Wallet talk: The messages of the cards we carry

New fintech players reject the gold-platinum-black 'ladder' in favour of statements more suited to younger consumers.

L-R: George Byrne, Josh Dickins
L-R: George Byrne, Josh Dickins

It’s long been a cliché in the world of digital marketing that the future of brands is ‘in our pockets’, usually as a presenter holds up her smartphone to a congregation of tech evangelists.

But what happens if we pay more attention to what’s in our other pocket – nestled next to our keys, loose change and a receipt for last Wednesday’s disappointing lunchtime soup?

Open up a typical wallet and you will find yourself greeted with prime advertising real estate – a portfolio of credit, debit and bank cards, individually branded and accessed multiple times a day, each locked in competition for our custom and our attention, each personalised to our identity and circumstances. Few other spaces force us into such a repeated pattern of decision-making and brand choice on a daily basis. Even in the early days of mobile payment, our cards are still king: what they do and how they do them plays an immense role in shaping our everyday behaviours and patterns of consumption.

Because of this, what’s in our wallet says things about us. As the direct route to our purchasing power, our tools for transactions are closely interwoven with our aspirations. The credit card’s forerunner, The Diner’s Club Card – invented when a New York businessman took clients out to lunch, and realised he’d left his wallet at home – quickly became a way of saying to the world that you were both the kind of person to take clients out to lunch, and that you could be trusted in paying your bill at a later date.

By the 1990s, as credit became ubiquitous, the card became a cascading set of increasingly exclusive ‘clubs’ – Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, up to perhaps the most exclusive and opaque of all, Black. Each tier spoke to a level of belonging from which the only way is up: an aspirational ladder whereby the colour of your plastic determined your level of access to the good life.

In this way, the credit card forms an incredibly powerful marker of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed ‘Distinction’ – the form of social self-definition produced by the things we consume and how we consume them. For something which is publicly visible only a handful of times a day, the credit card becomes a potent signifier of our economic and cultural capital – a symbolic stand-in for our buying power, it implies both the means to consume ‘good things’, and a sense of exclusive taste that is required to enjoy such things.

Yet what happens when a brand tries to subvert this logic of Distinction? New UK fintech players such as AtomNutmeg and Tandem have already begun to disrupt the traditional landscape of consumer finances, appealing to a Millennial mindset that values transparency, simplicity and customer service in a category that has long grappled with perceptions of exclusivity, exploitation, confusion and mistrust. If the traditional credit card offered a logic of a stairway to the top which, by the time it was reached, the nitty gritty of credit, finance and personal banking would be an afterthought outsourced to an accountant, new players put the empowered consumer front and centre, rejecting the ladder of distinction in favour of an honest customer experience, consistent regardless of means or influence.

Now a new brand in the UK is taking the fight to our wallets as well. Enter Monzo, the hot pink debit card that is burning a different kind of hole in our pockets. Currently it’s essentially a debit card, well integrated with an easy to use app, whose biggest selling point is a lack of fees when being used abroad – but within the pocket billboard that is the consumer’s wallet, it stands out with aplomb.

On a very basic level, it stands out because of its colour: bright coral jostling with the muted greens, greys and blues of the incumbent credit card providers. Before we even get to the question of ‘Distinction’, Monzo has already cornered the wallet space in terms of ‘Distinctiveness’ – the ability to stand out, be recognised and be remembered in a crowded marketplace. As Byron Sharp has effectively argued, it is distinctiveness, rather than differentiation, which is key for brands who are faced with a wallet-load of competitors and decidedly similar products.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

But if Monzo brings distinctiveness into play – it also speaks to Bourdieu’s notion of Distinction as well. If our credit cards says something about us, Monzo says something about us which is decidedly different from the American Expresses of the world. Monzo speaks to a new type of aspiration, not one of an exclusive jet-set, hopping from first class lounge to business class seats to luxury corporate hotels, but that of an “Easy Jet set” – one which values so-called authentic experiences: whether that is clubbing with the locals in a central European converted warehouse, replacing silver service with a taco truck, and opting for a five star review on AirBnB over a five star hotel room. These are the so-called “Next Pats” who embrace a borderless world of mobile, footloose and flexible working and living – a generation and lifestyle defined by movement, freedom, connection and collision.

For a generation of millenials around the world, the traditional signifiers of identity – a house, a car, a job, a marriage and a family – have become both less attainable and less desirable. Yet even as the logic of globalisation fosters an international mindset in younger people, uncertain economic and political times have led to a recent pulling up of drawbridges and closing of borders from older generations.

Faced with a growing generational divide of haves and have-nots, aspiring to be a citizen of the world is an understandable choice – a means of creating an identity of shared values across borders when traditional certainties close to home are beyond reach. A pursuit of experiences and understanding – rather than capital and possessions – shape the outlook of the Easy-Jet Set: the coral pink piece of plastic in their wallets is their calling card.

George Byrne is project director and Josh Dickins is senior research executive, cultural intelligence, at Flamingo London

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