Six reasons for an incumbent bank to launch a challenger brand

Ben Robinson
Jul 26 · 13 min read

The last couple of months have seen JP Morgan close its digital bank Finn, as well as BPCE close the UK arm of its digital bank, Fidor. This has led to a lot of speculation about whether it’s possible to run a disruptive business within an incumbent organisation. But, it also raises a simpler point. When does it make sense to launch a challenger bank?

The battle is on to see which firms will dominate the internet-era banking market | artwork by @morysetta (IG)

The rise of the challenger bank

Challenger banks are definitely in vogue. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, regulators sought to introduce more competition into their domestic banking markets. One of the most progressive was the UK regulator, which lowered capital requirements for start-up banks as well shortened the application process, leading to a influx of new competitors. But many jurisdictions, including the UK, also introduced Open Banking legislation, which obliges banks to share customer data with third-party providers, also increasing competition.

This graphic from CB Insights shows the spread of Open Banking legislation across the globe

In addition to the regulators’ efforts, technology has also lowered barriers to entry. Infrastructure services like AWS have reduced start-up costs while smartphones have opened up distribution at the same time as making possible new digital features, such as remote, paperless customer onboarding.

The result has been an explosion in the number of new companies offering banking services — 17% of all companies having been created since 2005, according to Accenture.

Source: Accenture, Beyond North Star Gazing

Different business models

But digital banks are not just banks without branches. They are offering something different. Part of this is about customer experience — they have built their offerings from scratch, taking advantage of new technology to mould their services around people’s lives. But part is also around business model.

A look at the latest Monzo annual report illustrates this well. It has over 2m customers, but it makes significant losses. It has over 2m customers, but makes net operating income of only £9.2m (£5.7/customer). The majority of its money comes from fee income, not interest income. And, despite heavy losses, it is ramping up marketing expenses (up 700%) and pushing forward with international expansion.

Note: Monzo reported 2m customers as of May 2019. However, most of the metrics above are calculated based on the total number of customers (1.6m) at the end of fiscal year, Feb 2019

In this regard, Monzo — like the other challenger banks — is operating a classic digital-era business model. In contrast to traditional banking models, it recognizes that distribution is not the primary point of differentiation in the value chain; but, instead, customers are.

It is this desire to maximize customer numbers that explains why, despite a historical customer acquisition cost of less than £3, Monzo is engaging in TV ad campaigns. This explains why its investors are prepared to cover its losses and fund its international expansion. And lastly it explains why most income comes through fees, not interest income. Because this is a business where, with low customer acquisition costs, low churn (NPS is +80%) and low cost to serve (GBP30 per account at present and falling fast as scale economies kick in), the incentive is to maximize lifetime value.

Monzo, like other challengers, will seek some direct customer monetization for sure — Monzo is now offering loans — but this is likely to be levied on those who can most afford it, in the shape of premium subscriptions, ensuring that most services remain free (current account, foreign ATM fees) to attract as many new customers as possible. Instead, most of its monetization will be indirect, using the pull of its large customer base to bring in third-party fees. At present, most of its fee income comes from interchange fees as its customers spend money using their Monzo debit card, but over time other routes will make more meaningful contributions. Monzo has said that it wishes to become its customers’ “financial control centre” by introducing them to the best possible third-party financial services and, although the resulting commissions from these introductions are small at present (just £85k), this will grow as two-sided network effects materialize.

Hard for incumbents to match

For incumbent financial institutions, it is difficult to match the challenger bank model. Their businesses were created for a different age, where distribution was the choke point in the value chain. The need for a costly and difficult-to-achieve banking licence plus a network of physical branches kept out new entrants, meaning banks could push undifferentiated, expensive products to captive clients. And now it is extremely difficult for banks to change course and match challenger banks like-for-like — they don’t have the cost base, the financial incentives or innovation capabilities to do so. And so many banks are starting to launch challenger banks themselves.

The now defunct universal business model where banks were able to mass produce undifferentiated products

However, the bank-within-a-bank model is also difficult to pull off.

Firstly, as Aperture-subscriber John Hagel so eloquently describes in this piece, you have the problem of the immune system fighting off anything that threatens the business model and revenue streams of the body corporate (what in more successful companies might be described as the Innovator’s Dilemma). This likely contributed to closure of Fidor UK and explains why the rest of the business is up for sale. But the challenge to incumbents is very real. As the following table from Citi shows, banks’ RoE is much more sensitive to falls in revenue than reduction in costs, meaning that with stubbornly high costs — and in the absence of business model change (see below) — it will be difficult for banks to countenance a strategy that cannibalizes existing revenue streams.

