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Outlier Briefing: Frontify’s MJ Mueller on what it takes to create the most valuable financial brands

  • Building a financial brand isn't easy and it takes commitment.
  • Frontify CMO MJ Mueller joins the Outlier Briefing to talk about the consistency needed to grow a valuable financial brand.

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Outlier Briefing: Frontify’s MJ Mueller on what it takes to create the most valuable financial brands

This briefing is exclusive to our Outlier members. We go deeper with subject matter experts, to take actionable steps that can impact your business and market.

With all the new entrants to banking and financial services, there’s a sea of sameness around certain parts of the industry. Branding can take a product surrounded by competition and really make it memorable. But to do that, everyone needs to be on the same page. Marketing, PR, product, sales — there’s a consistency great brands have that underlies everything they do.

Today’s guest is MJ Mueller, CMO of Frontify. The Swiss software company provides a brand management platform, working with large financial brands all over the world to build powerful brand experiences. MJ discusses how top financial brands — whether they’re incumbents or digital-only — make remarkable impressions and why collaboration and consistency are so important. We talk about the challenges the pandemic has posed for top and emerging brands. Lastly, MJ touches on the future of branding in the financial space.


  • Top financial brands need a single source of truth: Banks and other financial firms need a home for their branding materials and messaging.
  • Consistency is paramount: Across regions and teams, top brands are consistent in their messaging and imagery.
  • Collaboration happens across silos: Teams that span the organization and can work together create more impactful and lasting financial brands.
  • The market is moving: There's a growing need to stand out with a strong brand as incumbent players are joined by fintech firms and now big tech competing in financial services. Apple is a very strong competitive brand.
  • New generations want different things: Gen Z and Millennials are strong demographics, each with different needs. Trust in banks has eroded and successful financial brands can address this head on.
  • Fintech brands need to keep up with growth: Sometimes, fintechs are surprised by the pace of growth and the need for the brand values to permeate everything they do. MJ cited Robinhood's recent challenges around the GameStop stock snafu that drives home the point that brands extend to customer service, as well.

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Changing challenges in financial services

I think the biggest change is that there is a lot of movement in the market. We have the traditional banks. But we also see quite a lot of startups coming -- fintech startups with new solutions. We also see established companies that move into the space -- think about Apple releasing their Apple Card with just a totally new narrative than what we have seen before in the market. When Apple launched the card during the keynote, they were talking about a healthier financial life and no late fees, no annual fees, no overdraft fees, a clear reward programs. All these kind of things that pinpointed the pain points that consumers have seen in the industry for quite a long time. This really means from one day to the next, you're also competing with a brand like Apple.

Demographic needs of a brand

We have also seen new generations of customers, Gen Z and also Millennials, that you need to really address differently. We have seen that trust in banks is really falling apart during the financial crisis and only 28% of Millennials trust their banks to be fair. So all these kind of things that play hand in hand have really changed the way brands address the market with a new tone of voice.

I think for startups, it's exactly 180 degrees a different story. Customers like the nice fancy UI, but they don't trust them with large sums of their money.


Banking startups build different brands

Fintech startups really play with new forms of branding. Think about Revolut, Klarna, Neon, which is a new Swiss player, or N26 -- they are really moving away from banking blue, from the stock imagery, from the kind of brands that we have seen in the past. They are more colorful, creating entirely new tones of voice, being very human in their communications, using emoticons (which you couldn't think of traditional banks using for a pretty long time), friendly illustrations -- all these kinds of things create trustworthiness, but on a different level. In a visual way and a really human way. They're more person to person versus B2C.

Brand consistency

I think the important part here is that branding really works if you can generate consistency throughout all the channels. What I mean by this is basically, it doesn't help you if you define your values and your personality, and your tone of voice and your visual language, but then, on the website, on social media, in the interaction with customer support, it all feels different. This just destroys trust. It's like talking to a person, one on one, and one day that person approaches you totally different than before.

It's really important that financial institutions understand the importance of consistency in all these touch points.

Fintechs frequently struggle to keep up the needs of a brand

Sometimes fintechs are surprised by the pace of growth that they're going through. Brand may not even be at the forefront of their mind when they start off. You see players entering the market and running into really big issues when it comes to customer support and not having the capacity to actually handle the load and creating a really bad experience. They don't see this as part of brand, as well.

Robinhood has a very famous claim of democratizing access to financial markets. But when /WallStreetBets hit, we had this confusion in the market. They stopped trading on GameStop and other stocks. We could see that people got really annoyed by the sheer fact that the company kind of broke a promise.

Evolution of fintech brands

It really comes down to consumers accepting the human, direct way of branding and communicating that fintechs use. For startups that grow and mature, users can actually make the jump towards trusting them with larger amounts of money, with long term investments and whatnot.

I actually see a huge opportunity for traditional banks that have already built up that trust over time to move in the opposite direction for their brand, and to incorporate a little bit of that tone of voice in addressing their customers. And just to give you two examples here: Credit Suisse has recently launched a product called a CSX. It's a mobile first product, and as far as I know, the first free product that they have launched. It's a bank account with a debit card.

The interesting part is really how they communicate to the market. So they have actually taken a lot of the elements of Money Heist, the Netflix original series about a professor and his crew taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. Even in the visual language of their campaign, they have used people with masks, addressing directly the kind of the pain points that people have had with banks for a long time. I think that the ad clip, if I remember correctly, starts with, hey, suits, why should I pay a fee for my account if others are available for free? That's definitely interesting to observe, if that works out or not.

