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Branding Fintech: Who Likes the New Uniform?

By David Shalam, founder and creative director, Studio 2br

Fintechs are associated with innovation and disruption of the status quo in financial services. So why do so many fintech brands look the same?

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David Shalam

The shakeup of the financial services industry has been a long time coming. Digitalisation is bringing democratisation to the financial products and services we all depend on day to day. It’s now the customer who decides how we spend, save and borrow, not the bank manager.

We no longer need to go to the bank at all, because what we used to do there can be done via apps or online instead. Our choice of providers has never been so wide or varied either. It’s not just the usual suspects any more. There’s a new universe of financial apps and platforms out there to discover.

What an empowering universe it is. It means we can go cardless as well as cashless. Shop now and pay later. Design an investment portfolio in minutes. Get a mortgage without getting off the sofa. Do our accounts without an accountant. 

Fintechs are filling gaps in the market and finding niches they can own. So why aren’t they doing the same when it comes to branding their businesses?

No safety in numbers

As a branding and design consultancy with clients that range from startups to global banks, we keep a close eye on trends in financial services branding. The early days of the fintech revolution produced some true pioneers who teamed novel thinking with bold attitudes. Monzo set the bar with its commitment to creating an outstanding brand. Others have followed the trail it blazed – often too much so. Because the current trend in fintech branding is towards uniformity rather than originality. Brands are blending in when they should be standing out.

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We’ve seen this before in financial services. The herd instinct is strong. Look at the heritage symbols and conservative colours used by many established financial institutions to emphasise their longevity. Why has one status quo been replaced by another? And what are the branding pitfalls for fintechs to avoid?

What’s my name?

Enigmatic names have become popular in the fintech world. As well as Monzo, there’s Habito, Kinsu, Tink, Klarna, Trussle, Viola Black. A short name is certainly preferable for practical reasons since it takes up less screen space. But at this stage in the digital cycle it’s difficult for startups to secure domain names that are also descriptive, since many of those were taken long ago. Yet it’s worth the extra effort to find a name that at least hints at what your business does, because that provides a stronger platform for your brand story.

The brand risk with a cryptic name is that it can confuse and even inhibit consumers if it feels awkward to say.

Habito is an online mortgage broker. The name of payments platform Klarna means ‘to settle’ in its native Swedish. The brand risk with a cryptic name is that it can confuse and even inhibit consumers if it feels awkward to say. But an unusual handle has not proved a drawback for some startups. Just look at Uber. And its rival Lyft shows how to work a name that achieves the holy trinity of being short, descriptive and distinctive.

How do I look?

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Current trends in fintech visual identity include design minimalism, flat illustration and a pastel-led colour palette. These are so prevalent they are becoming a cliché. There is an absolute sea of teal out there. This is obviously intended to give these brands a friendly, human feel that will appeal to the influential millennial demographic. But what is intended to attract can just as easily repel if it comes across as inauthentic.

The way to reach millennials in particular is to be more individual. Even if what you do may not be that different from your competitors, you can win hearts and minds by giving your brand more personality. Klarna’s business is transactional, but the Klarna brand makes the experience a lot of fun.

Does that feel good?

Some fintechs seem to forget that for any digital business, the user experience and the brand experience are one. Users expect your app to work. It’s how much they enjoy using it that keeps them coming back. That’s why it’s so important to build the brand before you build the app. No matter how good your technology is, it will not differentiate you in a market where everyone is as digital as you are. You need to create emotional ties. That comes from the brand experience.

No matter how good your technology is, it will not differentiate you in a market where everyone is as digital as you are.

Every brand has a killer touchpoint. For Apple, it’s become the iPhone. For a fintech, it’s your app. Monzo’s brand is all about putting the customer first and that promise is evident in the user experience. The Monzo app is everything the customer wants: easy to use, super secure and designed to make life easy for the customer rather than the company. The Monzo customer can deal with a lost or stolen card as smoothly as any other transaction. Anyone who’s had to dial a number, and then another number, to speak to the relevant department, which promises to get back to them and doesn’t, will appreciate how refreshing that is. Monzo’s website is designed to support the app too, not the other way around.

Go your own way

To make sure your brand doesn’t look and sound the same as everyone else you need to be single-minded. Adman Maurice Saatchi advocates brutal simplicity of thought. That means getting your story straight and telling it in a simple and authentic way, without compromise. Klarna’s brand concept is smoothness. The way it owns that is exemplary. Check out the website or app: we love the smoooth swagger.

By all means look at what others are doing, but don’t be seduced by it. Stick to your own path. It may wind and you may even pivot in a new direction along the way, as many have before you. But you will always know who you are, and so will your customers.

Originality endures

Get this right and you will never look back. Just look at the success of one of the first fintech brands. Launched in 1989 as a branchless bank providing 24/7 access, First Direct is still going strong.

By all means look at what others are doing, but don’t be seduced by it.

The First Direct brand hasn’t changed all that much over time. The descriptive name has endured. The visual identity continues to be based on monochrome type, because the essence of the brand is to make banking black and white. The tone of voice puts that promise into words through copy that’s honest and straightforward. You know what to expect from this business and it stands out in a crowded marketplace. That’s all down to the brand.

It takes courage to be truly original. We always advise fintech clients that it’s actually riskier to follow the crowd. With so much demand out there for innovation, putting on the same uniform as everyone else is not just boring: it’s bad for business.

Studio 2br is an independent design consultancy that creates branding, campaigns and communications for business.  

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