Modern Marketing

‘The biggest challenge is overcoming people’s apathy’: Inside Simple’s marketing strategy

  • Fintech companies have an opportunity to build products that sell themselves and let marketing play a supportive role, according to Simple, which is running physical ads in U.S. cities to re-introduce itself
  • Many fintech companies were founded on millennial anti-bank sentiment created during the 2008 financial crisis; now that that's going away, pressure is on fintech startups to create value in products and let marketing come second
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‘The biggest challenge is overcoming people’s apathy’: Inside Simple’s marketing strategy

Simple is re-introducing itself through an ad campaign its been running on billboards and subway ads in various U.S. cities.

The ads pair everyday concepts most familiar and tangible to the seven-year-old neobank’s target millennial customer base, like binge watching and sweatpants, to convey how enjoyable and sensible its own offering — banking and budgeting, the latter of which major banking institutions are only now building into their experiences — can and should be. The company also wants to show it’s not “just an anonymous organization that doesn’t have a point of view,” said Valarie Hamm Carlson, Simple’s vp of brand. It’s a group of people that share the view of everyday consumers that banking shouldn’t be complicated.

“Every once in a while we need to jump back out there and say, ‘here’s who we are and if you don’t know us we we want introduce ourselves’ so people get a sense of our personality,” Carlson said. “Ideally we want that to come from the product but it’s always good to have a little bit of air cover and we haven’t done a lot of that in the past.”

simple

It’s not one of the main elements of Simple’s advertising, which typically relies on word-of-mouth and social media to get on people’s radars. The company believes its product should sell itself — which some might call a cliché, but banking has transformed into an experience instead of a place, which means it’s marketed differently too.

For the past 10 years, startups have been working on redefining and rebuilding consumer financial products in response to a financial crisis that soured people’s perception of big banks. Now those large institutions are catching up; they’re improving their products and services and have enough marketing dollars to rebuild their image. It seems to be working, and putting even more pressure on fintech startups to create value and meaning in products before marketing.

“We were always building a process for customers that showed we never wanted to profit from their confusion,” Carlson said in a nod to its easy-to-use and fee-free experience, compared to what, at the time of Simple’s 2011 launch, was usually a cumbersome banking experience with poor customer service and lots of gotcha fees.

“Simple was founded out of the financial crisis… Now it’s like, what is banking? We get to define what that is, everyone gets to define what it is,” Carlson said. “I don’t see the high level of anti-bank sentiment there used to be. In a lot of ways the biggest marketing challenge is overcoming people’s individual apathy and generating momentum to move. Our goal is to create something compelling that’s useful and hopefully people come over.”

Simple, which was acquired by BBVA Compass in 2016, has been quietly focusing on migrating customers accounts and perfecting the user experience of its initial offering: a checking account accessible online and on a mobile app with automated goals-based saving and safe-to-spend features and category association. Last year it also rolled out a joint account for anyone, not just married couples, recognizing that with digital money there are many types of relationships involving financial transactions, like roommates or parents and children.

simple goals

As former brand experience design director for a traditional bank, Umpqua Bank in Portland, that relied heavily on foot traffic, Carlson said Simple and other neobanks generally inspired her with “the idea that you’re coming up with new products and the product is doing the marketing.”

“Their strategy at the time was creating these ‘stores,’” she recalled. “The idea was to drag people in there so they could interact with the banking associates there and have it basically be a community center.”

Umpqua has shifted to a more digitally oriented marketing strategy, she added. Still, the products haven’t changed and many traditional banks still rely on creating new marketing campaigns to reignite interest in those products. That makes it harder to keep up with what customers want and constantly try to reengage them.

“It’s like sending people back to the same store where the shoe box is a little different but the shoe is the same shoe you had last year. And in the meantime your customer is running up mountains now and needs traction on the bottom for snow.”

It’s understandable. The whole premise of digital-first banks is that they’re built on new technology and don’t have to contend with legacy technology that compromises the customer experience. Banks that have existed for 100 years and struggle with that old technology can’t complete a digital overhaul in one night. That’s why neobanks have an opportunity to offer something different and market it differently, or hardly at all.

Financial services is full of ebbs and flows. The industry just spent the last three years unbundling them and now, with once single-product startups now building out full suites of financial services, it’s rebundling them. But Carlson is confident that once fintech companies all start to look the same again, if they do, the marketing will still come from the products and marketing teams will be responsible for “spreading and augmenting” that effectively.

Even so, she said it will still be necessary to do a little bit of traditional advertising just to connect with customers the way Simple is doing now, “like a little gopher popping out of the ground saying ‘Hey, this who we are as a company, this is what we offer, this is what we stand for.’”

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