And a really nice example is Raiffeisen Bank here in Switzerland, which is changing the design of their branches into a totally new concept and visual language. They're very much rooted in the countryside of Switzerland and they are now changing their traditional branches into countryside living rooms -- into a place where the lifestyle brand has people sitting together, talking eye to eye level. It's not the traditional buildings anymore that suggest longevity and wealth, but really trying to address and meet customers at a high level.

Getting everyone onboard

In the end, creating a valuable financial brand is about bringing all these stakeholders and supplying them with the same level of information. We talked about several banks with thousands of employees -- it's still brick and mortar. They have a lot of input from compliance and regulations, with a finger on what they have to do -- this needs to go into the creative process.

They want to have one place where they have brand guidelines, where they have all the brand assets, where they can can go through a workflow that they have pre approved. To make it a concrete example using a workflow, where you have predefined lanes of what kind of prototypes and assets things need to go through. Starting with an initial copy design, check, going into a regulation or compliance check, and depending on the type of document, maybe checking with C-level approval.

Sitting around the table

Our ultimate goal is to have as many people on the platform as possible, because it allows our clients to address or empower more people that can actually create brand and access guidelines. Sometimes our client starts with a brand department or a marketing department. But usually, once they have the initial guidelines in place, once they have basic stock of icons, images and whatnot that can be used, they usually roll our software out across the institution.

I think what was especially interesting to BAC Credomatic was that they had global brand guidelines, but they also wanted to have regional ones for different geographies. They wanted a single place where everyone can work on that. We recently launched a survey with bank professionals globally. And what we found is that a lot of people actually want to access their brand's guidelines, but they're either not accessible to them or they're not comprehensive enough. They basically start creating their own guidelines. They start to create their own file servers where they upload files. This is a compliance nightmare and a security mess.

Good examples of bank branding

I've seen this evolution with new players like Klarna and Square. They entered into kind of a boring space. But they really managed to go from a functional kind of communication to a very emotional one, communicating their value.

So, in a way, they're both moving from transactional platforms to banking, or general financial services, brands.

I really like the MasterCard brand evolution. It's a minor thing, but it just resonates with me quite a lot. They used to have these two circles with a lot of noise in it. And they just went through to the new logo. It's much cleaner, much simpler. And it's at the point where the brand is so well known, it's basically the outline of the logo with colors -- enough for the market to recognize who they are. You can communicate quite a lot by reducing complexity. That's either explicitly or implicitly noticed by people. I guess.

Brands that need to improve communication

You often sees a financial brand coming across as inauthentic because it comes off a little bit shouty. You can feel that it's old fashioned in the kind of unrelatable types of buildings that they use, in the stock imagery and the brands that they have built over time. Especially with digital products, it's so important to bring an easiness that you might be able to transport in a conversation on a piece of paper into the digital world. Really thinking about how you can make sure you're using the right UI patterns in a consistent way across all the different platforms. We often see a kind of mobile banking and app that feels completely different than the desktop banking experience. But it's from the same bank.

It's really tricky, sometimes, for traditional banks to see these new digital touchpoints as part of their brand and brand experience.

Future of branding

Millennials will play a big role in the future. I think that entire conversation about aesthetics is important, but really linking them to a brand purpose. Younger consumers want to live and breathe a company's identity. They want them to do good for society. Something like two thirds of millennials said in a survey that they have boycotted brands that took an opposite stance on social issues in the past. Consequently, they are willing to pay more for a brand that positively addresses those issues.

And another part is really thinking about new marketing tactics and how brand is played in specific spaces, with gamification elements, with affiliate and influencer marketing, with referrals. We saw that when Coinbase launched. They really went into the direction of waiting lists and referrals to be part of the community. We will see more and more experienced marketing there as well.

These experiences -- going from pre purchase to purchase and post purchase -- are really being leveraged with specific new channels, like TikTok that requires a totally different messaging. People on TikTok don't like ads -- there's a tension against advertisements on the platform itself. There's a huge opportunity there, because you have a super active young community, talking about financial advice, talking about trading platforms. There are a lot of players involved currently that don't deserve trust, to be totally honest. If you look at their messaging, it's kind of half baked.

I think if an established bank or an incumbent player would actually use these new channels to make their points and to establish themselves, there is a huge opportunity there.

We mentioned bundling and unbundling of financial products. I think we will see a lot of sub brands also appearing. If you think about insurance and fintech, why should people want to pay for someone else's unhealthy lifestyle or for someone else's car insurance, while I'm not drinking for religious reasons? They will create more niche brands, where I feel comfortable, where I feel like, yeah, these companies understand me. We have the same values.

Brand communities

Brand managers don't want to be described as the brand police anymore. That used to be the case -- kind of ending creative freedom by letting people know what they can do and can't do with a brand. What we see with a lot of our customers is actually that they build best practice hubs, that they build brand advocacy areas where influential people within different departments, from marketing, to sales, to customer success to legal and compliance, who really love their brand, who really kind of resonate with it, can identify themselves. These hidden champions can be enabled to really bring the brand to the next level and spread the word.

When thinking about brands, the trust element is such an important one. Trust starts with people and relationships. We see that quite often. We're actually building a community around Frontify right now in regards to an informal exchange from all our customers. Our goal is to leverage the brains of the CMOs of banks to share their information.

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