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Building a Financial Services Brand that’s Fit for Purpose in Tomorrow’s World 

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Image credit: Matthew Henry

This article originally appeared in Fintech Finance’s “Fintech Magazine” edition 25, published in October of 2022. 

The financial services world of 2023 is a loud, noisy, crowded place. Technology and regulation have lowered the barriers to entry and distribution to such a point where the market is flooded with new brands, products, services, and content (gah, so much content). How do you find any whitespace at all? How do you stand out? How do you reach a modern consumer (B2C or B2B) who has SO much more choice than they used to? And even if you answer those questions, how do you continuously answer them day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out when the only constant around you is change? Well, the solution to success in today and tomorrow’s world is a lot of things, but it certainly isn’t doing things the way you’ve done them before…let’s break it down shall we? 

Many businesses are struggling in this new landscape, but not all. Some are thriving. These are the challengers: the companies that are fully fit-for-purpose for the world as it is right now, not the way it was in the past. Incumbent vs challenger is an overused and over-generalised categorisation, but it does serve a purpose to identify the focus and focal point of a business. Incumbents are designed for yesterday - challengers are designed for today. Incumbents tend to be big and old while challengers tend to be young and small, but those characteristics are correlative, not causal to their ability to be fit-for-purpose for the world around them and reap the growth benefits that capability offers. 

Challengers: the companies that are fully fit-for-purpose for the world as it is right now, not the way it was in the past.

A lot of what I’m going to talk about here is marketing. It’s what I know, and it’s what I believe is an integral part of long-term, sustainable growth for any business. However, I always add a giant caveat when I step up on my marketing soapbox: product has a huge role to play in the growth of challenger brands. After all, the best marketing is a great product. But! Growth beyond an early adopter audience, beyond a small group of advocates, growth that truly disrupts a market must, by definition, be driven by strong product and strong marketing. There are always the two factors in the growth equation: product innovation + marketing innovation = growth. 

Growth equation: product innovation + marketing innovation = growth

And before all you non-marketers tune me out: marketing is not advertising. Advertising is a part of marketing, just like front-end design is part of product. But a better, true definition of marketing is anything that connects the product to the customer. All those years when early challenger banks in the UK said they didn’t “do marketing”? False. They just didn’t do advertising. Hot coral debit cards? Marketing. Community meet-ups? Marketing. Golden ticket referrals? Marketing. And brilliant marketing at that. The best marketing isn’t about stuffing ads in people’s eyeballs and ear holes, it’s about building a bridge between the product and the customer. Sometimes that’s putting out an ad to drive new sign-ups or downloads; sometimes it’s about giving people an opportunity to show-off to their friends that they’re different or that their voice is being heard. 

Another way of putting it: marketing brings the customer into the company. Marketing’s job is to build long-term cash flow (vs the short-term cash flow of sales) by developing a deep, differentiated understanding of the customer and finding ways to connect the value of the product to their needs. And marketers (or at least the good ones) do this not just through content and communications, but through context. Because after all, context is everything. What you put out into the world only exists through the perspective with which you see and experience it. If you don’t understand the context of the consumer’s world, you’re leaving growth on the table. And that’s what challengers do well - they don’t leave any growth on the table. 

Challengers brands, brands that are fit-for-purpose for today and tomorrow’s world, do two things well. First, they are built for impact: they focus on adding value to the audience they’re trying to reach in a highly differentiated way. Their North Star is the customer, not the product, the tech, or even the (short-term) bottom line. And the path they take on their journey is a new, fresh one that hasn’t been trodden in the marketplace before. Said another way, they do things that make people actually care. The biggest risk in modern marketing and brand building isn’t doing something wrong, it’s doing something that nobody cares about. Second, these challengers are ready for change: they build teams, culture, and ways of working that are intelligent and adaptive. They find arbitrage in the stock-market of consumer attention through a blend of data and creativity. They test and learn as they go, they experiment, they take risks. They recognise that managing change, dealing with what you don’t know, is more important than how smart or strong you are at any one point in time. And most importantly, they evolve. They play offence, not defence. They are always looking to get smarter, better, faster. For those of us who have worked in challenger businesses you know the magic feeling and energy this gives to a company when it’s coded into the cultural DNA. It’s the special sauce, the X factor that allows these businesses to take advantage of the constant change in the world around them instead of falling victim to it. 

The marketing playbook of 15 years ago (heck even 15 months ago) is not fit-for-purpose for the world of today. Throw it out, don’t just cross out some lines and add some new pages. Throwing out and starting over (in principle, not always practice) is core to what makes a challenger. In order to be fit-for-purpose for today, you need to have a healthy ignorance (or forced forgetfulness) of what’s possible right now. If you are always dragging last year’s ideas, models, research, budgets, etc into this year, it won’t be as bespoke as it could be. This is the marketing department’s equivalent of tech debt. Rip and replace the old and rebuild with the new. Much like tech upgrades, you need to do it carefully and with a clear understanding of the first and second-degree consequences - risk is always proportional to reward. But challengers are always asking themselves how they would do things differently if they started them again from scratch today. They may not always be able to start over, and of course you couldn’t build anything to scale if you did, but they know where the gaps are. And those gaps, between how you’d do things differently and how you’re doing them now, are the fuel for your competitors’ growth. 

👉Get Your Copy of The 2023 Fintech Marketing Playbook here

We spend a lot of time pontificating on what’s coming next. But actually, in my experience at least, most opportunity doesn’t come from predicting change, it comes from reacting faster and smarter than others when it happens. There are so many learnings to take from the last 15 years into the next 15, and there is value in using history to understand the future. But building a brand and business that’s fit-for-purpose for today and tomorrow’s world isn’t complicated, even if it is hard. We don’t need new people telling us new things, we just need to focus on the fundamentals of growth: add value in a differentiated way (i.e. build for impact), and execute intelligently while adapting quickly (i.e. be ready for change). Simple in theory, hard in practice; that’s almost always where the opportunity (in business and life) lies. Don’t look for new answers, get to work on the ones you already have and know. The untapped potential is in the execution: thinking and acting like a true challenger. 

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