There are huge opportunities right now for fintechs looking to South East Asia. With high digital adoption, a huge unbanked population and a burgeoning desire to engage in the digital economy at both a governmental and social level, it’s boom time for financial services.
The area is set to be a key player in the next global financial revolution. As new fintechs seek to gain traction, they need to adopt customer-centric brand strategies that are laser-focused on the region’s specific needs.
South East Asia is a region of extremes when it comes to financial services. On one hand we have Singapore, which is not only home to a large and growing high net worth population, but is also working hard to be the world’s best fintech incubator with new digital banking licenses being issued alongside a raft of grants and incentives to attract fintechs to set up shop here.
On the other hand, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, the region overall has 266 million unbanked individuals, and there are up to 30 million SMEs underserved by the financial system, who collectively face a credit shortfall of $175 billion.
Unprecedented tech take-up
Where steady, cautious and organic growth in the adoption of new technologies has been observed in North America and Western Europe, markets in South East Asia have fast-tracked technology before and are about to do it again.
Take smartphones, for example. In certain developing markets we’ve jumped from a situation in which few houses had landlines or home computers to one in which multi-generations have their own personal devices.
So while literacy in traditional financial mechanics may still be on the low side due to generations of financial exclusion, eagerness for digital adoption is high. As a result, we’re seeing innovative fintech products beginning to bring financial services to underserved populations and into markets where traditional retail banks lack physical reach, and the risk-reward of servicing wasn’t worth the investment. Investors and incumbents alike are sitting up and taking notice.
This new era of open banking is still in its infancy, however, and we’re seeing all kinds of ‘fintech-as-a-service’ platforms race to accommodate the needs of those that have been ignored by the big boys for so long. And they are certainly noble in their efforts: democratizing finance, including the excluded, etc.
While these purpose-inspired missions are admirable, they risk disappearing into a sea of sameness as more fintechs march in with pretty similar, broad-brush-stroke sentiments. So brand strategies that not only bring clarity to these financial solutions, but are clear in their purpose and connect at a human level, are essential.
Ask how you’ll make people’s lives better
Any brand has to understand its audience and what it needs, and establish how it can authentically and effectively serve those needs. As the fintech sector grows, and as more products feature embedded finance, brands with weaker propositions are going to struggle to get attention and build loyalty or market share if they can’t assert who and what they are, and why they are the ones you should entrust with your financial life.
The process of digitizing a financial service is all about making the user experience better. Consumers don’t care how or why something works, they care and pay attention to things that make their lives easier and freer.
The brand strategist’s job is to tap into those human needs and tell a compelling story in order to link the right products to the right people. It’s no good trying to sell dry functionality – ‘look at all the things this product does’ – you need to celebrate the ways in which your product can make your target consumers’ lives better – ‘look at all the things you can do with this product’.
But there’s no point in having a disruptor product when your look, feel and language still behave like the old guard. Bear in mind, too, that digital natives have very different expectations of customer experience, from the first advertisement they see through to the website, digital experience, direct communications and customer support. Everything should stick to the same user-centric standards: look good and work well.
Address key concerns with a persuasive narrative
In this region, unfettered low-level corruption is, for many, a reality – and for others the mere thought of it is limiting enough. The increase in digital money movement, and the transparency and traceability that comes with it, is turning that around and giving businesses, SMEs in particular, better financial clarity and control.
And while that is all positive, it still needs to be relayed to the people that matter. A well-thought-through and targeted brand strategy can communicate this progression in a believable way by building relationships and trust.
Challenge your ‘why’, then live it
All too often, companies fall back on the ‘brand as logo’ trope, and then wonder why they don’t command the same gravitas or obsessive brand love as better-known fintechs. Where there are communications they’re often focused on features, without building an empathetic connection or a story first. The important step of figuring out a powerful articulation of their ‘why’ hasn’t happened yet and the result is that people don’t know who they are.
Fintech brands have a golden opportunity to cultivate meaningful relationships with their customers and their communities, but just because a fintech deals in transactions doesn’t mean its relationship with its customers, or its customers’ customers, should be treated as transactional.
Having a brand purpose such as ‘helping make financial services available to all’ might sound like a noble cause, a great purpose-led ‘why’, but at a brand level it’s in danger of becoming empty and inauthentic if it is not genuinely embedded in the business culture and behavior, the product and the customer experience. Brand is a sum of these parts. Embedded finance means brands can be deeply embedded in the lives of their customers. That intimacy should not be undervalued.
Where there is so much complexity and such speed of innovation, fintech brands should bring clarity, create a sense of trust and demonstrate how they can add value to their customers’ worlds.
We’re in an exciting, transitional stage, but as the region begins to flex its muscles in preparation to take on the world, it would be a mistake to think it’s going to be easy to make a mark without working out how you’re going to make people’s lives better – and then letting them know.