It’s the evening of a dinner party and you’re dashing around the kitchen, surfaces splattered with the ingredients of a tricky main course. Time’s running out for you to make dessert. With a sense of guilt, you reach into the cupboard for the fudge cake mix. You read the instructions with a sigh: just add water and an egg. You decide to throw in a handful of marshmallows to give the bake a whiff of imagination – but you’re aware that, as the port’s poured, you’ll be plating up something everyone’s tasted before.
So it is for the developers of banking apps. It’s not necessarily that they’re rushed – though the onslaught of challenger banks certainly sets the clock ticking for late-to-the-party incumbents. It’s that they’re all compelled to use the same recipes for their digital products, concocted a decade ago under a hail of design imperatives to make user experiences more ‘seamless’ and ‘friction-free’. Any innovation spotted on the menu of a competitor is quickly replicated across the industry. No one wants to risk serving up an untried recipe – especially when the cake mix is at hand. But the result for the consumer is bland, cookie-cutter conformity.
In a Great Fintech Bake Off, there’d be little to choose between HSBC and Monzo – their bakes would be meticulously inoffensive, judiciously palatable. But they’d also be boring, impersonal and forgettable. And it’s becoming clear that consumers don’t like it. Surveys consistently show consumers are craving a dash of novelty and a sprinkling of the human touch from their digital experiences. These appetites, which only seem to have grown stronger during the pandemic, are now too ferocious for banks to ignore.
Or so says Rowan Kisby, strategy director at the global customer experience agency MullenLowe Profero. According to her firm’s recent survey of more than 1,500 consumers, 43 per cent feel digital experiences are becoming more similar, with 48 per cent saying they’d spend more time and money with brands offering a good digital experience. That’s already quite a groundswell of discontent. But when asked which sector they think produces the least original digital experiences, consumers pointed roundly at banks and their apps – judged the least distinctive and different.
“One of the things we challenge brands over is distinctiveness,” says Kisby. “It’s not something that’s confined to finance and banking – there’s an overwhelming lack of originality across the board, in nearly every category we looked at – but it’s particularly pronounced in that sector, where 63 per cent told us they felt brand experiences were the same.”
The Importance Of CX To Brand Growth report concludes that brands that continue to opt for digital dreariness over distinctive, relevant customer journeys, could risk losing £12billion overall in UK online sales. And, again, the sector that’s set to lose the most from their banal bakes – what Kisby calls the ‘sea of same’ – is finance and banking. So there’s the problem – but what’s the solution? It’s worth lending an ear to MullenLowe Profero, a firm with a global reputation for reviving and re-energising tired and tasteless brands. They’ve worked with the likes of the NHS and Wagamama, with parent company MullenLowe Group boasting Unilever, Diageo and Etihad Airways among its clients.
One recent project nicely demonstrates the firm’s tendency to delight in the different. For the relaunch of Bahlsen, a biscuit brand, MullenLowe Profero decided to record the tonal key at which each Bahlsen biscuit snaps, before having symphonic scores composed around that key for a new set of telly ads. Even biscuits, it turns out, can be a source of high art. All this might seem unnecessarily urbane, but it’s thoughtful – and that’s what consumers are looking for. For Kisby, delivering on their desires is all about keeping experiences human.
“We need to bring some of that emotion and empathy back – as these are things we all really need when it comes to talking about our money. There are a few areas that MullenLowe Profero really digs into in order to do that, and they all start with D, because we love a bit of alliteration. “One is distinctiveness: we believe that to create an experience that’s truly special, it needs to be different. Then there’s disruption – gosh, there’s a lot of potential for that! – and fixing disconnection across the ecosystem, making sure everything’s pulling together well. Finally, there’s data activation, making sure you’re actually doing something really productive and purposeful with the data you collect and the data you create.”
This is the financial sector’s saving grace. The same MullenLowe Profero survey found consumers think financial providers are among the best firms at using data to provide personal experiences to customers. And, as we know, banks have an awful lot of data on their books. Not only that, but banks are uniquely trusted bastions of customer data. A recent survey by IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that 68 per cent of people are happy to give financial institutions their personal information – by far the most-trusted sector. In second place are insurers, with 46 per cent.
“Theoretically, banks are really well positioned to create experiences that are impactful – that surprise and delight,” says Kisby. “What enables those experiences is data, and banks have shedloads, and such great opportunities to request it as well. “But I wonder if there’s a tendency, because banks have so much functional data to neglect perhaps some of the more emotional jumps that other brands may have to make.”
Kisby has watched companies in other sectors guess at customer pain points because they don’t have the data to reveal them, whereas banks most certainly do. “So there’s perhaps a slightly missed opportunity for banks to really step up and see what they could do differently,” Kisby says. “And this is typically where, at Profero, we’d look beyond the category to find inspiration. I’d go to something like Headspace, which is doing some really interesting stuff in the area of financial wellbeing, at the moment. Couch To 5K is another great example, helping people through difficult and high-commitment challenges, but doing it incredibly effectively.”
In the financial sector, Kisby says Starling’s Connected card is a step in the right direction. Developed during lockdown, it helps customers pay friends and neighbours who are doing their shopping while they’re in isolation. “That solution comes from understanding how people live, how they work with money, and really starts to set that brand apart from others,” she says.
Such innovation also explains Starling’s many Best British Bank award wins. And such solutions address emotions, not practical expectations, which Kisby sees as two distinct areas of innovation.
“You’ve got the stuff that’s relevant to everyone, and ownable by no one, like the ability to freeze a card or round up spending. We could all pinpoint the challenger that introduced those, but they’re popping up everywhere now. They’re solving issues that caused lots of us pain, but are now a category norm.Then there’s the less ‘nickable’ stuff.
Banks need to think ‘what might be unique to us – less borrowable, more brand building, creating long-term value and distinctiveness?’.”
This is the stuff of the master baker – discarding humdrum recipes for bespoke treats designed around particular guests’ palates. “And banks need to remember that only they have data that’s unique to their customers, to help them develop solutions that are really appropriate to how they position their brand,” adds Kisby. Putting the humanity back into banking doesn’t merely counterbalance branch closures and service automation. It’s about serving customers with features that deliver what feels like a personal emotional balm, which many appreciate more than ever in light of the pandemic.
“Some consumers are thinking ‘I’m on furlough and my income is unpredictable,’ or ‘I can’t afford to buy the kids new school uniforms this term‘. On the other side are those who’ve kept their jobs, not been on holidays and have more disposable income to look after than usual,” says Kisby. “These are really interesting challenges which could lead to solutions that evolve banks’ experience beyond those of others, rather than just replicating them.”
MullenLowe Profero has already shown not all biscuits snap equally. Similarly, each digital banking cookie needn’t break into the same old crumbs. With palates craving something fresh, it’s crunch time for financial institutions, who must rebrand beyond the bland to keep customers coming back for seconds. As Kisby might put it: ready, steady… bake!