The Fintech Marketing Playbook


We are so thrilled to bring you The Rival Fintech Marketing Playbook! This is your one-stop shop for everything we’ve learned over the years about what drives the growth of successful challenger Fintech brands.  We also interviewed some of the leading Fintech marketers out there to get their perspective and advice on the topics we covered.

You can read the full, multi-media (with audio clips) below or download the PDF (for free!) here.

What this playbook is:

A simple, short guide to what financial service marketing needs to do to drive growth in today’s competitive and cultural landscape.  

What it will help you do: 

  • Build a brand that drives loyalty and advocacy
  • Stand out with breakthrough content and campaigns 
  • Develop a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t
  • Drive more efficiency from your paid media budget
  • Foster an entrepreneurial culture in your team to move faster and stay on top of change

What’s included: 

  • The three pillars of challenger FS marketing with specific examples for each 
  • Advice from leading challenger FS CMOs and entrepreneurs 
  • Actionable steps to take over the next 90-days to start driving change in your team 

The world of financial services is being disrupted. Regardless of where you sit in the industry or what your perspective is, one thing that can’t be disputed is just how much change there has been in the last decade. Technological advances, regulatory changes, and rising consumer expectations have led to a tidal wave of challenger brands flooding the market. According to one report, the challenger bank industry is projected to grow from 20B in 2019 to over 471B in 2027, a CAGR of 48%. Challenger banks (or any challenger FS business) still have to prove they can build profitable, sustainable businesses that take meaningful revenue from incumbents, but it’s undeniable that they are winning the growth game.

Why? Why are these challengers growing so much faster than the incumbents in their space? This is the question that keeps us up at night here at Rival and drives us forward in our day-to-day work. We exist to enable any business to change the category they’re in - to not just challenge a market, but truly change it. We have a long history in financial services, and it’s one of the industries where the incumbent vs challenger battle is most active and acute. In this whitepaper, we’ve distilled down everything we know about why challenger FS brands grow faster into four principles. Any FS marketer can take and apply these principles to their own team and business. We’ve taken all the expertise and examples included here and distilled it into simple, clear, actionable steps you can take to think and act like a challenger ASAP. 

Let’s start with the theory… 

No two businesses are the same. Even to speak about ‘challenger vs incumbent’ is a massive generalization. There are plenty of challengers that aren’t growing (or have gone out of business), and plenty of incumbents that are seeing hyper-growth. One of our first principles at Rival is that you don’t need to be a start-up to be a challenger - it’s much more about mindset and model than it is size and age. But we believe there are patterns to identity and principles to draw out of the FS success stories of the last few years. 

Both through our direct work with brands and additional research we’ve undertaken, we’ve found there are four main principles that help differentiate challenger FS brands from incumbents. These principles contribute significantly to the effectiveness of the best challenger marketing and business growth:

  • Relevant: connecting directly to customer needs on a human (not corporate) level 
  • Differentiated: owning a distinct position in the market 
  • Analytical:  finding any and all opportunities for increased effectiveness and efficiency 
  • Dynamic: build to move fast evolve with the world around it

Let’s break each of these down. 

Relevant : connecting directly to customer needs on a human (not corporate) level  

By definition, there are two parts to a human connection, two ‘people’ who need to be interacting. In order to connect with someone you need to understand who they are but also who you are, and the better your understanding of both, the better your connection will be. 

Let’s look at how challengers better understand their customers first. Being customer-centric in the world of financial services is like being good at driving - everyone says they are, but most people aren’t. Challengers are actually good drivers - they are relentlessly customer-centric. In most cases it’s just a part of the culture to be focused on understanding and delivering on the customer’s needs. Most challenger businesses are started by product and/or tech founders who don’t know anything else. And even as they scale, the focus on a great product and positive experience sticks with these businesses. Many challenger brands in the early days took pride in saying they “don’t do marketing” even though they are growing incredibly. What they mean is they don’t do advertising. They’re still doing marketing, they’re just doing marketing in one of its purest forms - connecting the customer to the product. It’s the first of the four Ps! The marketing teams in these early-stage challenger organisations are focused on bringing the voice and needs of the customer to the product development roadmap. Maybe they run tests to understand what messaging will resonate best, maybe they hold focus groups, maybe they start a community of advocates to give feedback on new product ideas. Whatever the manifestation is, the output of marketing in these companies is focused primarily if not exclusively in the early days on ensuring the needs of the customer are met by the product and brand experience. One of the best examples of this is Monzo - their didn’t do any advertising for a long time, but they sure as heck did marketing. The role of marketing at Monzo was to bring the voice and needs of the customer into the product roadmap through content and community. If you haven’t read  Tom Bloomfield’s breakdown of how Monzo approached early stage growth, do it now. It’s one of the best things we’ve read on this topic. 

