The challenges of the new neo bank

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12 November 2014
Stephen Greer
Since the launch of neo-banks like Moven, Simple, and GoBank, financial institutions in the US have been avidly monitoring their popularity. Some have written them off as non-starters; others have praised them as disruptors. In recent months, however, the neo-bank model has hit a few stumbling blocks that call into question the promise of the digital-only model, and gives credence to the sceptics. GoBank recently announced that it was going to stop allowing account opening via the mobile device. Users will now have to purchase an account opening “kit” from a store, adding significant friction to the process. Simple has experienced a number of issues related to payment scheduling, the “safe-to-spend feature,” and service outages or delays. Moven received $8 million to begin moving their app overseas in an effort to garner higher adoption. The promise of these new start-ups was a drastic improvement on customer experience, ditching traditionally stale financial services with improved digital offerings, social media integration, and a familiar/casual communication style. Yet these recent issues serve as a reality check for the neo-bank model—when your value proposition is customer experience, technical issues look 10x worse. It´s far from clear what will happen to these new market players, but Celent envisions a couple of different paths over the next few years.
  • Neo-banks are acquired and rolled into larger digital channels offerings: I wrote earlier this year about banks acquiring technology companies, thereby acting more like tech companies than traditional banks. The neo-bank model and acquisition of innovation are not that dissimilar, and BBVA´s acquisition of Simple is the conflation of both strategies. Through acquisition, BBVA is able to jump the steps of creating a culture for digital channels innovation, establishing a customer base (albeit small), and aligning internal resources required to launch a new service. There aren´t many neo-banks, but digital channels start-ups are numerous. This could be the way forward for institutions that are struggling with adapting the existing operating model to digital financial services.
  • Traditional institutions begin offering their own neo-bank, digital-only services: Fundamentally, there`s nothing truly disruptive about a neo-bank. There´s no secret algorithm, intellectual property, or disruptive idea at work, and many banks are more than capable of offering similar levels of service. Indeed some of them have already begun offering digital services through a separate digital brand. Examples globally include NAB´s UBank, ASB BankDirect, Banamex´s Blink, Hello Bank by BNP Paribas, and Customer Bancorp’s new mobile brand. With new brands, and often new platforms, these banks are testing the digital model. This should satisfy a growing number of digitally driven consumers, as well as provide a clear path for banks looking to move accounts to more digitally-focused services.
  • Neo-banks never become viable stand-alone business models, but they influence the way banks think about digital channels: Currently, most neo-banks aren´t banks--they rely on other institutions to handle the deposits, making them simple prepaid services with additional functionality. The reliance on third-parties is becoming a bottleneck for delivering the value neo-banks have come to represent. Without diversified financial offerings that encompass the entire financial need of the consumer, these “prepaid” services are pressed to create enough value to validate adoption. This is a major question when assessing viability.
There´s even a fourth scenario that could play out over a longer period of time: neo-banks become the primary way digital natives interact with financial institutions as they mature into adulthood. No matter which scenario plays out, neo-banks have undoubtedly moved the conversation around user experience and digital channels forward in a way that would not have happened otherwise. They are setting the bar high, with the big question being whether they will be able to gather the adoption needed to make their services sustainable. What do you think? Will the concept of neo-banks have a place within traditional banking?


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