Source: Citi GPS Research

Assuming that the immune system can be countered — by creating a completely separate organization, with different people, processes, tech, brand, incentives and reporting directly into the CEO — then you have the problem that innovation is hard. This seems to have been more of the root issue at Finn. Built on the bank’s existing IT infrastructure, its objective was more around putting a new UX on traditional products than using the virtues of digital to create a unique offering. As a result, it didn’t manage to attract large numbers, let alone introduce viral features that leverage the power of networked consumers, as Revolut has successfully done.

The last problem is one of strategic intent. If a bank launches a digital bank because its strategy is a) to defend itself against challenger banks; b) to lower cost to serve by using digital channels; c) to improve User Experience; d) to capitalize on Blockchain/AI/IoT/Cloud or e) to change its perception among younger customers, it’s probably going to fail.

Launching a digital bank is about launching a digital era business model, which goes way beyond changing brand perception, user experience or moving customers onto cheaper-to-serve channels. As noted above, it is about maximizing customer numbers and engagement to activate demand side economies of scale. This requires clear strategic intent because, in turn, it requires organizational transformation. Launching a challenger bank can be a (faster and less disruptive) route to digitization, but it is neither an easy option nor a panacea.


Where can it make sense to launch a challenger bank?

Our view is that a challenger bank strategy has a higher likelihood of success if is underpinned by one (or more) of the following six objectives.

1. Entering new markets.

It is interesting to see Goldman Sachs’ digital bank Marcus referenced in so many of the articles on Finn. For us, it is very different. For instance, it is built on a new technology stack. But most importantly, it moves Goldman into a completely new space, consumer finance, where it does not have the cannibalization concerns that trigger the corporate immune system. This allows it to operate under very different constraints and, like other new entrants, challenge the status quo with a proposition that includes market-beating interest rates, no origination or late fees as well as customizable payment dates and payments. And it’s working: Marcus had 4 million customers and $46bn in deposits at the end of March 2019, two and half years after launch.

2. Entering new geographies.

In the same way as entering new markets allows the new business to operate more freely, so does entering new countries. It is also a less risky strategy than M&A, which made sense at a time when distribution was the barrier to entry, but now encumbers the acquirer with all of the legacy issues they inherit. And this is why the challenger-led strategy is being pursued by many banks, including DBS, which has launched digibank (“a bank in a smartphone”) in India and Indonesia with already over 3m customers — and why it is looking to do the same in Vietnam.

3. Tackling financial inclusion

Launching a challenger bank with the purpose of bringing banking to the unbanked is by definition the antithesis of cannibalization — because no one was providing these services in the first place. And, as banks like CBA in Kenya have shown with M-Shwari and now Stawi, when you combine mobile distribution with low costs and intuitive user experience, you can succeed in bringing financial services to millions of people. But, as demonstrated below, while countries like Kenya and China have very successfully leveraged digitization to tackle financial inclusion, there still exists massive scope to do the same in populous counties like Egypt, Indonesia or Pakistan.

4. Lowering the cost of capital

Another reason for launching Marcus was that Goldman Sachs can use retail deposits to lower its group cost of capital. But a business where this is more transparently the objective is EQ Bank in Canada. It is a subsidiary of Equitable Bank, which provides residential and commercial real estate lending services, and the bank uses EQ customers’ savings to fund its lending, allowing it to start to increase its net interest margin (now at 1.6%) in a low interest environment. Structuring the group like this not only creates complementarity between the bank and its challenger brand, as opposed to a cannibalization threat, but also reinforces incumbency advantages. EQ Bank can sustain its above-market deposit rates thanks to its parent’s large lending book.

5. Technology renovation.

Another reason to launch a challenger bank is to attempt lower-risk and faster-to-value technology renovation. Banks sit on decades of technology debt, batch-based legacy systems built around products not people that have been continually added to over time, resulting in massive cost and massive complexity. If banks are to compete on price and on user experience with digitally-native challenger banks, then they will have to address this technology debt. But doing so is expensive and risky, which why it is tempting for many banks to start again — create a new bank with new technology.

This BCG image shows the mass of interdependent systems and interfaces within a typical universal bank

This “build and migrate” strategy is still somewhat unproven , even though it looks like some banks like Santander, with Openbank, may be going down this route (its annual report states that Openbank is “the testing ground for our future technology platform”).

