Atom - the Uber of banking

21 August 2015

Inside Atom

Mark Mullen

Atom - the Uber of banking

Atom has no interest in being an Uber. It will be a ‘game changer’ in its own right

A couple of weeks back, the Guardian ran an article in which Atom was described as the ‘Uber of Banking’. It wasn’t our idea to describe ourselves that way but it’s become fashionable, it would seem, to borrow interest from the successful or the desirable. It’s an old marketing trick. To most people, banking is generally pretty boring so to spice it up and get people to pay attention, banks pay celebrities large wads of cash for an endorsement or alternatively they start to describe themselves as the ‘insert cool brand here’ of banking. Am I cynical about this sort of behaviour? Having spent more than a decade of my career as a marketer, you bet I am. There’s only one Uber, or Google or Apple or AirB&B or Spotify or Amazon or ‘insert cool band here’. That’s what makes them special. New brands need to earn the right to join that list. It’s lazy to borrow the interest.

Just recently some of the Atom team were having a debate about the human cost of technological change. It’s no great surprise that the paid-up hackney cab drivers of the world aren’t exactly welcoming of Uber. It feels like there’s a concerted briefing campaign against it, to the point where a cynical person might think that professional lobbyists had been retained to bring it down a peg or two! (perish that thought). Whatever the truth, I do feel for the cab drivers of the world, in the same way I feel for the branch bankers and the newspaper printers and the travel agents and the record sellers, but none of us seem prepared to continue doing things in old fashioned ways. When consumers change the way they behave, there are bound to be consequences.

We can’t and shouldn’t blame our own willingness to adopt new technologies and embrace new ideas as the reason people are chucked our of their livelihoods. If we thought that the industrial revolution was a period of radical change, how do you think we’ll reflect upon the period since the invention of the smartphone? Its hard to blame businesses for failing to adapt fast enough to what has happened to the world in the last few short years. It took just about everybody by surprise. It’s highly convenient to blame the intrusion of technology for declining standards, but it’s also misleading. There was a time when ‘bank’ was a by-word for dependability, so much so that the phrase; ‘you can bank on it’ entered the vernacular. That’s no longer the case, but we shouldn’t believe that this has anything much to do with the demise of branch banking or bank managers or business relationship managers.

Standards decline when markets are monopolised. Without competition, the impetus to invest for the benefit of the customer diminishes. On top of that, in any market where there are a small number of players, invariably the result is higher prices and/or bad behaviour. On a positive note, it’s these sorts of conditions that explain Uber or Google or Spotify or any number of disruptive and innovative brands. If everything was ticking along nicely then these new ideas wouldn’t be able to gain traction.

The crises facing banks isn’t about its lack of speed in adapting to smartphones (banks certainly weren’t alone in nearly missing that boat), the crisis relates to the fact that banks have been allowed to rely for their very existence on monopolies and on customer inertia. This has given them a belief that things have been this way for so long that it’s inconceivable they will be any different in the future. The same can be said of taxis, or payment systems, or music sellers and there will be lots, lots more to follow. If the rise of the mobile device makes banking better for customers by increasing competition and making it easier to move accounts, then however challenging for the people who work inside those banks, the change must be made.

Personally I have no interest in Atom being the Uber of banking. I’m quite content for us to be described as Atom bank. If we are to become one of the ‘game changers’ then its right that we should have to earn our reputation the hard way.