The paradox of banking-as-a-service (BaaS) is that the easier it becomes to build and launch a consumer-facing fintech company, the harder it becomes to build and launch one that is highly differentiated.
This, among other reasons, is why we have dozens of challenger banks with beautiful mobile apps, heavy debit cards, and (underneath all of that) remarkably similar features.
Standing out in this environment requires going out of one’s way to do hard stuff; stuff that doesn’t scale.
A good example is relationship building.
Fintech companies scoff when banks say that they are in the ‘relationship business’, but the reality is that, once upon a time, the relationship between a bank’s branch employees and the people in the community served by that branch mattered. It was a sustainable competitive differentiator precisely because it took years to build. Another bank couldn’t just slap up a new branch and expect to compete. Their employees had to invest the time building relationships and fostering trust with their customers.
The internet has put this model on life support, but fintech companies are foolish if they dismiss the strategic rational behind it.
Financial services is still, fundamentally, about trust. The difference today is who financial services customers trust. The average consumer no longer spends 20 minutes a week chatting with a teller at their bank, but they spend a lot more than 20 minutes a week engaging with celebrities, influencers, and content creators on platforms like YouTube and TikTok.
The question for banks and fintech companies is how can they harness these new sources of trust in the lives of their customers in order to build their brands and establish meaningful competitive differentiation?
To help answer this question, I spoke with Adam Hadi, VP of Marketing at Current, about Current’s approach to influencer marketing and how customer acquisition and retention in fintech is evolving. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Let’s start with Current. How would you describe Current? What is its brand promise to customers?
We’re a bank for those who are overlooked by traditional banks and even fintech companies. We’ve built an infrastructure that allows us to bank almost anybody in this country, at a profit, and we want to be the most relevant financial brand for this next generation of consumers, between the ages of 18 and 34.
Our brand promise is simple — we’re going to build products and features that are relevant to you.
A really good example of this, that’s unique in the market, is our gas hold refunds. When you go to the gas station and pay with a card, they put a $100 hold on your card that stays there for three days and is then credited back to you. Now, if you have a credit card or if you have a bunch of money in your checking account, this isn’t a problem. But if you’re near a zero balance, it’s a big deal. Say you’re an Uber driver and you have to fill up three times in a weekend; that’s $300, which is maybe as much money as you’re going to make in a week. At Current, we process that transaction in real time and we refund the difference — for $25 worth of gas, that’d be $75 — instantly back into your account.
How does Current work with influencers and creators? And how has your approach changed over time?
Well we’ve been doing influencer marketing since day one at Current. It’s why I’m here.
Over time we’ve transitioned from simple sponsorships to focusing more on providing a tool for influencers to engage their fans. If you think about all the ways that influencers and creators can make money from their fans (subscriptions, merch, etc.), we can supplement those in a pretty cool way by actually enabling them to give money back to their fans. Our platform allows creators and influencers to reinvest in their audiences, at scale.
This model aligns with our mission at Current — improving people’s financial outcomes — and it makes business sense for our influencer partners as well.
I’ve come to think about influencer marketing a bit like asymmetric warfare, in the sense that you can generate outsized returns from comparatively small upfront investments. Has this been your experience? If so, how do you figure out where to place your bets to maximize your odds of generating those bigger payoffs?
That’s definitely been the case for us.
The way we place our bets is based on the interests of the creators themselves. The last thing we want to do is sponsor content out there where we’re like “ok, let me pause this and waste 60 seconds of your time. Our apologies for wasting 60 seconds of your time. Now back to your original programming.” That’s the worst place to be as a brand. The brand association there is “ohh Current, the brand that wastes 60 seconds of my time”. We don’t want to be there at all.
We want to be working with creators who are excited to work with us; where we're empowering great content; where it's like “hold up guys, this is really exciting, I’ve partnered with Current and because of Current this new thing I’m doing for you is now possible. And I can only do that with Current.”
Now, in this model, will viewers and fans know every last detail about your company and your product? No. This isn’t a podcast where I’m reading a promo code out six times. We want to position our brand as empowering great content.
