Branding banks - austerity and the rise of the banking startup

Written by Owen Priestley on 27th March 2017

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With this lack of consumer confidence in mind I was interested to see two fairly recent re-brands from a couple of well known banking institutions that have generated some noise in the design community. These rebrands, or brand updates, have also made me take a look at the visual identity of some of the newer banking services that have cropped up recently. In particular those startups that are disrupting the high street bank model and exploiting the dissatisfaction the public has with the familiar high street names. I was interested to know how these new banking startups were presenting themselves to the outside world, who they seem to be targeting and how they were differentiating themselves from the familiar high street banks.

The retro banding of NatWest and the Co-op

Firstly, the dinosaurs. Both the Co-operative and NatWest Bank have updated their corporate identity: the Co-operative have delved into their history and re-introduced their iconic logotype from the sixties, while NatWest have updated their logomark taking influence from a single image in an old brand guideline, again from the late sixties. They have also produced supporting graphic collateral for the use in print advertising and in-store displays.

It is not a surprise that the Co-operative wanted to undertake a rebrand. The Co-operative has suffered from their own self-inflicted pains, announcing losses of £2.5bn in 2014 and also suffering the ignominy of having their Chairman Paul Flowers plead guilty to drug charges and pictured in the tabloids half naked with crisps balanced on each nipple. Not the greatest press a financial institution could have.

Brand as archaeology

With this in mind, updating a brand identity using collateral from the past seems a wise move. Going back to a logotype which has an intrinsic nostalgia, from a more (seemingly) innocent time is a logical step. The Co-operative needed to reinvent themselves and show the world they have changed, while attempting to keep some connection with whatever positive attributes the general public still have; time is a great healer and most things take on a rosy hue when removed by a few decades.

Co-op branding
The ‘new’ Co-operative logotype

The effect this rebrand has is neatly summed up by a user comment on www.thenews.coop:

Of course a logo in itself cannot have values, but the author of this comment has positive associations with the Co-operative which they associate with branding from the past. Re-branding with a whole new visual identity would have been perceived by the public as what it would be; a (relatively) cheap way of attempting to distract and move away from the Co-operative’s problems.

So onto NatWest and their brand update. I am not sure exactly why NatWest have refreshed their brand. They certainly don't have the problems that have plagued the Co-operative. Looking through the various industry blog posts that have cropped up in regards to the rebrand, I found a couple of quotes originating from the design agency responsible: “stand out from its competitors” and “engaging, unique and stands out both online and on the visually ‘noisy’ high street”. So it seems a fair assumption that NatWest wanted to simply freshen up their identity to try to be a little more noticeable and relevant in the market.

The new NatWest brand mark
The new NatWest brand mark

When taking a look at the new logomark, the addition of shading to make obvious the three ‘blocks’ that make up the logo seems rather pointless.

The original logomark of three cubes was conceived to illustrate the coming together of the National Provincial Bank, the Westminster Bank and the District Bank, something that has no relevance today, and was probably phased out from the logomark for that exact reason.

Unlike the Co-operative update there is no logic or rational to the NatWest update that I can see. Much of the NatWest supporting visual assets look great, if not a little zeitgeisty. Unfortunately this supporting collateral seems disconnected with the updated logomark. As a whole it’s all a little disjointed. Apart from adding some life to their visual language it’s hard to see what NatWest were aiming for with this brand refresh.

NatWest supporting brand collateral
NatWest supporting brand collateral

The banking startups

Turning our attention to those pesky disruptors, I took a look some new kids on the block that have been getting a little press: Monzo, Atom Bank and Zero Financial.

The new kids on the block

There is no ‘bells and whistles’ marketing site for Monzo; the Monzo website captures emails, links to the app store and featured some screenshots of their app. As with all the examples I mention, Monzo has no branches and is built around the mobile experience. There is a large financial management aspect to Monzo, hinted at by their strap line: “Finally, a bank as smart as your phone”.

Zero Financial is a credit card (without the credit) that acts like a debit card. As with all the following examples, Zero prominently promote their app with lovely screenshots and refer to themselves as a mobile banking solution.

By recommending Zero to your friends, you get a better interest rate. This marketing approach is framed as rewarding customers for spreading the word. This whole process is gamified (as hinted at by their strapline: “Banking has never been so rewarding”) you “level up”, getting a better interest rate and new card by recommending new users. They also mention “maintaining status” in their marketing blurb, so I imagine you can also be leveled down.

The Atom strapline is “The future of banking, available today” and their USP is similar to Monzo; they are a bank designed for mobile use. So not so unique.

What can we learn?

All these new banking services are targeting mobile users, and obviously those of a generation used to using their smartphones for financial transactions and comfortable in making a switch in their banking provider; so that somewhat fuzzy demographic cohort known as millennials.

75% of consumers have never even considered switching their current account, according to research by Consumer Focus. These new banks must be hoping that millennials have less brand loyalty when it comes to which bank they use than their baby boomer or Generation X parents.

When it comes to design, and how these new banks visually represent themselves, there are obvious similarities. All three expolit minimal pastel-like or colour palettes and generally have a ‘flat’ design. Logotypes are minimal and clean, iconography and logo marks simple, geometric and unfussy.

Atom are unashamedly targeting those millennials. Photos of hipster types - mainly young people in beanie hats, with tribal piercings and beards are scattered around their site. These hipsters look confident and satisfied with life, their world is perfect, their artisanal coffee blend ground just right.

Zero use an inoffensive and reassuring pastel green and white combination that compliments their grey and metallic, masculine looking dark grey credit cards (with names such as “Graphite”, “Carbon” and “Quartz”). Again, the look is very ‘flat’ with Apple-like product shots of their app on a slick looking mobile.

Summary

Natwest look like they are trying to present themselves as more relevant, given the supporting collateral, but any redesign would have come up with this generic style. Looking at just the end results does not tell me whether the NatWest had a direct strategy to appeal to the kind of audience that are attracted to Monzo et al., or if the resulting natwest collateral is just the zeitgeist designer hive mind.

As for the disruptors, a mobile first design will always steer design towards simplicity, and the current design trends of flat design, white space and uncluttered layouts would be particularly relevant to the design savvy audience they are targeting.

The Co-operative update illustrates that when it comes to brand, a great deal of goodwill can be invested in something as abstract as a logotype and although the performance of your service or product and the interactions people have with your service is what ultimately defines the perception people have of you, something as simple as changing a visual identity can go a long way in resetting your audience's opinions.

Time will tell how much traction these new banking services get, given the notorious reluctance of the average consumer to switch banks. With the advent of ‘compare the market’ services consumers are slowly coming round to the advantages of switching their banks. How the high street banks react to these new threats will be interesting to see.

This article was posted in Design, Musings by Owen Priestley

  • Owen Priestley

    Owen Priestley

    Owen is an award winning designer, strategist and user experience practitioner with over 20 years experience working within the digital design and communication industry.

    @owen20three

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