“Steve” from “Beep Bank” has become something of a meme among SA consumers. The First National Bank advertisements, which poke fun at the company’s rivals, imploring consumers to switch banks, have become the subject of everyday conversation, with people regularly wondering aloud which bank Steve really works for. It’s clearly also annoying FNB’s rivals.
But what’s infuriating them even more is that FNB appears to many banking clients to have stolen a march on the other banks in technology and innovation. Through clever advertising and the smart application of technology, the general perception is that FNB is the tech-savviest of the big banks. It was certainly the first retail bank with a transactional banking application for smartphones. It probably helps, too, that its CEO, Michael Jordaan, is an active user of social media.
Now, however, the other banks are fighting back. This week, Nedbank held a rare press conference to trumpet its new “Nedbank App Suite”, which will be launched to consumers next month.
Promising a range of apps for smartphones and cheaper feature phones, the bank’s CEO, Mike Brown, boasted about its “secure Internet highway” — an infrastructural and architectural platform — that will allow it to “continually launch new products”. In addition to a transactional banking app, Nedbank has developed a share-trading app and is promising to launch an integrated financial planning tool and an e-billing platform within weeks.
Standard Bank is also in on the act, having recently become only the second retail bank to launch a banking app for smartphones commercially. By most accounts, it works well.
Absa appears to be the laggard, at least in the app space, with its app due out only in the first quarter of 2013, but its head of digital channels, Christo Vrey, explains that the Barclays-owned bank is also working hard to innovate around technology.
Certainly, Absa’s new concept branch in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg, is a monument to modern technology, with large-screen monitors, touch-screen surfaces and iPads replacing the traditional bulletproof glass and rows of tellers. The branch is being used as a test bed for new technologies that will be rolled out to other branches around the country.
Vrey says the recent roll-out, in beta, of Absa Online, which will eventually replace the bank’s Internet banking portal, is the first phase in a broader overhaul of its digital channels. Absa Online is designed to provide more than just transactional banking. It will offer personal financial management software and integrate with a range of products and services, from vehicle finance and share portfolios to investment management and insurance services, under a single sign-on.
Some of the banks are even dabbling in telecommunications as a service area. FNB, for example, integrates a voice-over-Internet protocol telephone in its banking app, allowing users to make free calls to other FNB clients and at discounted rates to landlines and mobile phones. It also offers free monthly ADSL data to its customers.
Nedbank confirmed this week that it had recently bought a telecoms network licence. Its chief information officer, Fred Swanepoel, was cautious about revealing its plans for the licence, but hinted that it was about delivering “convenience, anywhere, at the client’s choosing”.
Things are undoubtedly hotting up in retail banking, partly because of the poor economy where the only way retail banks can grow meaningfully is by poaching customers from their rivals. But a desire not to be known as the bank where Steve works is probably adding a little energy to this fight.