Hiding behind the scenes of all the new challenger banks, business admin apps, and fintechs lies a complex ecosystem of third parties, software, and technologies that all speak to each other. For the most part, the customer doesn’t need to know about them and has no direct interaction with them.
But once in a while, there’s a glitch in the Matrix or something goes wrong and the whole thing can collapse; in a nano-second, you can go from being a tech darling to the customers’ worst nightmare. We found ourselves on the front line of such a situation in 2020, through no fault of our own. And this is where we rolled up our sleeves and designed our way out of the problem. The strength of a brand and a commitment to translating the brand into an experience can help any service-led company to navigate through choppy waters and come out the other side.
Brands that operate in the realm of complex areas such as finance, science, and technology need clear explanations and interactions that work for everyone. This is the job of design. We need to distill and articulate complicated information in a way that’s accessible, even fun; with no jargon and no complex systems. As soon as you obfuscate or intimidate, you can lose customers.
As a lifelong designer, I’ve crisscrossed back and forth a few times between agency land (Digit, Fjord, Conran Singh) to client-side. Having been a designer all my working life and now CDO, obviously it’s second nature to me to advocate for design constantly and at the highest level. Now I find myself in the world of financial services. And it’s a more interesting place to be than you might think. Since I arrived at ANNA in 2017, I’ve had a chance to get deeply embedded in all things banking. And, having had a good look around the sector, I’ve started to wonder if some financial-service organizations truly understand what brand and design are?
Because their understanding of these disciplines can be limited, it means they don’t fully exploit what they can do. This lack of appreciation can mean that the design of services, products, customer experiences, communications, and marketing all under-deliver, under-perform, and are under-funded. Customers surely deserve better. In fact, they expect better, especially now when they compare fintech to other contemporary services in other sectors and what’s going on in the popular culture. Financial and professional services can learn a lot from other customer-facing areas, from retail, hospitality, travel, start-ups, and tech companies. Examples of those that seamlessly combine CX, UX, branding, design, digital, technology, innovation, marketing, and communications include John Lewis, On, The Modern House, Fairphone, DPD, Klarna, Muji, Spotify, Airbnb, Away, and Porter Airlines. And, of course, heritage and luxury brands with longevity tend to have design and brand coded into their DNA, such as Chanel and Hermes but also Clarks, Braun, and Apple. What is clear is that they all really value design and brand, offering frictionless experiences, smooth integration between digital and physical, an approach to their brands that gives customers, and employees a sense of their philosophy, purpose, and usefulness, thus inspiring loyalty and respect.
But back to financial services.
What’s the reason for lazy, boring, or uninspired design in the money world? Typically they believe that to signify trustworthiness, professionalism, and reassurance (the main preoccupations of these institutions) necessitates adopting a common brand language. The tone of voice, look and feel, marque of many banks, insurance providers, accountants et al. is safe to the point of dull. There is so much room to play with these stereotypes, room for greater expression. Creativity plays an invaluable role in customer perception, trust, market distinction. And there’s definitely room for better-designed services.
However, branding has also been misconceived as decoration or pretty pictures but also in the extreme and especially more recently deployed as gimmicks (such as quirky card designs) in a frantic attempt to stand out and appeal to a desirable demographic of millennials and Gen-Z. Neither paradigm does branding and design the justice they deserve.
Writing in Forbes on September 14th, 2020, fintech expert Ron Shevlin observes:
“Ideas proposed in brainstorming sessions might not be bad ideas, but they’re often the wrong ideas for the purpose of innovation. Why? Because they focus on ‘what should we do?’ instead of ‘what problem should we solve?’
The opportunity in banking isn’t about adding more features to mobile banking apps or developing a voice interface that lets people do what they already do. The opportunity is adding new services that enable consumers to do things they can’t already do. Who’s creating those new services? Not banks. Predominantly, it is being done by fintech startups.”
If you’re the CEO of an established business or the founder of a start-up, you have to get your head around the benefits of being design-led (not just visual but experience) and design-centric. Any organization, big or small, corporate or a hipster indy, can benefit from being design-led and having a brand that is interesting, curious, counter-intuitive but at the same time communicates its value and offer with clarity and accessibility.
Being design-led and harnessing creative talent is a way to connect with customers and serve them better. It’s why we put design at the heart of our business. And it is why we’ve invested so heavily in our own in-house creative teams who cover everything from UX, infographics, how-to animations and guides, our brand identity, tone of voice, etc. We also collaborate with external experts such as filmmakers, animation studios, creative agencies, and with the branding guru himself, Michael Wolff.
The level of creative dialogue, inspiration, and wider perspective that comes from working with a great agency – can inject their own experiences and observations gained from their other clients across a range of sectors, and tapping into their knowledge of what is chiming well with customers can’t be underestimated.
So, next time you’re on the horns of a difficult situation, think about branding as a core part of your organization’s behavior and use the box of design tricks to strengthen relationships and cement credibility, loyalty, and growth.
Cover image source: Markus Winkler