In incumbent organizations, especially those at scale, marketing tends to be more siloed - it’s not as connected to or oriented towards the product teams and their roadmap. Marketing is more focused on the ‘go-to-market’; the comms and the advertising around the brand. Still an important job to do, of course, but it’s a narrower remit for marketing and one that’s naturally less oriented towards solving the needs of the customers. 

The other end of the human connection is the brand. Challenger brands tend to be more human than incumbent brands. They don’t feel corporate. And they certainly aren’t boring. They have a relevant POV on the industry that they convey through engaging, value-adding experiences. They stand for something that their customers want to bring into their lives and make into part of who they are. They have a purpose people care about… 

Most challengers are born with this differentiator. They were started because of a specific gap or pain point the founders saw in the market. Their brand and early marketing was built up around that need in a way that felt more natural because of its authenticity. They are challenging the status quo, the way things are currently done, which creates a natural docking point for human connection with people who also share their POV on that need. This is true of any business at the beginning because all businesses were once challengers! Even the biggest, oldest companies in the world were, at one point, scrappy start-ups, trying to solve a need and fill a gap their founders saw. It’s just that over time, if successful, they solve that need, stop being the challenger and start being the incumbent - the business and brand trying to maintain the status quo, not change it. They lose the natural human connection of their brand positioning and tend to lose the humanity in their communications as well.

Brand purpose has become a bit of a buzz word these last few years. There’s a lot of fluff (and risk) in it when done wrong, but so much potential in it when done right. Most incumbent brands who kick off a brand purpose exercise get it wrong from the start. They go looking for a brand purpose. They bring in an agency to help them come up with a purpose their customers will care about. Brand purpose is an exercise in excavation not construction. The best brands are the ones that represent the truth about who the company is. We conducted research in the US and UK on consumer expectations for brand purpose, which supported this hypothesis (check out the findings here). Challengers tend to have a strong purpose because they are so connected with and driven by their core purpose. Incumbents might need to work hard to uncover and consistently communicate their purpose, but every company has one.

Nubank launched in 2013 to create a different kind of experience. Nubank’s core purpose is to fight complexity and empower customers to take better control of their financial life. Nubank uses data-driven insights to empower their customer experience team to create human-centric service. Their goal isn’t just solving customer problems, but creating what the company calls “WoW” moments with customers. Challenging traditional financial institutions and focusing on a simple, streamlined banking experience, Nubank has scaled to become a unicorn and one of the fastest-growing companies in Latin America.

Being humanized means connecting the needs of your customer with the story of your brand. In order to do that you need to have a deep understanding of both. There are plenty of ways to do that, we really believe that it’s the principle that matters more than the practice. Incumbents who want to build a more humanized brand need to first commit to building a more customer-centric culture. As Peter Drucker famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Focus on embedding customer-centricity deep in the culture of your marketing department. Make it part of how you hire, how you review, even how you fire. Make it part of your day to day and week to week rituals. Start a recurring meeting with your team to come up with 3-5 ways you could be more customer-centric with your marketing. The actual thing you do matters less than the fact you start doing. Just get started getting started. Every journey starts with the first step - following the path of customer-centricity will lead you to a more humanized brand. And in the most customer-centric (and therefore most relevant challenger brands) this path is laid from the top. Take Wealthsimple, a Canadian fintech with a $4B valuation that’s on a mission to help everyone achieve financial freedom by providing products and advice that are accessible and affordable. Wealthsimple’s relentless focus on the customer stems from the top and flows through everything they build and do. In the words of Michael Katchen, CEO “We're building the world's most human financial company.”

Differentiated: owning a distinct position in the market 

Being relevant is what every brand focuses on and where most stop. Sure there are conversations about “points of differentiation” and there’s likely a brand house lying around somewhere. But can most brands (can your brand?) actually claim to own a distinct point of different in the market? The answer you’re looking for is “no”. Most brands, even with the best of intentions (and sometimes even the best of investments) can’t. One of our favorite stats on this topic comes from Havas’s 2021 Meaningful Brand Survey which found that 85% of brands could disappear tomorrow and people wouldn’t care. Wow. Are you one of the 85% or one of the 15%?

