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Finance giants can learn from disruptor brands for new era


By Nick Vaus, Partner and Creative Director, Free The Birds

The Covid-19 lockdown has compelled all brands, big and small, to take stock of the way they operate, re-energise how they communicate to consumers and repurpose for the digital world.

As the pandemic accelerates the move online, big financial services brands are more exposed than ever to the competition posed by dynamic newcomers, from disruptors such as Monzo and Curve to innovative global players like Apple and Alibaba.

The original disruptor was First Direct and telephone banking, followed by Goldfish and Egg (remember them?), which stormed into the mid-late 90s, just as John Major was being replaced by Tony Blair and it seemed that things really could only get better. Their audacious, brightly-coloured branding and focus on consumers was a wake-up call to the established brands, and while these mavericks didn’t last into the next millennium, their influence is still felt today.

Today’s banking giants might have stood the test of time, but from a branding point of view, it’s a flat sector, and they could learn from the disruptors, new and old, as an increasingly online relationship with customers requires speedy, nimble responses, not a faceless, authoritarian monolith.

We like to listen to companies that understand and affirm us, seeking out people, ideas and brands we can relate to. Too much focus on expertise can feel intimidating and aggressive, and when online branding has to work on a canvas the size of a postage stamp, the idea needs to be distilled right down for the mobile consumer.

Trust is one of the biggest drivers for a brand, but it has to be earned and re-earned as society and priorities change. Corporate and personal consumers want to know that their money is being well spent, helping others to thrive as well as themselves, and this applies even more in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has emphasised and exacerbated the inequalities in society and put a renewed focus on the environment.

Established brands have the scale to change the world for the better, but often we look to new brands to lead by example. Financial start-ups like US banking platform Good Money, which launched in March 2020, are tempting customers with the dual promise of ownership and altruism.

Good Money gives 50% of profits to social and environmental impact projects and its rewards programme hands out shares in ethical companies instead of points or air miles. Multiply, a fully automated service offering free independent financial advice on everything from mortgages to investments is aimed at people who can’t afford traditional financial advisors. Another start-up, Newday offers users the opportunity to invest, via an app, in six impact portfolios – global impact, climate action, gender equality, animal welfare, ocean plastic and fresh water – and you can start with as little as $5. Not that ethical banking is a new thing; the Co-operative Bank has admirably stuck to its ethical creed for the past 147 years. It’s just that the movement is finally going mainstream.

Not every conscious consumer is a cash-strapped college-leaver in their first job – the altruistic mindset also applies to older professionals whose priorities are shifting, as well as to those rising up the ranks of corporations and starting their own businesses.

The oldest millennials are now 38, and, according to Morgan Stanley, three quarters of this demographic believe that their investments could influence climate change. A new breed of investor doesn’t see personal gain and philanthropic causes as separate entities and is increasingly seeking out investment opportunities that generate positive change.

Consumers of all ages might have a lot in common ethically, but they won’t all share the same financial priorities, because there are distinct life stages to negotiate: it starts young, moves to the student cohort, then advances to the savers and the mortgage holders, and finally to the retirees.

All these groups have different needs, and many of the newer brands are choosing to cater for a more specialist, targeted market – like Habito for mortgages and Zopa for loans– which makes it easier to stay fresh and relevant.

We have demonstrated in 2020 that massive, rapid, global change is possible; and as the world starts opening up for business, now is the time for established brands to update their businesses, readdress their values, and create a standout brand for this new era.