That was the question asked in a blog by Betterment, a financial services startup.
A tech reporter once said to me that a financial services startup wasn’t sexy. I mused over it for a while. It’s not a completely unfair point.
Well, it’s an unfair point. Banking is cool — in its own way. And to prove it, we’ve put together a list of the 10 coolest brands in banking today. Some you know. Some you will not. Some you will wonder why we put them on the list at all. But our point is to prove that there is a thread of cool running through banking today, and we’re lovin’ it (to quote the tagline of a successful brand in another sector).
To be clear, we are not listing the “most valuable” brands or the “best” brands. We are simply identifying the brands that have the greatest cool factor today. You want to know our methodology? We don’t have any. That’s what makes the brands cool. They just “feel” cool to us. You don’t like our methodology? We welcome your suggestions. As long as they are cool.
In just three short years, Ally has built a brand with legs. And they’ve tried to use a snarky honesty in doing so. We think it has worked. The Ally “A” is now a recognized logo, and the whole geshtalt (that is, vibe) of the Ally brand is instantly understood. The fact that Ally has been at the forefront of social media banking helps, too.
Locked in. That’s how we think of Square‘s brand — it offers one core benefit, in Square’s case payments, and that benefit resonates throughout its branding. What’s the method behind its branding? Strip it down to the core of the core of its core, and that’s your brand. We think there is no brand in financial services today that is as “pure” as Square. Very cool.
Here’s how UBank describes itself:
We exist for you. Hence our name. In a nutshell, we’re here to make life easier by offering you a good place to make the most of your money, easily. So if you like the idea of fairer banking and being able to talk to someone 24/7, then you just might like UBank.
Now that’s a brand narrative! UBank is one of those hip cousins to a major financial services brand, in this case, the National Australia Bank. (We’ve got the hip cousin to another bank later on this list.) But it has forged a brand that is so user-centric and so refreshing — as evidenced by the image from the company’s website above — that it is hard to understand why any Aussie would choose NAB over its younger cousin. If only we lived in Perth.
You probably don’t know Stripe. And even after you do, you might say that there are a thousand Stripes out there, and its brand doesn’t mean jack. But it does. And it will. When you buy the booth at the frozen yogurt place across the street from your office because you like the feel of it, which is evidenced above, then you are on your way to building a brand that’s cool. Oh, and by the way, Stripe does online payments.
Not all monolithic, Occupy-protest-worthy banks are all the same. Wells Fargo‘s brand has got something more. Sure, it is officially the second-most-valuable banking brand in the world. Yes, that value dropped some in 2012 compared to 2011. But there is something more to the Wells Fargo brand, something the other protest targets don’t: we call it an old/new school vibe. What we mean is that Wells uniquely has been able to balance its massive bank-as-small-nation reality with a proclivity to be more technology- and consumer-focused. Maybe it’s because Wells is based in San Francisco, where all the hip kids live. Or maybe it’s just because you can’t fake the stagecoach.
Oh, the hype. Simple was the best brand in banking — before it even did anything. That brand was bound to come down to reality, which it did after a so-so Finovate presentation in New York last fall. But we know the Simple folks are not in it for the short term, and we know that the brand they are building has got some serious cool to it. You don’t work in an office like the one above and not have some hip to you. Will the service match expectations? Probably not, and only because the expectations were too high. But we’re better that the brand will stay cool for a long time to come.
STANDARD CHARTERED BREEZE
Standard Chartered launched Breeze as its hip retail startup in 2010. Like “Ally,” we like the approach. It’s fresh and clean and consumer-centric. But we chose Breeze for this list because of, well, “Breeze.” Who names a banking venture “Breeze”? The fact that it comes from one of the oldest banks in the world, Standard Chartered, makes it all the cooler. Breeze’s innovations, while noteworthy, are not head and shoulders better than those launched by other ventures. But it is in the mix, building a brand that “feels” better than others.
You want to see some “out of the box” branding? Try Barclaycard. The credit card company actually has an online game on its site, after all. Barclaycard, as a brand, does not have it easy. There’s not a Brit who doesn’t know that Barclays was on the government dole as a result of the credit crisis. But that hasn’t stopped Barclaycard from trying to brand excitement. You’ve got to admire the pluck, as well as the fantastic graphic design.
Another hip, younger cousin, First Direct from HSBC is going about it the wrong way — or so you might think. When it wants to redesign its debit card, it floats the design to its customers. And welcomes criticism. When it wants to redesign its online banking, it publishes screenshots of the proposed site for all to see. And criticize. (Someone named James: “Looks very dull and uninspiring, too. I expect more from you.”) But that’s what makes First Direct so cool. It’s not afraid to hear its customers, and that’s not just cool, it’s inspiring. Hear that, James?
Apple. Not a financial services brand, you say? Who cares, we say. Apple is the most dynamic — and coolest — brand in the world. Even without obvious financial services stuff, it still matters in banking. And it will matter more. That’s Apple’s Pudong, China, store above, in case you are wondering. Apple’s bringing cool to China. You don’t think Apple can bring cool to banking? You wanna bet?