Challenger brands over-index on people actually caring about them. Why? Because they are not only relevant, they’re differentiated. They offer a point of view, a vision, a challenge to or opportunity for the industry that is distinct from their competitors and the category convention. This matters because its impossible to be preferred if you’re not differentiated. If your partner asked you why they’re special to you, your answer couldn’t be ‘because they’re just like everyone else’. Brands are the same. A brand needs to be sufficiently differentiated in order for it to stand out, break through, and drive the trust, loyalty, and advocacy that is the holy grail for any fintech marketer. But with a brand, unlike with a person, you often only have a few seconds or minutes to get that point of differentiation across, so it better be as sharp as possible. 

Let’s take an example from an incredibly crowded and convoluted FS category - crypto.  Conventional wisdom—and even some of challenger banks’ own advertising—holds that fintechs are winning customers because they provide a superior customer experience and have better mobile banking tools. But it’s more than that. Leading brands are winning because their offering (both functionally and emotionally) are sufficiently differentiated from their competition. These fintechs compete by identifying the specific (and often underserved) needs of their target markets. Have a look at Xapo Bank: “a platform that bridges the gap between traditional financial institutions and the digital currencies of the future. Does it look or sound like anything else you’ve seen in this space? Everything from the look and feel to the description is just…different.

 Any marketer can probably rattle off a handful of “RTBs” on why their brand is differentiated. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter what they think or say - it matters what their customer thinks and says. Differentiation usually takes a backseat to relevance in the incumbent marketer’s playbook, but not in the challenger’s. Challenger fintech brands push long, hard, and often into the uncharted territories of category differentiation to find that blue ocean space they can own. Don’t settle for a blunt point of differentiation - make it as sharp as possible and it will help drive that challenger growth you’re looking for. 

Analytical: finding any and all opportunities for arbitrage and efficiency 

All marketing can be effective if you push it hard enough. If you drown the market with your ads and relentlessly bludgeon your audience with your message, your market share will grow. And some businesses can (and do) buy their way to hyper-growth. But unless you’re willing to outspend everyone else forever, you need to market smart, not just hard. Challengers do this very well… 

Efficiency comes from an accurate understanding and intelligent activation against arbitrage in the market. Understanding comes first. And understanding in the world of marketing means insight. In the world of 2022, every marketing dept is focused on how they can be more data-driven. Data is the new oil and all that...which of course is true. But much like oil, the raw resource of data isn’t valuable in itself. You can’t just plug data into your marketing team and automatically have better marketing. You need to refine it first. Challenger marketing teams are best-in-class at refining data into insight with which to develop more, stronger human connections with their customers. This is the holy grail of the digital and data marketing era. Insightful campaigns are not only more effective, they’re also more efficient. They get shared, they get talked about, they deliver results beyond the ones you pay for. Campaigns that aren’t insightful, aren’t as relevant and/or differentiated, so you have to pay a premium to get them in front of your audience. Challengers find and exploit these efficiencies that data-driven insights offer. 

Revolut brings freedom with a sustainable alternative to traditional banks. They are building the first truly global financial super app, providing frictionless, accessible financial products, allowing people to manage all things money from one app. But a big part of why they’re winning is because of their heavy, aggressive analytical approach. One example is the Recommendation Engine they build within their Revolut Perks product. It is based on machine learning algorithms that are capable of automatically choosing which cashback offers or discounts will be more likely to be relevant for each set of customers. It uses multiple variables like purchase history, consumer behaviour and other demographics data to determine the best audience for each brand and offer. 

Challengers find efficiencies in the landscape of attention, too. Every marketing channel has attention. Wherever your customers spend time there’s an opportunity to reach them with your marketing message. But challengers don’t stop at the question “where can we reach our audience” they continue and ask “where can we reach our audience cheaper than our competition?” . The landscape of attention is constantly shifting. We’ve seen macro shifts (e.g. TV to digital, desktop to mobile), but we also see mico shifts every day/week/month (e.g. Snapchat to Instagram, Instagram to TikTok). This isn’t about always or only buying digital media. In fact, many challenger FS brands are very active in traditional, even analog marketing channels. But they are usually going there only after they’re squeezed all the attention out of underpriced channels, and their insight-driven creative is helping them get more from each dollar they do spend on these ATL channels. Overall, the tactics matter less and will always depend on your business, audience, industry, etc. It’s the strategy that matters - challengers always think about where the attention of your audience is underpriced.  

Dynamic: built to move fast and evolve with the world around it 

Speed is the biggest differentiator for any business. It’s the raw material from which all competitive advantages are manufactured. Product and marketing innovation are what drive the long-term growth of any business, and speed is what drives innovation. It’s easier to focus on and talk about the product and brand outputs that we see from challengers, but usually it’s a culture of speed and agility beneath the surface that’s creating an environment for those types of breakthroughs to flourish. 

