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Is Challenger Bank Success All Down to Branding?

Everyone is familiar with the brightly coloured debit cards issued by challenger banks, whether it’s the teal of Starling or the Monzo coral. Not only this but Challenger banks entire branding message is often modern, fun and personable. Though challengers come with a multitude of benefits to the consumer, is it this brand positioning that’s the biggest key to their success?

Someone who can provide insight on this is James Fooks-Bale, Creative Director at Monotype, providers of type-related products, technologies and expertise. Here he explores the design transformation of financial brands. 

James Fooks-Bale, Creative Director at Monotype

Technology has transformed banking and consumers’ appetite for that transformation has never been greater. But with so many new market entrants, how can financial brands stand out and capture the trust of a new generation of customers? To succeed, financial brands – both disruptive and disrupted – must look to match their digital transformation of recent years with design transformation. 

Over recent years, the financial landscape has radically changed. Challenger banks including Revolut and Monzo have cut into the market share of traditional institutions, while platforms like Robinhood have brought new, often younger investors into the fold. The growing adoption of cryptocurrency and other asset classes has also fragmented the investment and banking industry, leaving many established institutions scrambling to build relationships with increasingly digital audiences. 

Financial brands have long focused on creating design identities that convey trust; trust that a customer’s money (and information) will be safely managed. Imagine, for a moment, that you receive an email from your bank but the fonts and colours are unfamiliar. Do you trust it? Hopefully not, and that’s why a consistent, hard-to-replicate identity is a tool in the fight against fraud and cybercrime. But over the last decade, ‘challenger’ brands have attempted to convey other, more ‘human’ values – responsive, relatable, and listening – ones that align to those of a younger leaning demographic who demand more than security and data safety from the brands they choose to do business with. 

Research consistently shows today’s consumers now look to brands for more than their immediate product or service offering. A 2020 study of 8,000 respondents in 8 markets showed that consumers are four to six times more likely to buy from, trust and champion companies with a strong brand purpose. Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock put the challenge succinctly; “The public expectations of your company have never been greater… Every company must not only deliver financial performance but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” 

A more ‘human’ brand identity matters most to digital natives, who have likely never considered a bricks and mortar bank premise as a primary point of contact. Challenger brands have targeted this demographic with an emphasis on creative assets such as personable tone of voice; customisable bank cards; warmer colour palettes; more expressive and memorable typography; and imagery reflective of the diverse communities they serve. These up-and-coming banks were also first to recognise the importance of a seamless – even fun – user experience: a consumer need traditional banks could be said to have previously neglected. For traditional banks, meeting these new expectations of user experience will require wholesale design transformation, where brand identity and customer experience are reconfigured for the digital-first era.  

Of course, trust will continue to play a pivotal role in fintech branding. This is where financial institutions have an opportunity to leverage their maturity and stability while adapting their brand identities to reach new audiences. But this is a difficult balance to strike. Oftentimes the internal culture of the business may appear (at least externally) to be at odds with the more open and inclusive brand they wish to convey. In 2020, Goldman Sachs launched its own typeface which it described as “approachable without being whimsical” and made it open source – available for anyone to use. While this move embraced the new digital culture, Goldman Sachs stipulated that the font could not be used to disparage the company. This corporate addendum alienated the internet culture the open-source release sought to engage, engendering disparaging memes featuring the brand’s new font.  

Financial institutions can also find extending their brand into new territories and digital environments challenging. A couple of years ago, Santander undertook a wholesale rebrand alongside Interbrand to enable global omnichannel consistency. Santander’s rebrand included developing a custom font capable of being deployed in every territory and language, sub-brand and product, along with new iconography and imagery that resembled the population in each territory it does business in. The scale of the project reflects the importance Santander places on a consistent yet flexible identity, trusted by its customers while reflecting different cultures.

CMO’s charged with securing consumer trust can no longer rely on the old marketing fallback of “make the logo bigger”. The very nature of the mobile banking experience, where screen space is at a premium, means the logo cannot be shown on every interface of the app. Superunion recently helped design the mobile app for Ila – a digital-only bank powered by Bank ABC. Superunion’s Eva Bashford-Harrison explained the design challenge; “When designing for a mobile phone, you’ve got a small format to work with and not much room for imagery. Typography that can get the brand personality through without the need of anything else is really important.” 

Whenever financial organisations consider ‘trust’ as a brand value, it’s important to recognise that trust itself is not a monolithic thing. It shifts and changes along with society’s values and concerns, differing across demographics and regions, and dependent on the channel through which the consumer chooses to engage. Brands need to be cognisant of that dynamic and build more ‘human’ identities capable of flexing to reach diverse communities, while at the same time remaining consistent. 

 In many ways, the opportunity ahead is similar to the digital transformations of the last decade where banks and financial institutions needed to move away from inflexible legacy architecture towards a mix of on-premise and cloud that allowed them to scale to meet demand while remaining resilient. Design transformation is the next frontier for the financial sector. Those brands that master both digital and design transformation will be the ones that consumers continue to place their trust in. 


  • Polly is a journalist, content creator and general opinion holder from North Wales. She has written for a number of publications, usually hovering around the topics of fintech, tech, lifestyle and body positivity.

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