For banks considering this strategy, they should be mindful that they will have to run two IT platforms in parallel for a good while (it is unlikely that regulators would let incumbents close all branches — or indeed the bank itself — for a long time). They should also be aware that there will be customer attrition in the base business as they divert investment into the new bank and also likely attrition when they try to move across customers to the new bank. In addition, they should start small, that is, with a single product offering like savings, which will enable them to test the market proposition before committing big expenditure, get fast RoI on the initial capital expenditure and minimize the risk of rejection from the corporate immune system — at the same time as probably lowering cost of funding (or, in the case of one challenger bank we consulted, whose first product will be to lend boomer savings to millennials, increase asset yield). Furthermore, if the technological renovation is successful and the bank creates a great platform, then, as Starling, OakNorth and Ant Financial have done, it can sell this to other banks — the “make yourself the first customer” model of creating an exponential software business.

Oak North, a unicorn SME challenger bank, sells its lending analytics platform to other banks

The counterargument to the “build and migrate” strategy is two-fold. Firstly, modern core banking systems are modular, meaning that progressive renovation is possible — replacing systems one by one — to combat risk and speed up time to value. In our experience, however, these projects tend to more complex than they seem and subject to the same issues as all in situ transformations, such a scope creep. A better argument for not executing a build and migrate strategy is that it is increasingly possible to achieve what banks want — improve customer user experience, launch digitally-native products, run advanced analytics and open up to third-parties — without replacing all of their back-office systems, as vendors like Additiv and The Glue are helping institutions to do.

6. Launch a new business model

In a blog we wrote last year, we set out what we thought were five viable banking business models for the digital age. However, at least three of these new business models were off limit to banks given their organizational constraints. Launching a challenger bank removes those constraints and allows banks to unbundle themselves by launching a narrowly-focused digital proposition (in terms of product offering as well as demographics) and then to rebundle themselves around this proposition. This is what fintech companies like Transferwise, Robin Hood and Zopa have done successfully and we are starting to see banks do the same — like Imagine Bank from Caixa which successfully attracted a new customer demographic with a convenient and high margin savings product and has since rebundled a whole set of own label and third-party services.

There is also the possibility to do this unbundling to rebundling via a holding company model. This represents the digital equivalent of the traditional universal banking model but where each product offering is run by a separate subsidiary. Doing this keeps each unit nimble enough to compete to respond to market shifts, permits partial customer acquisition, but also allows the overall group to achieve economies of scale (both supply-side, like IT, and demand-side, like customer data insights). In banking, the best example of this seems to be Pepper from Bank Leumi, which is building up a set of discrete product propositions.

If not challenger banks, then what?

If an incumbent bank chooses not to launch a challenger bank, what are its options?

It could choose to do nothing, essentially pursuing a mix of tactical options like cutting discretionary spend, shrinking risk-weighted assets and lobbying the regulator to slow, or reverse course on, new legislation. But, even though this might get management through to its next stock option vest, this isn’t a long-term remedy.

Another option could be to go upstream. We see this a lot in wealth management. Since HNWIs want a somewhat bespoke service and interaction with a relationship manager, then a lot of banks are moving to serve exclusively these HNWIs and UHNWIs where they think they can earn good fees for the foreseeable future. However, since many banks — as well as independent asset managers and family-offices-as-a-service focus on the same market — fees are gradually eroding. But more importantly, it leaves the banks open to classic disruptive innovation as the providers who now serve retail and mass affluent customers with digitally native services start themselves to move upstream.

In our view, for the banks that don’t want to launch challenger banks, there are only really two options. One is to become a bank-as-a-service, offering their bank office and compliance to other banks and fintech providers, as banks like Bancorp in the US have done. But, this is a low-margin business. A better option is what we call the thin, vertically-integrated bank, where a bank starts to offer third-party services alongside some of its own products, capitalizing on its advantages —a bank licence, trust, the pull of a large customer base — to give its customers more choice. The challenge here is, of course, that this is a radically different business model which is likely to activate the corporate immune system.


So, the conclusion seems to be: if a company can dismantle the corporate immune system for long enough to adapt its existing business, then a challenger bank might not be the right option. Otherwise, it probably is.


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Ben Robinson

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At Pangea, I help scale great companies | At Aperture, I help expose great ideas | Proudly European

a p e r t u r e

a p e r t u r e is built on the exchange of ideas around technology, strategy and the dynamics of the platform economy. A content hub and a community.

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