It’s easier to be fast when you are small. Incumbents tend to be larger than challengers so have to work harder to move quickly and stay agile. But it is possible... and usually, just like with customer-centricity, it’s more of a cultural question than a process one. Incumbents who want to be more agile need to focus on building a culture that prioritizes fast decision making, a test and learn approach, and yes, taking risks. This is usually the root cause of what slows big incumbents down. They’re less willing to take risks. They have more at stake, maybe there’s more regulatory restrictions or scrutiny. And those inhibitors are real, but not fatal to an agile existence. Don’t use them as an excuse to let layers of process, bureaucracy, and politics flourish when they’re not actually needed. It might feel safer behind all of those layers, but they are slowing you down and restricting the output (and likely happiness) of your team. 

If speed is moving quickly, evolution is learning quickly. Challengers have a cultural bias and often even an explicit commitment to learning with everything they do. They recognise that the short-term is just an opportunity to get better in the long-term. They execute well on what’s needed now, but they make sure they also get smarter and stronger with every campaign and initiative they run. If a challenger and incumbent team are both a 4/10 today in a certain competency or area of understanding, the challenger will be a 6/10 3 months from now while the incumbent will be a 4.5.

You’ve probably heard of Wise (formerly Transferwise), but it’s worth taking a moment to recognize just how much their brand and marketing strategy has evolved over the years. They went from the disruptive, guerilla tactics like having people run around naked to promote transparent FX pricing to pushing through a full, mature rebrand and rolling out a pretty comprehensive, multi-channel, digitally-led marketing machine. 

Evolution is as much a bottom-up process as it is top-down, but the leader of a challenger marketing team needs to ensure he/she is always asking the team to deliver long-term learnings from their work, not just short-term results. 

90-Day Changes

Here are three changes for each pillar you can and should make over the next 90-days to think and act more like a challenger 

Relevant: connecting directly to customer needs on a human (not corporate) level 

  • Have your customer “present” in every meeting
  • Bring up your customer at the beginning and end of every meeting, and any time a decision needs to be made. What would he/she want? What would he/she do? Or you can take a page from Amazon’s playbook (who know a thing or two about being customer centric!) and have an empty chair in the room to represent ‘the customer’. 
  • Speak to 10 customers 
  • Break down the artificial divide between your customer and your team. Make them human, because they are human. Get out and speak to them. 
  • Hold a ‘dog food’ meeting with your team 
  • Schedule a 60 mins meeting where you and your team ‘experience’ your brand through the eyes of your customer. 

Differentiated: owning a distinct position in the market 

  • Sharpen your point of difference
  • Sit down and draw two circles with a diamond in between. In one circle write your brand proposition in one to two sentences (i.e. what you offer). In the other circle write your the category convention that you operate within (i.e. what the status quo offers in your industry). Then think through what’s fundamentally different about what you wrote in those two circles. Write it into the diamond in one or two sentences. That’s your point of difference. 
  • Ask for ‘uncomfortable’ ideas
  • Whenever you’re developing ideas for a new strategy or campaign ask your team (or yourself) to include one idea that will make you uncomfortable. You want the right kind of uncomfortable of course…but if you’re only seeing and delivering ideas that are comfortable, you’re likely not pushing your point of differentiation enough in what you’re doing. 
  • Run the “no logo” test
  • Look at your last few activations or campaigns. Ask yourself (or your team), “if you took your logo off your content, could it have come from a competitor?”. If the answer is yes, you’re not differentiated enough. 

Analytical:  finding any and all opportunities for arbitrage and efficiency 

  • Take 10 data points and translate them into 10 insights
  • Ask your team to come up with the 10 most interesting data points, then sit down and figure out the human insight you can draw from each of them
  • Hold a ‘headline’ brainstorm 
  • Come up with 10 ideas for brand activations that would be ‘headline’ worthy
  • Map the underpriced attention of your audience
  • Graph the main channels by where your audience spends the most time and by where your competition is less active

Dynamic: build to move fast evolve with the world around it

  • Find 10 ways to get 1% faster
  • Start a list with your team and start actioning them. Small improvements add up over time. 
  • Hold a ‘from scratch’ meeting 
  • Do an exercise with your team of how would you start your marketing function from scratch from today if you were to do it all over again? You likely can’t make most of the changes you come up with but it will show you where the opportunities are to eovlve
  • Include a ‘TLA’ in every campaign 
  • “TLA” = test learn agenda. Come up with a hypothesis that you can prove or disprove from the campaign

Now, start putting these principles and practices into action! And if you’d like to discuss things further with our team please reach out via the contact info below.

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