In the many months leading up to the launch of Singapore’s latest digital bank, its CMO Kelvin Tan had an awful lot to worry about.
For more than a year, ‘Project Phoenix’ had been underway, bringing together the stakeholders of two consumer retail and banking brand giants, FairPrice Group and Standard Chartered, along with the branding, communications and media brain trust recruited to develop and launch it. With its name kept under wraps even internally for a prolonged period, the suspense around its upcoming launch and internal debates around marketing strategy had been triggering many uneasy questions:
- Did they choose the right name?
- Would the client stakeholders agree on the rollout?
- Could the different agencies execute their marketing strategy with a common vision?
- Had they found the right shade of blue?
- Would the new brand resonate with Singaporeans across all generations?
- Would the product be understood? Was the app easy enough to use?
- Was there enough incentive to share sign-up referrals?
But of all the many things that could possibly go wrong, it was unlikely that Tan considered his biggest problem might end up being that everything went right. Too right.
The launch of Trust Bank on September 1, 2022 was a huge success. The brand appeared everywhere in Singapore. People liked the simplicity of the offering and older generations understood it. Sign-ups took off instantly, rocketing to 100,000 newly joined customers aged 18 to 90 within its first 10 days of existence.
That 100,000th customer was Shaoyi Wang from Tampines, who was quoted by Trust’s corporate comms agency, SoHo Square, to have said: “Digital banking is the new, in-thing and I wanted to try it out. NTUC and Standard Chartered Bank are reputable brands, so I decided to sign up. My onboarding was seamless and way faster than I have previously experienced. The app interface is really friendly, clear and concise. It’s very easy!”
The comments sound prompted, but the brand's popularity was undeniable. When Trust formulated its corporate plan, Tan says, it was ambitious overall but had conservatively plotted small steps to hit its goal. Instead, as the message “caught wind” in that first week, “the volume that came on was so much,” he explains. “What most banks would achieve in a year took ten days to get to that mark” he says, adding: “If you’re following the news you might know some of the challenges we’re having.”
Those challenges included overwhelming numbers of new customers looking for online and call center support all at once. Online reviews grew mixed, prompting Trust CEO Dwaipayan Sadhu to express gratitude to customers, telling them “this is just the beginning and we are excited to improve the Trust experience.” Tan and his marketing team, meanwhile, quickly pivoted from being in acquisition mode to customer experience mode, gathering all hands on deck to assist the customer service teams in response to the swell that has since grown past 200,000 users in its first month.
The big drivers: product & incentives
So what ultimately was responsible for making Trust’s launch almost too successful? None of the key agencies involved (Iris for go-to-market communications, Superunion for branding, Havas for media) are vain enough to simply point to their own roles, or even directly attribute all the sign-ups to the overall marketing strategy.
We know the old axiom, ‘a good product sells itself’. For Lena Liew, client services director at Iris Singapore who handles the Trust Bank account, it all starts here. “First and foremost, it's the app itself,” she says. “It’s easy to sign up, it’s fast and the interface is very simple to understand.” The simplicity of design in the onboarding process allowed most customers to be signed up within three minutes, Tan adds.
A second axiom could be coined around how ‘not to discount the power of a discount’. Trust Bank customers not only have lower digital fees as a digital self-serve bank (and no credit card or foreign transaction fees) but can also get healthy discounts of up to 20% on FairPrice spends. The lure of good deals is certainly there.
But by far the largest driver, Tan says, was its successful referral programme. In a digital age, word of mouth marketing can spread very quickly with ease of use and the right incentive. On the Trust Bank app, its ‘refer a friend’ feature was easily enabled through SMS or WhatsApp and gave users a $10 bonus for referring friends to sign up for accounts with a referral code. Tan says they greatly underestimated this simple feature that exploded early, as influential leaders joined everyday customers in unpaid social promotion. In the early days, it drew 70% of all the new customers at a much lower cost-per-acquisition than traditional strategies.
How branding and marketing underpinned it all
At first glance it might seem like a rather muted role for branding and marketing teams compared to the allure of discounts, fee incentives and a product that’s easy to use. But all the effort and careful attention put into the branding and go-to-market strategy was far from wasted. In fact, one could argue that the account drivers described above were not merely enhanced, but have been underpinned by the branding and marketing strategies involved.
This is most clearly seen in how the Trust Bank marketing teams obsessed over accessibility that extended well beyond the nice interface and quick referral button.
When Superunion was brought in to help craft the brand concept, accessibility became part of the brand foundation and a key differentiator against competitors which were largely existing traditional banks with digital products.
“We saw a lot of digital banks trying really, really hard to look and sound like a digital bank,” says Superunion creative director Scott Lambert. “They’re always very slick with digital tech colours and typefaces. It’s very polished, very ‘lifestyle’. There was clearly an opportunity to do something different.”
The team looked back at the common ground and core values of Trust Bank’s founding partners, namely a union-owned supermarket brand popular with young and old Singaporeans and a bank well-known for sponsoring community events. The need for a people-focused brand was clear.