And the great thing about the influencers we partner with, particularly the small influencers, is that they have all the same problems that the customers in our target demographic have, so the content is a great fit.
So once you’ve identified a creator that is a good fit, someone who is passionate about the same things that you’re passionate about, how do you work with them? Your goal is to empower great content, which I would imagine putting the creative control for the content in their hands and then working with them closely to bring their vision to life. That sounds like a very challenging way to do marketing.
You’re right. It is. A lot of this is based on relationships and trust. And that’s frustrating for a lot of competitors that try to get into this space. You can’t just push a button. This isn’t like running a Facebook advertising campaign or hiring an external agency to go execute some strategy.
It requires trust and trust goes both ways. We need to trust the influencers that we work with to make great stuff. And they need to trust us, that when they come up with an idea we’re not just going to reject it out of hand and make them feel like we wasted their time.
When I first started doing this 7-8 years ago, this wasn’t a problem. Creators have always known how to create great content. That’s what they do. But over time, as creators have worked with more and more brands and have been told “hey, that was great, but in the content we need you to say these specific things”, they’ve gotten more afraid and are more likely to just play it safe. So that’s what we’re trying to overcome and that really can only be done through trusted relationships, which are hard to build and hard for others to replicate.
How do you decide where to focus, in terms of channels? Is it just where your audience spends their time or are their characteristics about certain platforms that make them a better fit for Current?
We operate across all of them, to some degree.
YouTube is probably where we have the largest presence. If you think about the relationship that YouTubers have with their fans, it’s generally the most in depth. I mean, if you think about the relative time commitments of things we do on the internet, watching a 17-minute video on YouTube is right up there.
TikTok is really interesting to us. On TikTok, the best content wins. Period. So it’s really great for us because it embodies our win-win-win philosophy — you put out great content and it’s good for the influencer, it’s good for their fans because it’s great content, and it’s good for us because we get the most possible exposure.
As a platform, TikTok is really exciting because you can work with anybody. You can work with any size creator and make great stuff and have the chance for huge success. I think that’s what makes it really attractive to Gen Z. YouTube is great, but it’s a lot of hard work. Instagram was over a decade ago; the winners on Instagram already won. On TikTok, it doesn’t really matter how old you are or what your history is. The only question is can you put out great content?
You just announced an exclusive, long-term partnership with MrBeast, who runs the most subscribed to YouTube channel owned by an individual creator in the U.S. He’s also becoming an investor in Current. Can you share some details on how this partnership came about and what you’ll be doing together?
I was actually MrBeast’s first sponsor back in 2017. It’s when we first established a relationship. He had about one million subscribers at the time and that first sponsorship included him convincing me to let him give the entire $10k away so he could give it to a homeless person in a video. That was our first video together and it went viral on YouTube. We went on to do over a dozen videos together and then when I joined Current in 2019, working with him again was a priority of mine from day one. Jimmy has clearly established himself as YouTube’s leading creator and its biggest philanthropist, which made working together at Current a natural fit right from the start, given our mission to enable members to change their lives by creating better financial outcomes.
It’s a long-term, exclusive partnership, we’re his financial partner, and you’ll see many more large-scale integrations between Current and MrBeast in the future. The agreement being long-term allows us to commit to building more integrated and custom products together.
You give a lot of creative control to the creators you partner with. What ideas has MrBeast brought to the partnership so far?
MrBeast is a marketing genius who understands his audience better than anyone else in the world, so when he tells me that we should do something, I listen. If you look at his videos, he follows a formula where he makes a big promise and immediately delivers on it. He has built trust with his viewers. They know when he makes a bold claim that he will always follow through. That is the exact strategy we want to bring to our partnership and we want to keep it simple for people and be as inclusive as possible. The content for our first video was all his idea and he designed our debut exclusive Current x MrBeast merchandise. We’re offering merchandise that’s relevant to our members, to his fans and he is the one who comes to us with the content ideas, which is part of our creators knowing their fans and what resonates with them the best.
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(Sourced from This Week in Fintech)
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Alex Johnson is a Director of Fintech Research at Cornerstone Advisors, where he publishes commissioned research reports on fintech trends and advises both established and startup financial technology companies.