September 15, 2015

Marketers Who Matter: Lisa Wood, CMO at Atom Bank

Lisa Wood is CMO at Atom Bank, the world’s first digital-only bank. Before that she was Head of Marketing at first direct. She talks to Figaro Digital about the challenges of operating entirely from an app and the company’s ambition to bring trust, innovation and a human touch to the banking industry

Atom Bank has yet to launch but is well on its way to becoming the first digital-only bank. What’s it like being CMO at the company?

Dramatically different from my previous roles in large companies. As CMO I’m building the Atom brand and our products from the ground up. There are no pre-existing constraints. It’s immensely freeing! But we have nothing, so putting in place the whole infrastructure we need as a bank and a brand is a big task. There’s certainly never a dull moment and not a day goes by when I’m not learning something new.

In your career so far you’ve held leading positions at Midland Bank, HSBC and first direct. What have been your stand-out moments?

There have been a couple of pieces of work at first direct that I think were turning points for the brand. The ‘Live’ campaign we did back in 2009, where we livestreamed social sentiment into digital ad formats, was really the start of embedding social as a key channel for the brand. Also, re-positioning first direct as ‘the unexpected bank’ along with the ‘Platypus’ campaign of 2013 was great fun. It refreshed the brand and started to get it talked about again.

How did the idea for Atom Bank come about? What was the thinking behind operating entirely from an app?

Atom was founded by Anthony Thomson, former Chairman at Metro Bank. Post the launch of Metro he’d been keeping a close eye on consumer behaviour and saw the dramatic shifts taking place towards digital. He talked through his thinking with Mark Mullen, the then-CEO of first direct and, as they delved into the data, it became increasingly clear that if you were building a bank fit for the future, mobile was the way to go. There’s so many stats around that support this thinking. We know an app-only bank isn’t for everyone, but we certainly believe from the data we’re seeing that there’s a significant number of people who would be happy to try a different kind of bank, particularly if they’re offering a superior banking experience.

What are some of the challenges that come with existing 100 per cent online?

Trying to fit everything you want to do with your bank into a mobile experience is pretty challenging and has certainly given our UX guys a conundrum to solve! As we launch there’ll be other challenges too as a bank with no high street or physical presence. Getting our brand known will need a huge amount of creativity, but there are many hugely successful digital-only brands out there, so it’s not a challenge we won’t overcome.

One of the most significant challenges any new bank has, 100 per cent digital or not, is overcoming the inertia UK consumers have to switching banks. Banking is a low interest category and getting customers engaged with it is a big job. There’s very little out there at the moment that offers something truly different from a customer perspective, and here at Atom we’re looking to change that.

Is it fair to say that there’s still a degree of consumer anxiety around mobile banking/payments and if so how are you addressing those concerns?

We’re not a proposition for everyone and we’re fine with that. The anxiety we’re seeing is around giving customers confidence that using mobile for banking/payments doesn’t compromise their security, and understanding what the ‘back-up plan’ is if things go wrong. We’re ensuring our security and service propositions are top-notch, with a 24/7 service team on hand to help support customers.

Atom Bank has a distinctively different tone of voice to most banks—much less formal and more human. Do you think it’s harder for purely digital brands to build trust and rapport with consumers, and what’s your strategy for overcoming this?

Customers don’t want to buy from impersonal brands – we’re human beings and want to be able to connect emotionally. Customers will be more loyal and willing to have a deeper relationship with you if they share similar values and connect with your brand. Our tone of voice has been developed specifically with this belief in mind. We may be a digital brand, but we have a real opportunity to show the human side of our brand. You’ll get a real sense of this from our website. Equally technology, and specifically working in the digital space, allows you to personalise what you do for your customers.

CEO Mark Mullen has deemed the banking industry ‘worse than opaque’. Do you agree, and how is Atom Bank challenging this perception?

The banking industry has lacked transparency and there are plenty of examples of customers not fully understanding what it is they’ve bought from their bank, or how banks operate. We want to ensure Atom doesn’t follow the same path. We’ve set ourselves a number of design standards: benchmarks that we want to hold ourselves up to. One of these is transparency – we want to keep things simple, be open and ensure everything is easily explained to customers. We understand customers want to know they’re getting a fair deal and we won’t be hiding anything in our small print. We’ll put customers in the driving seat and give them the tools to make the right decisions when it comes to their money.

How do you perceive the future of banking? Will high street banks still have a place in years to come?

It will take some time to change the shape of banking in the UK and the high street banks will continue to have a strong foothold for some time yet. Banks like us will start to change the landscape and other new banks coming along, like Mondo and Starling, can only help accelerate change. The high street banks need to change, but it’s more difficult when you’re changing legacy systems etc. In years to come I think you’ll see a more fragmented financial services market, with customers using a range of services from a number of different banks and financial services providers. The dominance of the high street banks will decline, but only if consumers choose to take action!

Can you offer a few words of wisdom to other marketers in the digital space?

Don’t get overly ‘techie’ with your customers. Tech is a great enabler, but it’s only allowing you to do something useful for a customer – they don’t really care about the tech! Focus on what the customer benefit is, what actually makes a difference to them. Never forget to make a human connection with your customers – don’t just communicate, engage!

Interview by Estelle Hakner