Branding at Play

Banks called Atom, N26, Bunq, and Monzo. Insurers named Lemonade and Oscar. In their efforts to distinguish themselves from long-time industry stalwarts, new entrants into the fields of banking and insurance are choosing playful, whimsical names that make no reference to the space they’re trying to disrupt.

Previous nomenclature in these business spaces has revolved around place names (Bank of America, Zurich Insurance Group), acronyms (HSBC, AXA), founders’ names (JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo), unified groups (Allianz, UnitedHealth Group), and words conveying safety (Ping An, Prudential). The sensibility of name-making revolved around projecting trust, solidity, and a sense of we’ve-always-been-here/we’ll-always-be-here staying power.

Not so for the newcomers who seemingly intend to put a lighter, even ephemeral touch on their industry’s formerly heavy look and feel – if not to outright reject what’s come before. “Buy this insurance, and you’ll feel refreshed,” the brand voice seems to be saying. “Bank here, and be happy,” they tout – or, at the very least, “don’t dread the experience entirely.” In an era when entrepreneurs and business creators do Shark Tank-style pitches for investment money, the trend toward playfulness could possibly stem from the need to convey to venture capitalists the emotion that the brand is expected to unleash.

It’s not so much that customers no longer need a sense of security when they open an account or select coverage. Rather, in an age when trust in financial services and insurance institutions has been shaken by global macroeconomic upheaval, and new peer-to-peer mechanisms of establishing trust (such as blockchain) have emerged, it’s time to refresh the old tropes for assuring stability. The newcomers seem to have concluded that the younger generation of consumers doesn’t want to interact with a stodgy behemoth but with a nonthreatening, more lighthearted, less formal company – one that issues hot-pink debit cards (as Monzo does), or pledges to pepper its communications with emojis.

In a sense, this new breed of company has rewritten the rules around what inspires security and trust. These emotions are no longer rooted in concrete pillars and an imposing facade, but in friendlier customer-facing messaging, swifter business processes that lighten or even eliminate the burden of previously arduous tasks, and a shift in control to the customer through blatant transparency and even invitations to provide input into future offerings.

In other words, the way to gain customer loyalty isn’t to immerse consumers in a fathomless pit of complexity, but rather to promise them a quick and easy way in and out. And the way to draw customers in is no longer by positioning your brand as someone trustworthy saying “put yourself in our capable and all-knowing hands,” but instead as a friendly group of peers saying “come play with us!” Far from silly and juvenile, this type of invitation encompasses an inclusive, adventurous spirit; the company is offering a means of escaping through an alternative way of doing something that is usually considered mundane and tedious.

In the insurance sector, Lemonade’s founders intentionally chose a name associated with words like “instant, fun, and social good” vs. “paperwork, hassle, and fighting.” In an industry famously bogged down by bureaucracy, endless form-filling, and slow results, customers are assured of speed, “zero paperwork,” and “instant everything.” On Lemonade’s website, a fast-moving video illustrates the swift and seamless interaction between customer and app. It ends with a congratulatory image of a glass of lemonade and a dashboard showing how long it took for the transaction to be completed (mere seconds). Lemonade also promises to donate all underwriting profits to a charity of the customer’s choosing once a year (an event they call “Giveback”), and the company publishes data about their customer growth and other internal metrics on their blog.

In a similar vein is Oscar, a health insurance startup co-founded by Joshua Kushner, the brother of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and named after his great-grandfather. Oscar’s aim is to be customer centric and to humanize and simplify the insurance process by making it easier to navigate. On its whimsically illustrated website (the URL is, not just, customers are promised a dedicated “concierge team” – rather than a random customer service agent – who can help them with healthcare- and insurance-related tasks, including finding a doctor, connecting with a medical specialist, and helping with paperwork. And instead of just collecting information about customers, the company shares that data right back with their audience through its mobile app, through which customers can track doctor visits and lab work, view prescriptions, and monitor their deductible. The app also includes a step-tracker, which rewards customers with $1 for every day they hit their step goal.

In the equally dry banking space, there’s Berlin’s N26, which explicitly states on its website that banking should be “fun.” This isn’t surprising, given the fact that the company’s name reflects the number of smaller cubes in a Rubik’s Cube. Using video chat, customers can set up a free basic account in eight minutes. They can then control many aspects of their account directly through the N26 app, such as setting and changing daily payment and withdrawal limits, changing their PIN, and disabling payments. The company even accounts for the all-too-human tendency of losing a bank card only to find it again after you’ve gone through the trouble of canceling it by providing a tool for customers to block and unblock their bank card themselves.

Another game changer in the banking sector is UK-based Atom Bank. App developers at Atom are hired not from the banking industry, but from the gaming sector, as the company strives to emulate a video game with its app. Customers log in using face and voice recognition, and they are treated to 3D animations while using the app. In an extreme case of customer personalization, the company even lets customers name “their bank” and select the colors they’ll use in the logo.

Perhaps no company takes the invitation to play as far as bunq, however, an Amsterdam-based mobile-only bank whose tagline is “bank of the free.” Customers – or “bunquers” – can open temporary group accounts to more easily share expenses (not unlike a group chat). But to really make customers feel like they own the banking experience, bunq offers them access to application programming interfaces (API) and software development toolkits (SDK) to build their own website to manage monthly budgets, as well as apps to categorize spending and automated tools to calculate tax returns.

Of course, underneath these friendly veneers is a hefty amount of advanced technology. In fact, the more simple and unique the interface, the more complicated the technology in the background seems to be. For every Lemonade, Oscar, N26, Bunq, and Monzo – not to mention every Rocket, Square, Acorn, and Venmo – there’s a tangled web of advanced data analytics at work, not to mention AI-driven chatbots; machine-learning algorithms; face, voice, and fingerprint recognition; and a good dose of behavioral economics.

In the end, then, these weirdly named newcomers are trying to pull off a bigger trick, even, than their predecessors: getting customers to believe they’re engaging in a nonthreatening, straightforward, almost fun activity that breaks with industry norms but is actually, in some ways, more complex than ever – as it’s driven by technologies that most consumers do not understand.

Time will tell which of these new entrants will have staying power in their chosen industries, but what’s clear is that the game has changed, and newcomers to the banking and insurance industries are offering a new way for customers to play.

the author

Louis Marino

Louis Marino is Head of Design at Cognizant Interactive and Global Head of Design at Idea Couture.