“It is a bank for everybody and we were looking at ways to make the digital bank very accessible in terms of its concept, and to make it accessible to the silver generation who might be facing digital banking adoption challenges,” Tan says.
One of the potential challenges might be reluctance to try a new bank for fear of running into fraud schemes. Having brands like FairPrice involved might help allay those fears but there was also general suspicion over new banking products, Liew says, around potential hidden fees in the fine print. “One of the key things that Trust aimed to do is to demystify the complexities of banking,” Liew adds, which meant that go-to-market messaging around would have to be clear and transparent from the outset.
Lambert says they also noticed lots of FOMO in the category—brands, influencers and ads telling people to do things differently, giving tips, hacks and conflicting advice on how to save or invest.
“What it does is create a world of noise which just confuses people,” says Lambert. Instead, they posited: “Can’t we just keep it real simple? Can we really be down-to-Earth?”
At that point, accessibility became a driving force for everything. The lower-case letters of the brand intend to appear more down-to-Earth. The colours chosen were an optimistic shade of blue, augmented by a familiar set of soft pastels with purple, orange, yellow and red which were “directly lifted from the colors on the side of HDB buildings,” Lambert explains, “So when people look at the brand, just by the blocky nature of the logo and the colours they will see something that they understand from the world around them and will know that their brand gets what it’s like to call Singapore home.”
What’s in a name?
This need to make the bank feel like home also helped the process of naming the bank. While other names were considered (including Mox, the name of Stanchart’s digital bank in Hong Kong which already had brand recognition and tested decently with focus groups), Trust had several benefits.
While ‘trust’ in the banking sector isn’t exactly buoyant, and urging someone to ‘trust them’ tends to arouse suspicion, this could be countered by the community-based roots of its founders.
“One thing that made Trust a winner was the commitment, reliability and reputation it was built on,” Tan says. Not only did trust contain the S for Standard Chartered and the U featured in the NTUC FairPrice logo, but it also contained the word ‘us’. “People could understand that this was a bank that was meant for me, not just another digital bank hoping to get me to put money in it.”
“This was a gift for the brand,” Lambert adds. “At the time, we were sitting there with Covid, probably lacking human connections and wanting something that felt real and looking at all these other digital banks which didn’t feel real. But we could say: ‘This is Us’. This is Singapore, a real brand for Singaporeans.”
With this understanding, Iris conceptualised ‘The digital bank for the everyday us’ tagline.
With a clear idea of what Trust stood for, the comms team at Iris and the media team at Havas set about ensuring the message reached everyday people, first through broad awareness, and then in the right time and place to encourage immediate sign-ups.
"We basically blanketed the entire island with Trust blue,” Liew says. “We were in practically every media channel so it was hard to miss.”
But then, the Iris team delved into user journeys in the most receptive of places. For offline shoppers, a good example of this would be the VivoCity FairPrice store, where they would encounter Trust branding in every step of their grocery shopping, from the entrance, to all the aisles, reminding them on carts and wobblers of the immediate rewards they could reap by signing up all along the way to the cashier.
So while discount incentives played a big role in encouraging sign-ups especially during a time when inflation hit their wallets, the placement and process of outlining and increasing these benefits was critical. Similarly, by ensuring that the branding connected with people, it opened the door for even non-digital natives to discover how easy the product was to use. Driving home this success, Tan points out, is how a clear majority of new registrants were not savvy young adults cashing in on a quick $10 referral bonus but were predominantly middle-aged and older Singaporeans.
The pivot and what’s next
Ultimately, the cumulative effect led to an overwhelmingly fast adoption rate, leading Tan and his marketing team to slow down their acquisition strategy and switch to assisting customer needs first. The entire product team joined the ops team in answering customer queries, helped by the fact that they had been used to operating more like an agile digital startup than a bank.
Liew says the marketing team along with all the agencies had been expected to operate this way from the start. Tan also says his own retail customer expertise from P&G, which he had brought with him to FairPrice and then Trust bank after that, helped with this pivot.
Acquisition still remains a secondary objective (Liew and the Iris team are planning new upcoming festive seasonal campaigns) but a greater focus is being placed on educational content creation around financial literacy and app use. This is especially aimed at older registrants who now need help to use their digital reward vouchers or merge accounts with Apple Pay or Google Pay.
Lambert wouldn’t divulge too much, but says an upcoming financial literacy initiative for the silver generation leveraging the FairPrice customer base speaks to their concerns in a manner you wouldn’t expect from a digital bank in Singapore.
“Kudos to the clients for having the confidence and the vision to address it in the way we’re going to address it,” Lambert says.
"The whole idea of being helpful, hopeful and humble resonates throughout,” Tan says. “And that to me [has been] one of the success factors.”
Editor's note: This story has been edited from its original version to clarify that FairPrice Group, rather than NTUC FairPrice, is a founding partner of Trust Bank. NTUC Enterprise and FairPrice Group jointly own holding company BetaPlus, which is a Trust Bank shareholder along with Standard Chartered Bank.