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Crises are the forges of innovation. There are entire industries that did not exist before the pandemic. Breathable cycling masks. Platforms for socially distant concerts. Airplane face shields. All of this change stems from the rapidly changing needs of customers worldwide. 

Banks are swept up in this cycle of destruction and rebirth. 

Customers expect new products not in the next year or quarter, but within weeks. This is incredibly complicated from a product development standpoint. Timelines are shrinking as executives demand ever-shorter delivery horizons. New technological capabilities, from blockchain-enabled testing environments to predictive analytics, make more things possible, but they raise expectations as well. 

Tight delivery is also a marketing issue. We have worked with clients on product introduction campaigns that sometimes have 12 or 18 months to seed ideas into the market. That’s no longer possible. 

Also off the table are a number of traditional tactics to launch products. Billboards in train stations don’t have the same impact when commuters stay home. Exclusive concerts and pop-up bars are virus breeding grounds, not places for positive buzz. Nearly every industry conference for the calendar year has been cancelled. 

So who is doing it well, and what can we learn from them? 

We did it first. Tully was one of many open-banking startups using increased access (with permission) to people’s data. Their original business model was focused on debt consolidation and providing referrals to other services. But in March, as the pandemic hit the founders wrote on their website, “We feel that traditional debt solutions are not in the best interest of many people during this time as they are designed for people with long-term financial difficulty, not a short term financial shock.” This quick pivot to advice and budgeting helped a product that might have been seen as exploitive be more helpful during a difficult time. 

We did it faster. Starling, one of the leading challenger banks, introduced check deposits by phone in April. While the feature doesn’t sound particularly innovative – the company did a good job showing customers they introduced it now. In a letter to customers (and indirectly the press) the bank noted the feature was meant to “to do all your banking from home.” The firm has been a lockdown success story, growing despite the shrinking economy. 

We did it better. Bunq, the Netherlands-based start up, has taken to saying their subscription based model is more sustainable and right for the British banking industry. Rather than limited teaser cards, the company has focused on paying a regular fee for a broader range of banking services. While they aren’t the first subscription model, the messaging has focused on the services offered and what is given in return. 

Much of this success has come in opposition and contrast to what was once the charm of the British banking industry. Monzo’s ubiquitous coral cards were free billboards as people tapped in and out of public transport and paid contactless for coffee. Now transactions in person are rare, and there are fewer cocktail parties for millennials to compare credit cards. The company’s biggest stumble was around Monzo Plus, a premium offering introduced earlier in the pandemic. 

It suffered from not being any of the things described: it was seen as a relic, developed for a booming economic cycle while also not presenting new benefits. The bungled launch saw the card derided as too expensive and a product without a market. It’s not a fatal mistake – and doesn’t diminish the company’s leading role in transforming the British banking industry – more a reflection of just how hard it can be to succeed in this environment. 

The pandemic is entering a more unpredictable, less linear phase. As local lockdowns arise and some businesses reopen, it is unclear what products may be needed for customers in the next three, six or nine months. 

Marketing campaigns need to embrace this uncertainty, with adjustable plans that account for the arrival of as-yet-unknown new products. Build relationships and be ready with a network of influencers, journalists and customers who can use the most modern and constructive examples to show why this new product is really the one for this particular era. 

Jon Schubin is a director in Cognito’s London office