I don’t think it is.

Don’t let your brand be a by-product of your business strategy

Marty Neumeier, author and speaker on all things brand, defines brand by first laying out what a brand is not: “A brand is not a logo. A brand is not an identity. A brand is not a product” and goes on to say that “a brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization”. David Ogilvy on the other hand, said brand is “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes”. Either way, it seems that there’s something slightly mysterious about the notion of a brand. All this talk of gut feelings and intangibility seems to suggest brands can mean different things to different people, and while that’s partly true, careful curation of a brand’s attributes in order to tell a clear story, is absolutely what a Head of Brand must do. They should be giving customers absolute clarity on what to think and feel in relation to their brand, rather than leaving it to the audience to decide for themselves.

Don’t expect your audience to emotionally engage with product attributes

Why? Because taking the example of challenger banks, it’s clear that they often suffer from a lack of a differentiated or coherent story. The majority seem happy to inhabit their challenger positioning as a means to differentiate against the High Street competition, and focus on their product attributes as a means to differentiate against their challenger bank competitors. But product attributes are often identical or easily copied. The most obvious way to choose between Starling and Monzo, for example, is whether you’d prefer an orange or green debit card.

Travelling by tube every day, I see dozens of poster sites extolling the virtues of new product features. Zopa, for example, have announced they’re processing BACs payments a day earlier than the competition. Features like this are rooted in a truth about Zopa’s business (the desire to innovate) so why not take this idea further and build it out into a full brand narrative that can be used creatively? On its own, this focus on product features can lead to REALLY boring ads, because the brand has become just a set of guidelines and it gives creative teams nothing to work with. It’s hardly drumming gorillas or black horses galloping, and let’s face it, those are the things that enter our psyche at a deeper level and are what we remember decades later.

As challengers become increasingly homogenised, we need strong brands more than ever

It’s also the case that established brands are increasingly moving into the FinTech space, creating products which not only do what the challengers are doing, but do it with strong brand heritage that people are already engaged with emotionally. Eventually there will be more challenger banks than established ones, for example, and what happens when the challengers are no longer challenging?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Consider Apple, arguably tech’s biggest success story of recent times. They don’t sell their products based on attributes, they have a brand story and a clear view of their audience, owning their space and generating an emotional response (whether that’s ‘Here’s to the crazy ones’ or ‘Make something wonderful’). It’s virtually impossible to emotionally identify with product attributes in the same way.

FinTechs should be defining a long-term brand strategy from day one. Brand differentiation should transcend product, it should be the story that gives your customers an emotional reason to choose your brand above all others in the sector – whether that’s now, or in ten years’ time.

You can read more about brands on the Editions blog here.


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About the author

Kevin Claypoole-McCloskey

Managing Director

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