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Atom Bank seeks broader appeal to take on Fintech rivals


In just five years Atom Bank, the UK’s first app-based bank, has completely transformed the financial services landscape. Its market-leading savings products and secure and easy to use platform have enticed tens of thousands of customers to deposit £1.4 billion, all via their phone or tablet devices. Atom Bank is now the UK’s fastest growing mortgage lender too, processing some applications in a matter of seconds, and boasts a five star Trustpilot Rating.

However, despite enjoying strong brand recognition, Atom Bank’s customer base remains niche. Head of Marketing, Neil Costello, explains how raising awareness of the bank’s unique offering will be key to achieving a mass market appeal amidst an increasingly competitive market.  

“When financial services brands ‘get it right,’ it can make a huge difference to customers’ lives,” says Neil, who swapped a comfortable FTSE 25 career to join Atom in 2016, shortly after it gained its banking license. Following the banking crisis, he explained, it was clear the sector needed an easing of regulation to drive competition. Open Banking was key, as it meant the immense amount of data banks hold could be harnessed for the value of customers. FinTechs like Atom, as well as other app-based banking solutions including Starling and Monzo, recognised this and began targeting aspects of the bigger banks’ propositions, essentially “challenging what it means to be a bank.”

As someone with a decade’s experience working in financial services, Neil immediately saw the “life-changing” potential of these digital challengers. And when he learned Atom was being launched in the North East, by an impressive executive team, he knew he had to get involved:

“I was aware of Atom Bank and its Founder, Anthony Thomson, through his work at Metro Bank and the Financial Services Forum. I assumed it would be built and launched in London, but when I discovered it was to be based in Durham, I began researching the types of senior people joining the business. I’d already had conversations with CMO Lisa Wood when she was at First Direct. And seeing that her and others from ‘the most customer-centric bank in the UK’ were joining Atom, I jumped at the chance to make an impact during the early part of its journey.”

The marketing and propositions teams conceived the idea of launching two savings products with ‘stand-out’ rates, to drive early brand awareness. The one and two years accounts, with market-leading rates, were supported with advertising in the Times and the Telegraph's Money sections. This made Atom the first brand to ever " takeover" these key sections. 

It may have seemed counterintuitive for a digital brand to use print, but Neil says the team understood the importance of getting Atom’s name seen in certain environments. Spending significant amounts on print advertising in this context, he explained, meant Atom was “credible and should be trusted.” And a shrewd move it was, with the savings products going 30 basis points ahead of the market – another unprecedented occurrence – and widely promoted by Martin Lewis, the UK’s most influential independent financial services influencer.

It was clear from this ‘first move,’ however, that Atom Bank wasn’t for everyone. While other emerging digital banks like Monzo and Starling were aiming for mass market appeal through community lead marketing initiatives, from the outset, Atom was sure its proposition would attract “a certain level of financial savviness.” While early campaigns deliberately targeted “money makers” and “established investors,” when Experian was brought onboard in 2017 to profile Atom’s customers, data revealed new opportunities to better position the brand: 

"The research highlighted that a significant number of Atom Bank customers were in their forties – a much younger demographic than the executive team first thought. It provided another lens for the marketing team to look through when planning targeted campaigns. The key learning was the importance of mindset, over demographic. While our eldest customer, for example, turns 100 this year, we actually attract a range of people who are willing to adopt a new brand or use apps to manage everyday life. It busted the myth that all Atom users are silver surfers.”

To complement the media influencer approach, and on the back of its Experian findings, Neil and the marketing team also experimented with social media and PPC channels. As one of the fastest-growing FinTechs in Europe, Facebook invited the business to explore advertising options on its Facebook and Instagram platforms. This led to the creation of a series of distinctive time-lapse ads using various provocative phrases about banking and saving. “It definitely boosted brand awareness within our target mindset,” says Neil. PPC didn’t achieve the same level of success, though, and Neil admits a more “mass market appeal” is required to achieve genuine PPC ROI.

 

And therein lies the key challenge for Atom Bank as it enters its next phase of growth. If a broader sweep of ideal customers of the bank exist, but who aren't yet engaged with new technologies and ideas, then mindset becomes the battleground for all future marketing. Neil posits the challenge as: “How do you target the unchanging man?” If we can reach them too, he says, “then that’s a huge win for us.”

With one in four UK consumers now familiar with Atom Bank’s brand, the business is moving away from influencer marketing. Instead, forthcoming traditional brand building campaigns will drive awareness of what the bank does and doesn’t do, rather than leveraging its disruptive reputation. A perception still exists, Neil explained, that because Atom is a bank it must offer current accounts. As it stands, that’s not the case. Rather, its product portfolio consists of various savings accounts and mortgages. Embedding recognition of this uniqueness vis-à-vis other digital banks is key to its future growth:

“Our messages moving forward will be clear about who we are and what we do. To date, we’ve used very little traditional advertising, nor have we tried many channels. So, achieving a one in four brand recognition score is impressive – it's much higher than Monzo’s and Starling’s – but we’re still associated with these brands from a competitor perspective, when really, Atom is something completely different. For example, we’re the UK’s fastest growing mortgage lender. And when we start broadening our savings offering, experimenting with new channels, targeting a wider demographic and challenging mindsets, we’re confident we’ll go beyond the ‘innovators’ segment, and into the mass market.”

Many favourable factors exist that facilitate the ongoing growth and evolution of Atom’s proposition. Versus the bigger banks, its digital solution helps the business drive efficiencies. While larger competitors have geographical challenges as well as multiple buildings and ATMs, etc, Neil says Atom has no plans to grow beyond its Durham headquarters. These economies of scale, he notes, will “only bring us closer in market share to the bigger banks over time.”

Trust is another feature which helps Atom Bank stand out from the crowd. The business recognised the importance of working with Trustpilot early on and has now retained a five-star rating on the site for several years, often enjoying the accolade of being the UK’s ‘most trusted bank,’ a position it shares on a rotational basis with two other FinTechs. Transparency is important for a new brand to build trust and credibility, says Neil. Ratings and reviews matter and the business has recently added an API on its website which broadcasts live unfiltered Trustpilot reviews: “People want to find out about you before they use your services and will always see through attempts to hide negative feedback. You may as well give them access to all of it and let them make an informed decision."

Speed and ease of use are additional measures used by the bank. Being ‘easy to deal with’ is the “first and foremost experience” the business wants to offer customers. This includes a 10-minute process to download the app, register as a customer and start saving money. Furthermore, with its mortgage products, if customers are recommended to Atom via a broker, application-to-offer can be as fast as 14 seconds – the UK average is four weeks. “People don’t want to waste time,” says Neil, “Your bank should be something that happens in the background. Quick and simple processes are how we provide customers with meaningful experiences.”

 

Data security too is an area where the business aims for excellence. It’s something other digital banks have struggled with, but Atom’s multi-stage biometric login system with fingerprint, voice, face as well as password options, has proven largely issue free so far. Again, transparency is important when dealing with problems, and Neil highlights how customers expect a reliable service if something goes wrong: “We recognise the importance of being transparent about issues and then solving them fast. You can’t afford to make mistakes on a regular basis, particularly as a new brand. Atom has a 24/7 contact centre open all year. Our message is clear: at whatever time of day you want to speak to us, we’ll be there for you.”

Atom’s collaborative, agile and fast-moving culture was “shocking at first” compared to Neil's experience working for a FTSE 25 business. However, it's this, as well as the high degree of accountability and trust given to employees to get on and do their jobs, which makes life at Atom exciting and rewarding. It’s a way of working which also encourages “future proofing” activities, says Neil. The business will test any technology or idea that could give it a competitive edge, something which tech-investor Will-i .am, who joined the Atom Board in 2018, found particularly appealing. According to Neil, Will-i.am is a “brilliant provocateur” who continues to push the boundaries of what Atom could be in the future: “He questions everything we do and thinks further ahead than many of us can comprehend.”

As well as investigating how Voice and AI technologies may impact service delivery, Atom is also now looking into Blockchain applications for its mortgage process. In marketing too, Neil and the team are adopting an innovative approach for 2019, with a new structure based around paid, owned and earned channels. “I’ve never seen an organisation try this before, he says, “but it’s intuitive and the right thing to do given the new marketing technologies available.”

He added: “Our vision is to become the most customer-centric bank on the planet. Yes, there's been some teething troubles and growing pains as you would expect, but the core culture set out in the early days has remained. There are some ridiculously talented individuals here and what unites us is a genuine desire to make a difference. The next 12 months will be very exciting for Atom Bank.”

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